Monday, September 17, 2012

K-12 MOOCs and Communities

Responding to questions from Paul Genge:

> My question is about what tools do you think I should use to connect students with genres or communities of practice based on their personal interests

The short answer is, whatever tools the experts are already using (presuming they have formed a community of practice of some sort, which is increasingly likely). Different disciplines interact in different ways, and ultimately people wishing to join these communities will ned to use whatever tools they use.

I can see the question from the perspective of what tools might be employed to prepare someone for success using whatever tools will eventually be used. This is a list that probably changes every year. Currently, I would be stressing reading and viewing (through learning resources, video sites and the like), content creation (through blogs or video production or something similar), interaction (through social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook), immersion (in games or simulations) and community development (through wiki or other cooperative authoring sites). This list could probably be refined, but I think it’s a good start.

> connecting to communities of practice is problematic in terms of content, most will be blocked because the wholesome nature of that experience cannot be controlled.

That may be, but I consider this to be an educational practice that needs to be reassessed. I think we’re going through a period of time in which we are over-protecting children from ‘unwholeseome’ influences. This is impairing their education. I think that in time as children who have grown up with the internet become parents we will have a more open attitude to what children can see and read.

> I've checked some of the more progressive schools and can't find many people in the k-12 environment who are even talking about these ideas, which I'm sure will inform educational practice in the future. 

Yeah, I wonder about that. There is an aspect of progressive education which depends heavily on close supervision and control; even as students are being challenged and encouraged to excel and respond to challenges, this is happening in a closed and protected environment.

I think progressive education of the future might be more rough-and-tumble. I think of Teemu Arina from Finland talking about how he created his own business at age 15. You can’t create a business in a closed environment, and yet we want to encourage activities like this. Getting students into the community, even young children, means stepping back a bit from the constraints we’ve placed on them.

I read about parents driving their children to and from school, to protect them from the dangers of the city. I can’t fathom that.

> Do you think I should seek out individual communities of practice around each student's interest, connected to a cross curricular theme that a couple of my colleagues and I have come up with?

No. Let them find these communities themselves. Give them the tools they need to seek out and find community on the internet, and have them report on what they’ve found (so you can take action if they have a run-in with extremists) but generally let them find their own way.

I don’t think there’s going to be a nice pairing between communities of practice and curricular relevance. But again, if I had to choose between the two, I would choose the communities. Yes, I recognize that there are institutional challenges here. In the long run, educational professionals will be reactive – instead of bringing students to content and community, students will seek out whatever matches their own interests, and educators will supplement and support this work with resources from the curriculum, social- and content-related advice, and safety and supervision.

> Have you heard of anybody having curated genres that work for k-12 students in any way? Would MOOC's work for this or are they pretty traditionally structured with a content laden syllabus? A MOOC that seeks to develop some of the literacies you spoke about in your talk would be interesting if you know of anything like that.

I haven’t seen anyone curating work appropriate for K-12 students in this way, though I know that vast quantities of K-12 appropriate work have been created and indexed in various content websites. I couldn’t even begin to attempt a cataloguing of that work, but observe only that none of it was designed for MOOCs because it all pretty much predates them.

Having said that, a MOOC organized for the purposes of K-12 education would be a fabulous idea.

I would organize these MOOCs around themes – for example, building qudrocopter drones, or harvesting honey from community-based hives, or environmental monitoring of a local waterway, or community court reporting, or … well, you get the idea. There are tons of such communities already on the web – a MOOC could form a nice bridge between them and students in classes. I would set up the MOOC to be persistent – that is, the same MOOC would run year after year, so there is an archive of information. Inside the MOOC there can be specific time-limited ‘classes’, which would help create and support networks. I think there’s a huge potential for experimentation here.

Again, if it were me, I’d set up the framework, and see whether students couldn’t organize their own MOOCs. And once they had done so, I’d join in the MOOC as a student, and model participation in a MOOC, bringing in resources and contributing to discussions.

> I just wonder if you study just these high end spikes are your results generalizable to all of the others who practice that activity. Will our students need to be in the top quintile of whatever field they choose and therefore need to find that affinity group where their passion will get them to that high level and therefore find success in life.

That’s a great question. My feeling is that the MOOC approach (again, thinking of a MOOC as an interconnected community of people creating and sharing) would appeal to all people. But this would of course be subject to confirmation in practice.

What we have seen in the MOOCs we have run so far is a clustering of very interested, active and motivated people at the centre, surrounded by a less connected set of observers and less active contributors, and surrounded by a corona of lurkers. This is what may be called ‘legitimate peripheral participation’; there’s no problem inherently with lurking. But it seems likely this structure would be reflected in K-12 practice, and that those who are lurkers would be the less able students, and vice versa. This would be less idea, as it would become self-reinforcing. So I think there needs to be enough MOOCs so everyone can be at the core of one or another MOOC, and there need to be attractors in MOOCs that draw these peripheral participants in closer. I don’t think that’s a problem that has been solved yet.

I think the demonstrated learning and feedback of students and parents would demonstrate the power of these ideas

I agree, but I also think there’s a matter of setting expectations too. Student learning, properly so-called, might not be any better in a MOOC, and if they become deeply engaged in a project, might actually be impaired. I can easily imagine a student becoming totally engaged in, say, a science project, and ignoring, say, geography class. I think that what a student would learn about science – not formulae and theorems, but actual practice, interaction among practitioners, and even the ‘feel’ of what to look for in a scientific environment, would be greatly enhanced in these communities, but the impact of this learning might not be observable for years, especially if it is not actively being measured.

Concordant therefore with the introduction of MOOCs I think it will be necessary to introduce alternative forms and systems of assessment. I’ve talked about this elsewhere.

I hope this helps.