October 21, 2014

The strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs: Part I

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© Carson Kahn, 2012

© Carson Kahn, 2012

How many times has an author cried: ‘Oh, God, I wish I’d never started on this!’? Well, I wanted to have a short section on MOOCs within a chapter on design models for teaching and learning in my online textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ and it is probably poetic justice that the section on MOOCs is now ballooning into a monster of its own.

Although I don’t want to inflate the importance of MOOCs, I fear I’m probably going to have to devote a whole chapter to the topic. (Well, I do have to agree that the topic is relevant to teaching in a digital age.) However, whether MOOCs get their own chapter may well depend on how you, my readers, react to what I’m writing, which I’m putting into this blog via a series of posts.

I’ve already had two posts, one on the key design features of MOOCs in general, and another on the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs that has already generated quite a lot of heated comments. Here I’m posting the first part of my discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. I’ll do another couple of posts to wrap it up (I desperately hope).

Strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

Because at the time of writing most MOOCs are less than three years old, there are not many research publications on MOOCs, although research activities are now beginning to pick up. Much of the research so far on MOOCs comes from the institutions offering MOOCs, mainly in the form of reports on enrolments. The commercial platform providers such as Coursera and Udacity have provided limited research information overall, which is a pity, because they have access to really big data sets. However, MIT and Harvard, the founding partners in edX, are conducting some research, mainly on their own courses. There is very little research to date on cMOOCs, and what there is is mainly qualitative.

However, wherever possible, I have tried to use any research that has been done that provides insight into the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. At the same time, we should be clear that we are discussing a phenomenon that to date has been marked largely by political, emotional and often irrational discourse, and in terms of hard evidence, we will have to wait for some time. Thus any analysis must also address philosophical or value issues, which is a sure recipe for generating heated discussion.

Lastly, it should be remembered when evaluating MOOCs is that I am applying the criteria of whether MOOCs are likely to lead to the kinds of learning needed in a digital age: in other words, do they help develop the knowledge and skills defined in Chapter 1 of Teaching in a Digital Age?

1. Open and free education

MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. This in itself is an amazing value proposition. In this sense, MOOCs are an incredibly valuable addition to educational provision. Who could argue against this? Certainly not me, so long as the argument for MOOCs goes no further.

However, this is not the only form of open and free education. Libraries, open textbooks and educational broadcasting are also open and free to end users and have been for some time, even if they do not have the same power and reach as Internet-based delivery. There are also lessons we can learn from these earlier forms of open and free education that also apply to MOOCs.

The first is that these earlier forms of open and free did not replace the need for formal, credit-based education, but were used to supplement or strengthen it. In other words, MOOCs are a tool for continuing and informal education, which has high value in its own right.

The second lesson is that there have been many attempts in the past to use open and massive education through educational broadcasting and satellite broadcasting in Third World countries (see Bates, 1985), and they all failed miserably for a variety of reasons, the most important being:

  • the high cost of ground equipment (especially security),
  • the need for local support for learners without high levels of education, and its high cost
  • the need to adapt to the culture of the receiving countries
  • the difficulty of covering the operational costs of management and administration, especially for assessment, qualifications and local accreditation.

Also the priority in most Third World countries is not for courses from high-level Stanford University professors, but for programs for elementary and high schools. Finally, while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Streamed 50 minute video lectures then have limited applicability.

This is not to say that MOOCs could not be valuable in Third World countries. They have features, such as integrated interaction, testing and feedback, and much lower cost, that make them a more powerful medium than educational broadcasting but they will still face the same challenges of educational broadcasting:

  • being realistic as to what they can actually deliver to countries with no or limited technology infrastructure
  • working in partnership with Third World educational institutions and systems and other partners
  • ensuring that the necessary local support – which costs real money – is put in place
  • adapting the design, content and delivery of MOOCs to the cultural and economic requirements of those countries.

Also, MOOCs need to be compared to other possible ways of delivering mass education in developing countries, within these parameters. The problem comes when it is argued that because MOOCs are open and free to end-users, they will inevitably force down the cost of conventional education, or eliminate the need for it altogether, especially in Third World countries.

