What Does it Mean to Enrol in a Course?

I guess the answer seems pretty obvious: you provide your personal contact information, maybe pay some money, maybe show you've satisfied a prerequisite, such as admission to an institution, and provided there's room in the course, you're registered. 

Behind the scenes a bunch of things will happen: you'll be assigned a 'seat' in the class, an account will be created in the Student Information System and in the Learning Management System, your information may be sent to the bookstore, you may be issued library credentials, and you might even gain Student Union and Recreation Centre privileges. In some cases, you will be issued an institutional email address and given access credentials to things like EduRoam.

You get the idea. It's a bit different in every case, but it's generally something like this. But for me, course registration looks nothing like this. Let me explain.

In my world (which admittedly is a very small world of dubious reality) you don't actually 'register' for a course. My would is the world of open online courses, which means that if you want to take the course, you don't have to give the institution anything, nor does the institution grant you permission or admission to anything. There's no need.

But I still want there to be a sense of 'enrolling' into a course, so that the person taking the course can manage their own activities. Why, you ask? Well, people need answers to practical questions, like, where are the course materials? how do I access course events? etc. 

In the traditional scenario where you register for a course, all that is provided in the LMS, to which you've been granted access. Even in traditional open courses, students sign in to the course LMS or MOOC platform and all the information is there on the course page. 

And yes, you could do it that way, but I don't want to do it that way, because it's basically the platform model - you have to go to them, and they will keep all the resources there, and all your interactions are through their system, and it becomes really hard to think of your education as a seamless whole because every institution has its own platform, and you have to have a separate account in each one, and it all becomes a bit dysfunctional, like Facebook.

My model is different. As I've described before, you use your own Personal Learning Environment (PLE) to take courses. Think of your PLE as similar to your email client, or your RSS reader. It's yours, it belongs to you, and it doesn't matter where the messages or feeds came from, they all end up in the same place. This means, for example, if you're searching for something, you are searching all your content from all your sources to find the thing you need.

To 'enroll' using email you would provide your email address to someone, usually a mailing list provider, and you would receive emails constituting the 'course'. That's how I took my first open online courses, long before the MOOC. The risk of this is known to everyone: once your email address is out there, it becomes a target for self-propelled advertising messages - spam - and worse.

To 'enroll' using RSS, you would obtain an RSS reader application, either a desktop application, which is great if you only have one computer, or a cloud-based application, which allows you to read your RSS feeds from anywhere. There are risks here as well. If your desktop crashes you lose all your RSS feeds. Cloud providers usually charge money and RSS itself becomes a platform, and subject to some of the same problems as LMSs.

But the main problem with email and RSS is that they're pretty limited. Sure, you can read and write, but that's pretty much the limit of your activities. Sure, there's a social component, but it's hard to do things together. Email tag, anyone? The 'library' is one dimensional. There's no video. It's just hard. That's why we turned to the LMS, and that's why we turned to platforms like Blogger and Facebook.

My answer to this comes in two parts: the PLE, and the MOOC. 

The PLE is a personal workspace to subscribe to things like email and RSS feeds, to organize the data in a single place, and to enable me to create my own content like blog posts and email newsletters and my own RSS feeds. I manage my website with a PLE I call gRSShopper. The concept of the PLE has thus far been a non-starter, and nobody else uses one.

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is a public space I provide to enable people to take an online course. It has modules and lessons and an interface to events and activities. My most recent MOOC even had badges and blockchain. The concept of the MOOC has been a runaway success, with millions of people using them, but with the inevitable backslide toward the more traditional platform-based model I described above.

I want the PLE and the MOOC to work together, so that people can enjoy the benefits of open online learning without being locked into a single course platform, a single institution, or even a single way of thinking about education generally. Like this:

So now the question in the title sharpens a bit. What do we mean by 'enroll' as depicted in the diagram?

Let's add a little complexity to the picture, so we can see some of the benefits of doing it this way a bit more clearly. Here's the typical scenario for a single learner:

And for completeness, here's what it looks like for two people, each using their own PLE:

These MOOCs may come from different institutions, and these people may be in different countries. It doesn't matter. The idea is that each person accesses their courses using their own PLE. Each person can set up their environment how they want, organize their data how they want, and access their courses how they want. Institutions, meanwhile, can focus on providing resources and support, but leave the details of accessibility, usability and preferences up to each individual user.

(And those of you who know me might look at this diagram and suggest that maybe I'm trying to build a neural network out of people and courses - and yes, that's exactly what I'm trying to do, but that's off-topic for today. Others might suggest that inevitably MOOC brokers would spring up to mediate between MOOC and PLE, and that's fine too, but again, off-topic.)

So let's consider: what does 'enroll' enable?

