This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections on a connectivist model and MOOCs #change11

     As a physiologist, I've come across the idea of neural networks and connectivist cognitive models.  Neuroscience is not my area, so while I've come across the idea, I have not read extensively on the subject.  Seeing this referenced by people writing about MOOCs and also in the introductory videos for the Change MOOC, I may be looking into learning more about connectivist models.
     One aspect that intrigues and scares me is the idea that a learner is in charge of which elements of a course they take, which they ignore, and which they discard as they build a unique perspective on the subject matter.  What intrigues me is the idea that the student engages as a full partner in a learning experience.  They are not just participating, but taking charge of their own learning experience.  The idea of students moving from a passive to an active role is exciting, and something I would like to see in my own classes.  But the idea makes me nervous.
     In teaching biology course, especially the introductory courses, there is a great deal of material that must be covered.  In the introductory course I teach, it is expected that at the end of the class, all of the students will show competencies in the principles of cell and molecular biology.  There is a central curriculum for the course, because students will struggle in upper division courses if they do not have a strong common foundation in the principles.  This means knowing and understanding the language, including vocabulary, the ability to identify and describe structures, and the ability to discuss and explain common pathways and mechanisms that occur within the cell.
     I've seen students who fail to build the foundation flounder in the upper division courses, and I've seen instructors become frustrated when it becomes obvious that the student needs to have a refresher on basic topics.  So, now I wonder how, through a MOOC, to get a students to explore and learn a set of core concepts.  Can it be done through course objectives?  If they are receiving credit through my institution, I can require that specific assignments be completed, thus coming to a consensual set of concepts that must be mastered.  Yet, how do you do this if there is no credit cap?  I can not see an answer as flippant as "it doesn't matter," really working.  Yes, I am providing a learning opportunity with a MOOC, but where does my responsibility to the students education begin and end?  If I know that they will need concept X in another course, how do I go about making sure that they are exposed to Concept X and work on mastering that concept?


  1. I think you're talking about an important balance here. It depends a lot of the students/participants of the MOOC - in this case of change11, most are probably educators themselves or at least interested in educational technology. Participants probably tend to be motivated and have basic learning theory understanding and skills. If done as a biology course, the responsibilities would have to be very different. This difference isn't commented on so often in many of the MOOC writings I find, thanks for the post.

  2. Dear bioram,

    I undestand and appreciate you taking on responsibility for your students learning outcomes. Though to make sure within traditional courses the only chance you've got (in my opinion) is either mention all information they might need or provide some form of conserved information (like books, documents, videos). O.k., plus trying to make them dealing with that information.

    What I wonder is... in case you (e.g. via a MOOC) just make them dealing with information plus asking them to take over responsibility for their learning themselves, you think they might learn less?

    How can one find out within which setting they gain a deeper understanding of subject?

    Best regards from Monika (unfortunately not a native speaker hoping I could get my idea accross nevertheless.)

  3. @Glenyan: Thanks. I'm realizing that most of the MOOCs have been in more technological or pedagogical classes. It is a change to think about other classes.

    @Monika: Your ideas came across beautifully. To answer your first question, yes. My concern is that they might learn less. I must acknowledge that even in a traditional course, the student is still ultimately responsible for their own learning. Though I can lecture, provide homework and other learning opportunities, it is still up to the student to actually learn. Ultimately, I think the answer is in initially conveying the learning goals of the class clearly, and then building an assessment that can tell me if they have gained an understanding or even mastery, of those goals.

  4. Great that you are trying to transfer the MOOC idea to other areas of learning - that is something that is also interesting for me (I have a legal background).
    Actually just a few days ago I read a blog post (within #change11) that dealt with the question of resonsiblity of learning and evidence of learning. I commented on that and in answer the author proposed a two-scenario-procedure and to combine these procedures. Here is the link to the initial blog post:

    In a certain way I do think that adding "MOOC-elements" might deepen the practical understanding of your students. Let me give you an example of the legal area: if you have course on contract drafting then you are still not able to draft a contract yourself, even though you learned all about necessary content, applicable law, responsiblity issues etc. If - further to the theoretical part - students would have the opportunity to deepen their knowledge in a practical field (in analysing something on their own, in writing something on their etc.) this might actually make the foundation more stable and give a broader understanding of the subject matter. The only problem (and there we are again)is to include this in a kind of MOOC ....

    P.S.: the preselection of profiles makes it difficult to post here ....

  5. I just wrote a long comment and when "trying" to post it I briefly saw it and then it disappeared ..... Ok, so new try ...

    It is great that you raise the question of transferring a MOOC to other areas of learning. I am working outside the "education area" (legal background) and I also think about that question. Just a few days ago I came across a blog post about responsibility of learning and evidence of learning. In a second post the author describes the idea of combining two scenarios - scenario 1 is formal learning as done until now, scenario 2 is the informal learning type (as for example within a MOOC). You find this post here:

    I do think that the combination of "traditional" course work and "MOOC-elements" might be a good idea for your course. You lay the theoretical foundation and then you deepen it by asking students to choose the deepening aspects themselves.
    Let me give you an example with a legal background: when you have a course on contract law you are still not able to analyse a contract, to work out a checklist, to draft a contract, to advise clients etc. However you have to learn the theoretical foundation. The other elements could be added by way of "informal or MOOC elements" so that students start to deepen their knowledge, might reach their boundaries (good to make mistakes when it does not matter ....) and might get an extra insight they would not have with an ordinary course.

    P.S.: the selection of profiles caused me a problem. I first had to register in order to be able to post a comment here (I felt the selection of profiles was rather "excluding" - sorry for that).

  6. @Astrid: Thank you for the information. I'll look up that blog when I get home. I agree that a combination of traditional and MOOC modalities can work for content heavy classes. I'm just having to work out the general ideas. Part of it, as you were saying, is to make sure that the foundation is there so that they can go further. I think my job as a teacher is to not only be the facilitator of growth, but to really help students lay the foundation of a discipline.

  7. The sheepskin that we award should represent an integrated and coherent set of competencies. Demonstration of requisite competencies is required for the award of credit. In a program of study in a field that has a a broadly accepted meaning, like biology, there is an expectation that graduates from different institutions would have similar skills and knowledge. Foundation studies are important, but the order in which that foundation is built is dependent on the how a particular faculty decides to scaffold a program. The more informal structure offered by the MOOC is more difficult to slot into a highly structured curriculum, but I wonder if you could collaborate with students and set the learning outcomes and aggregate the resources and allow the learners to define their on path to the goal. There are probably many factors that would affect whether it would work or not.

  8. Thanks tai. You've given me more to consider. I had not considered a difference between formal and informal structures, as it seems that the MOOCs I've looked at have a structure laid out. It is not as formal as a F2F class schedule, bit it does start the framing of the class. Since we have a large faculty, beyond students, I'll eventually need to work on faculty buy in.