Lastly, and very importantly, in many countries, all public education is already in essence open to all and in many cases free to those participating, if grants, endowments and other forms of state support to students are taken into account. MOOCs then will have to deliver the same quality or better at a lower price than public education if they are to replace it. I will return to this point later when I discuss their costs and the political and social issues around MOOCs.

2. The audience that MOOCs mainly serve

In a research report from Ho et al. (2014), researchers at Harvard University and MIT found that on the first 17 MOOCs offered through edX, 66 per cent of all participants, and 74 per cent of all who obtained a certificate, had a bachelor’s degree or above, 71 per cent were male, and the average age was 26. This and other studies also found that a high proportion of participants came from outside the USA, ranging from 40-60 per cent of all participants, indicating strong interest internationally in open access to high quality university teaching.

In a study based on over 80 interviews in 62 institutions ‘active in the MOOC space’, Hollands and Tirthali (2014), researchers at Columbia University Teachers’ College, concluded that:

Data from MOOC platforms indicate that MOOCs are providing educational opportunities to millions of individuals across the world. However, most MOOC participants are already well-educated and employed, and only a small fraction of them fully engages with the courses. Overall, the evidence suggests that MOOCs are currently falling far short of “democratizing” education and may, for now, be doing more to increase gaps in access to education than to diminish them.

Thus MOOCs, as is common with most forms of university continuing education, cater to the better educated, older and employed sectors of society.

3. Persistence and commitment

Hill (2013) identified five types of participants in Coursera courses:

© Phil Hill, 2013

© Phil Hill, 2013

The edX researchers (Ho et al., 2014) provided empirical support for Hill’s analysis. They identified different levels of commitment as follows across 17 edX MOOCs:

  • Only Registered: Registrants who never access the courseware (35%).
  • Only Viewed: Non-certified registrants who access the courseware, accessing less than half of the available chapters (56%).
  • Only Explored: Non-certified Registrants who access more than half of the available chapters in the courseware, but did not get a certificate (4%).
  • Certified: Registrants who earn a certificate in the course (5%).

Engle (2014) found similar patterns for the UBC MOOCs on Coursera (also replicated in other studies):

  • of those that initially sign up, between one third and a half do not participate in any other active way
  • of those that participate in at least one activity, between 5-10% go on to successfully complete a certificate

Those going on to achieve certificates usually are within the 5-10 per cent range of those that sign up and in the 10-20 per cent range for those who actively engaged with the MOOC at least once. Nevertheless, the numbers obtaining certificates are still large in absolute terms: over 43,000 across 17 courses on edX and 8,000 across four courses at UBC (between 2,000-2,500 certificates per course).

Milligan et al. (2013) found a similar pattern of commitment in cMOOCs, from interviewing a relatively small sample of participants (29 out of 2,300 registrants) about halfway through a cMOOC:

  • passive participants: in Milligan’s study these were those that felt lost in the MOOC and rarely but occasionally logged in.
  • lurkers: they were actively following the course but did not engage in any of the activities (these were just under half those interviewed)
  • active participants (again, just under half those interviewed) who were fully engaged in the course activities.

MOOC participation and persistence rates need to be judged for what they are, a somewhat unique – and valuable – form of non-formal education. Once again, these results are very similar to research into non-formal educational broadcasts (e.g. the History Channel). One would not expect a viewer to watch every episode of a History Channel series then take an exam at the end. Ho et al. (p.13) produced the following diagram to show the different levels of commitment to xMOOCs:

Ho et al., 2014

Ho et al., 2014

Now compare that to what I wrote in 1985 about educational broadcasting in Britain:

(p.99): At the centre of the onion is a small core of fully committed students who work through the whole course, and, where available, take an end-of-course assessment or examination. Around the small core will be a rather larger layer of students who do not take any examination but do enrol with a local class or correspondence school. There may be an even larger layer of students who, as well as watching and listening, also buy the accompanying textbook, but who do not enrol in any courses. Then, by far the largest group, are those that just watch or listen to the programmes. Even within this last group, there will be considerable variations, from those who watch or listen fairly regularly, to those, again a much larger number, who watch or listen to just one programme. 