  • the PLE user initiates (or requests) data from the MOOC. As defined above, this is strictly a 'pull' process, in which the MOOC is essentially passive, does not make demands of the user (such as registration or authentication, etc.).
  • The PLE user may also give permission to the MOOC to send 'push' notifications, such as email messages, in which case the user must provide the MOOC with an address to send those notifications.
  • The PLE user may optionally provide the MOOC institution with personal information, allowing the MOOC to 'pull' data (like a vCard, say, or FOAF) from a location provided by the user.
  • The PLE user may also optionally provide the MOOC institution with (say) an RSS feed location, allowing the MOOC to pull data (like a blog posts, say, or videos) from a location provided by the user.

So, minimally, the MOOC needs to provide the user with a location to pull data from, and included among this data are the locations the user can use in order to send data to the MOOC.

Let's focus on the first part. What other sort of data will the user need from the MOOC? Here's one way of organizing it that I've settled into after a number of years of offering cMOOCs. 

  • Course - this is information about the course itself, including the course title, code, institution, and the addresses you need in order to (optionally) provide information about yourself.
  • Feed - this is the course feed, which is where you accessed this information, and where you will return to access additional information (as defined below) as the course progresses.
  • Pages - the MOOC needs to provide the user with a list of web pages. These can either be served from the MOOC website, in which case only the link is passed to the user, or the full pages may be passed.
  • Links - these are links to resources referenced by the pages (and perhaps the pages themselves). These links may be from any source - in fact, when we build our cMOOC the model was that we would use open educational resources (OER) from multiple providers, not by using them to build content, but by providing links to them to participants.
  • Media - these may be sent as links but specifically flagged as audio or video or multimedia, may be embedded in pages (that's for example what edX does) or viewed stand-alone, either from a platform (like YouTube) or downloaded and played locally (like an MP3 audio file).
  • Activities - these again may be sent as links but may also be sent as content. An activity will propose a set of actions to be undertaken, often with a recommendation for content creation, identified with an 'activity tag', to be shared by the user, and may include the use of third party applications like (say) concept mapping tools, discussion boards, whiteboards, etc.
  • Events - these are either scheduled activities or live-streamed media, which have specific start and end times, and a specific location for access. Participation in events may be passive, such as watching a live-stream on YouTube or Twitch, or it may be active, such as entry into a Zoom chat. In the case of active participation, it is very likely that the institution will want to limit participation for reasons of volume and security. 
  • Metadata - this is a catch-all term for additional sorts of data being used to classify or categorize the course and resources used within the course, and includes such things as topics, keywords, competencies, occupations, recommended prerequisites, etc., for example, as described by Learning Object Metadata (LOM). Metadata may be included in the course data itself, or in the data for any given resource.
  • Persons - this may be information about course authors, guests or content specialists, support staff, and other course participants. Information about persons in the course should obviously shared only with the expressed consent of that person, and may include contact information, RSS or FOAF feed information, etc. My recommendation is to share only RSS feed locations, allowing participants to remain anonymous while still being able to exchange thoughts with each other.
  • Graph - the course graph is the list of all the resources in the course (as defined immediately above) and associations between those resources (thus, for example, you could associate a link with a page defining a subject area, an event with a page defining a course module, media with an event, persons with resources they produce, etc.)
  • Certification - the list of badges or certificates, associated with course elements in the graph, or also competencies or skill sets, optionally recorded in a third-party registry or blockchain.

So - to enroll is to request and receive this set of data. Then what? 

The idea of the PLE is that this data is integrated into the rest of the data that's already there. So, when you enroll, first you request all this data, then you (or more accurately, your PLE) takes this data and stores it in your personal database - the links with all the other links, the pages with all the other pages, the events with all the other events, etc. 

Basically, the idea is that the course provides the data, but you decide what you want to do with it.

How you you actually 'take' a course in this scenario? There are several options:

  • In your PLE, list your currently active courses, select the course you want to work on, and be shown the course page in the PLE. From the course page, associated and still active resources (readings, activities) are listed, and you select from among them (you may also choose to review resources you've previously viewed and that are no longer active).
  • When you start up your PLE in the morning and select "Read What's New", new content and resources harvested from the course are displayed, including things created by other participants in the course, (along with whatever else you're following), and you select those resources.
  • An event, or an activity with a time component, shows up in your calendar, and you select the item from the calendar and access it.
  • You may decide to initiate an activity, perhaps convening a discussion group or video conference; this is published on your own feed, and made available to others taking the course as a resource or event they can select or follow.

In the longer term, through, you continue to 'take' the course, even if the course is long finished. For example, while doing something else (perhaps taking a different course or working on a different project) resources from this course may show up as associated with resources from your new course or project - perhaps they're by the same author, or perhaps they're on the same topic. 

Additionally, these resources, because they're integrated into your PLE 'personal graph', continue to be available to you even after the course has been completed - because an important part of 'open' means "doesn't go away when you're finished the course".

So, what does it mean to 'enroll' in a course?

"To request and receive a set of data pertaining to the course, including links to feeds to access course resources, events, and activities, etc., and links to allow you to offer your own contributions to the course."

No applications. No registration. No admission. No money.

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