I also wrote (p.100):

A sceptic may say that the only ones who can be said to have learned effectively are the tiny minority that worked right through the course and successfully took the final assessment…A counter argument would be that broadcasting can be considered successful if it merely attracts viewers or listeners who might otherwise have shown no interest in the topic; it is the numbers exposed to the material that matter…the key issue then is whether broadcasting does attract to education those who would not otherwise have been interested, or merely provides yet another opportunity for those who are already well educated…There is a good deal of evidence that it is still the better educated in Britain and Europe that make the most use of non-formal educational broadcasting.

Exactly the same could be said about MOOCs. In a digital age where easy and open access to new knowledge is critical for those working in knowledge-based industries, MOOCs will be one valuable source or means of accessing that knowledge. The issue is though whether there are more effective ways to do this.

Furthermore, percentages, completion and certification DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education. Thus MOOCs are a useful – but not really revolutionary – contribution to non-formal continuing education. We need though to look at whether they can meet the demands of more formal education, in terms of ensuring as many students succeed as possible.

To come

I think that’s more than enough for today. In my next post, I will try to cover the following strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs:

4. What do participants learn in MOOCs?

5. Costs and economies of scale

6. Branding

7. Ethical issues

8. Meeting the needs of learners in a digital age.

I will probably then do another short post on:

a. The politico-economic context that drives the MOOC phenomena

b. a short summary.

Over to you

Remembering that this is less than half the section on strengths and weaknesses, and that the criterion I am using for this is the ability of MOOCs to meet the learning needs of a digital age:

1. Are these the right topics for assessing MOOC’s strengths and weaknesses?

2. Would you have discussed these three topics differently? Do you agree or disagree with my conclusions?

3. Is ‘the ability of MOOCs to meet the learning needs of a digital age’ a fair criterion and if not how should they be judged?

4. Is the educational broadcasting comparison fair or relevant?

References

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Friedland, T. (2013) Revolution hits the universities, New York Times, January 26

Hill, P. (2013) Some validation of MOOC student patterns graphic, e-Literate, August 30

Ho, A. et al. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1), January 21

Hollands, F. and Tirthali, D. (2014) MOOCs: Expectations and Reality New York: Columbia University Teachers’ College, Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, 211 pp

Milligan, C., Littlejohn, A. and Margaryan, A. (2013) Patterns of engagement in connectivist MOOCs, Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 2

Yousef, A. et al. (2014) MOOCs: A Review of the State-of-the-Art Proceedings of 6th International Conference on Computer Supported Education – CSEDU 2014, Barcelona, Spain

Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice

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They're big: but will they survive? Image: © Wikipedia

They’re big: but will they survive? Image: © Wikipedia

The story so far

For my open textbook Teaching in a Digital Age, I am writing a chapter on different design models for teaching and learning. I have started writing the section on MOOCs, and in my previous post, ‘What is a MOOC?‘, I gave a brief history and described the key common characteristics of all MOOCs.

In this post I examine the differences in philosophy and practice between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

Design models for MOOCs

MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon and as a result are still evolving, particularly in terms of their design. However the early MOOC courses had relatively identifiable designs which still permeate most MOOCs. At the same time, there are two quite different philosophical positions underpinning xMOOCs and cMOOCs, so we need to look at each design model separately.

xMOOCs

I am starting with xMOOCs because at the time of writing they are by far the most common MOOC. Because instructors have considerable flexibility in the design of the course, there is considerable variation in the details, but in general xMOOCs have the following common design features:

  • specially designed platform software: xMOOCs use specially designed platform software that allows for the registration of very large numbers of participants, provides facilities for the storing and streaming on demand of digital materials, and automates assessment procedures and student performance tracking.
  • video lectures: xMOOCs use the standard lecture mode, but delivered online by participants downloading on demand recorded video lectures. These video lectures are normally available on a weekly basis over a period of 10-13 weeks. Initially these were often 50 minute lectures, but as a result of experience some xMOOCs now are using shorter recordings (sometimes down to 15 minutes in length) and thus there may be more video segments. Over time, xMOOC courses, as well as the videos, are becoming shorter in length, some now lasting only five weeks. Various video production methods have been used, including lecture capture (recording face-to-face on-campus lectures, then storing them and streaming them on demand), full studio production, or desk-top recording by the instructor on their own.
  • computer-marked assignments: students complete an online test and receive immediate computerised feedback. These tests are usually offered throughout the course, and may be used just for participant feedback. Alternatively the tests may be used for determining the award of a certificate. Another option is for an end of course grade or certificate based solely on an end-of-course online test. Most xMOOC assignments are based on multiple-choice, computer-marked questions, but some MOOCs have also used text or formula boxes for participants to enter answers, such as coding in a computer science course, or mathematical formulae, and in one or two cases, short text answers, but in all cases these are computer-marked.
  • peer assessment: some xMOOCs have experimented with assigning students randomly to small groups for peer assessment, especially for more open-ended or more evaluative assignment questions. This has often proved problematic though because of wide variations in expertise between the different members of a group, and because of the different levels of involvement in the course of different participants.
  • supporting materials: sometimes copies of slides, supplementary audio files, urls to other resources, and online articles may be included for downloading by participants.
  • a shared comment/discussion space where participants can post questions, ask for help, or comment on the content of the course.
  • no or very light discussion moderation: the extent to which the discussion or comments are moderated varies probably more than any other feature in xMOOCs, but at its most, moderation is directed at all participants rather than to individuals. Because of the very large numbers participating and commenting, moderation of individual comments by the instructor(s) offering the MOOC is impossible. Some instructors offer no moderation whatsoever, so participants rely on other participants to respond to questions or comments. Some instructors ‘sample’ comments and questions, and post comments in response to these. Some instructors use teaching assistants to comb for or identify common areas of concern shared by a number of participants then the instructor or teaching assistants will respond. However, in most cases, participants moderate each other’s comments or questions.
  • badges or certificates: most xMOOCs award some kind of recognition for successful completion of a course, based on a final computer-marked assessment. However, at the time of writing, MOOC badges or certificates have not been recognised for credit or admission purposes even by the institutions offering a MOOC, or even when the lectures are the same as for on-campus students. No evidence exists to date about employer acceptance of MOOC qualifications.
  • learning analytics: Although to date there has not been a great deal of published information about the use of learning analytics in xMOOCs, the xMOOC platforms have the capacity to collect and analyse ‘big data’ about participants and their performance, enabling, at least in theory, for immediate feedback to instructors about areas where the content or design needs improving and possibly directing automated cues or hints for individuals.

xMOOCs therefore primarily use a teaching model focused on the transmission of information, with high quality content delivery, computer-marked assessment (mainly for student feedback purposes), and automation of all key transactions between participants and the learning platform. There is almost no direct interaction between an individual participant and the instructor responsible for the course.

cMOOCs

cMOOCs have a very different educational philosophy from xMOOCs, in that cMOOCs place heavy emphasis on networking and in particular on strong content contributions from the participants themselves.

Key design principles

Downes (2014) has identified four key design principles for cMOOCs:

  • autonomy of the learner: in terms of learners choosing what content or skills they wish to learn, learning is personal, and thus there being no formal curriculum
  • diversity: in terms of the tools used, the range of participants and their knowledge levels, and varied content
  • interactivity: in terms of co-operative learning, communication between participants, resulting in emergent knowledge
  • open-ness: in terms of access, content, activities and assessment

Thus for the proponents of cMOOCs, learning results not from the transmission of information from an expert to novices, as in xMOOCs, but from sharing of knowledge between participants.

From principles to practice

Identifying how these key design features for cMOOCs are turned into practice is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint, because cMOOCs depend on an evolving set of practices. Most cMOOCs to date have in fact made some use of ‘experts’, both in the organization and promotion of the MOOC, and in providing ‘nodes’ of content around which discussion tends to revolve.  In other words, the design practices of cMOOCs are still more a work in progress than those of xMOOCs.

Nevertheless, I see the following as key design practices to date in cMOOCs:

  • use of social media: partly because most cMOOCs are not institutionally based or supported, they do not at present use a shared platform or platforms but are more loosely supported by a range of ‘connected’ tools and media. These may include a simple online registration system, and the use of web conferencing tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect, streamed video or audio files, blogs, wikis, ‘open’ learning management systems such as Moodle or Canvas, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, all enabling participants to share their contributions. Indeed, as new apps and social media tools develop, they too are likely to be incorporated into cMOOCs. All these tools are connected through web-based hashtags or other web-based linking mechanisms, enabling participants to identify social media contributions from other participants. Downes (2014) is working on a Learning and Performance Support System that could be used to help both participants and cMOOC organisers to communicate more easily across the whole MOOC and to organise their personal learning. Thus the use of loosely linked/connected social media is a key design practice in cMOOCs
  • participant-driven content: in principle, other than a common topic that may be decided by someone wanting to organise a cMOOC, content is decided upon and contributed by the participants themselves, in this sense very much like any other community of practice. In practice though cMOOC organisers (who themselves tend to have some expertise in the topic of the cMOOC) are likely to invite potential participants who have expertise or are known already to have a well articulated approach to a topic to make contributions around which participants can discuss and debate. Other participants choose their own ways to contribute or communicate, the most common being through blog posts, tweets, or comments on other participants’ blog posts, although some cMOOCs use wikis or open source online discussion forums. The key design practice with regard to content is that all participants contribute to and share content.
  • distributed communication: this is probably the most difficult design practice to understand for those not familiar with cMOOCs – and even for those who have participated. With participants numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, each contributing individually through a variety of social media, there are a myriad different inter-connections between participants that are impossible to track (in total) for any single participant. This results in many sub-conversations, more commonly at a binary level of two people communicating with each other than an integrated group discussion, although all conversations are ‘open’ and all other participants are able to contribute to a conversation if they know it exists. The key design practice then with regard to communication is a self-organising network with many sub-components.
  • assessment: there is no formal assessment, although participants may seek feedback from other, more knowledgeable participants, on an informal basis. Basically participants decide for themselves whether what they have learned is appropriate to them.

cMOOCs therefore primarily use a networked approach to learning based on autonomous learners connecting with each other across open and connected social media and sharing knowledge through their own personal contributions. There is no pre-set curriculum and no formal teacher-student relationship, either for delivery of content or for learner support. Participants learn from the contributions of others, from the meta-level knowledge generated through the community, and from self-reflection on their own contributions.

This is very much a personal interpretation of how cMOOCs work in practice, based largely on my own experience as a participant, but much more has been written and spoken about the philosophy of cMOOCs, and much less about the implementation of that philosophy, presumably because cMOOC proponents want to leave it open to practitioners to decide how best to put that philosophy into practice.

What is clear though is that Downes was correct in clearly distinguishing cMOOCs from xMOOCs – they are very different beasts.

Coming next to a web page near you

Now for the fun part. Over the next few days I will be writing about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs, focusing particularly on the following question:

Can or do MOOCs provide the learning and skills that students will need in the future? 

I can in fact provide you with the short answer now: a resounding NO, for both kinds of MOOC, although one is a bit better than the other! Tune in later for the full details.

Feedback, please

In the meantime, I need to know whether I have got it right in describing the two kinds of MOOCs. Does my description – because that is all it’s meant to be at this stage – match your experience of MOOCs? Have I missed important characteristics? Do I have my facts wrong? Is this useful or is there a better way to approach this topic?

More on MOOCs, communities of practice, and artificial intelligence

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Image: © B. Hui,  2013

Image: © B. Hui, 2013 

Sometimes blogging can be a lonely activity, sending an arrow into the air to land I know not where. But sometimes I am privileged to get incredibly thoughtful comments from some of the sharpest minds in the field. This was the case regarding my recent post on communities of practice. Linda Harasim, Stephen Downes and several others have already provided very thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

So I am using a full blog post to bring this discussion to your attention. If you have not already done so, I suggest you go to: The Role of Communities of Practice in a Digital Age, read the post itself, then read the comments. Any contributions you can make to this discussion will be very much welcomed.

 

The role of communities of practice in a digital age

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Bank of America's Vital Voices progam links women executives of small and medium sized enterprises  Image: © Belfast Telegraph, 2014

Bank of America’s Vital Voices progam links women executives of small and medium sized enterprises from around the world
Image: © Belfast Telegraph, 2014

The story so far

I have published the first five chapters of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘.  I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’

In my last three posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness for a digital age of the classroom model, the ADDIE model, and the competency-based learning model. In this post, I explore the learning model based on communities of practice.

The theories behind communities of practice

The design of teaching often integrates different theories of learning. Communities of practice are one of the ways in which experiential learning, social constructivism, and connectivism can be combined, illustrating the limitations of trying to rigidly classify learning theories. Practice tends to be more complex.

What are communities of practice?

Definition: 

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Wenger, 2014

The basic premise behind communities of practice is simple: we all learn in everyday life from the communities in which we find ourselves. Communities of practice are everywhere. Nearly everyone belongs to some community of practice, whether it is through our working colleagues or associates, our profession or trade, or our leisure interests, such as a book club. Wenger (2000) argues that a community of practice is different from a community of interest or a geographical community in that it involves a shared practice: ways of doing things that are shared to some significant extent among members.

Wenger argues that there are three crucial characteristics of a community of practice:

  • domain: a common interest that connects and holds together the community
  • community: a community is bound by the shared activities they pursue (for example, meetings, discussions) around their common domain
  • practice: members of a community of practice are practitioners; what they do informs their participation in the community; and what they learn from the community affects what they do.

Wenger (2000) has argued that although individuals learn through participation in a community of practice, more important is the generation of newer or deeper levels of knowledge through the sum of the group activity. If the community of practice is centered around business processes, for instance, this can be of considerable benefit to an organization. Smith (2003) notes that:

…communities of practice affect performance..[This] is important in part because of their potential to overcome the inherent problems of a slow-moving traditional hierarchy in a fast-moving virtual economy. Communities also appear to be an effective way for organizations to handle unstructured problems and to share knowledge outside of the traditional structural boundaries. In addition, the community concept is acknowledged to be a means of developing and maintaining long-term organizational memory.

Brown and Duguid (2000) describe a community of practice developed around the Xerox customer service representatives who repaired the machines in the field. The Xerox reps began exchanging tips and tricks over informal meetings at breakfast or lunch and eventually Xerox saw the value of these interactions and created the Eureka project to allow these interactions to be shared across the global network of representatives. The Eureka database has been estimated to have saved the corporation $100 million. Companies such as Google and Apple are encouraging communities of practice through the sharing of knowledge across their many specialist staff.

Technology provides a wide range of tools that can support communities of practice, as indicated by Wenger (2010) in the diagram below:

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Designing effective communities of practice

Most communities of practice have no formal design and tend to be self-organising systems. They have a natural life cycle, and come to an end when they no longer serve the needs of the community. However, there is now a body of theory and research that has identified actions that can help sustain and improve the effectiveness of communities of practice.

 Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) have identified seven key design principles for creating effective and self-sustaining communities of practice, related specifically to the management of the community, although the ultimate success of a community of practice will be determined by the activities of the members of the community themselves. Designers of a community of practice need to:

  1. Design for evolution: ensuring that the community can evolve and shift in focus to meet the interests of the participants without moving too far from the common domain of interest
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives: encourage the introduction and discussion of new perspectives that come or are brought in from outside the community of practice
  3. Encourage and accept different levels of participation, The strength of participation varies from participant to participant. The ‘core’ (most active members) are those who participate regularly. There are others who follow the discussions or activities but do not take a leading role in making active contributions. Then there are those (likely the majority) who are on the periphery of the community but may become more active participants if the activities or discussions start to engage them more fully. All these levels of participation need to be accepted and encouraged within the community.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces: communities of practice are strengthened if they encourage individual or group activities that are more personal or private as well as the more public general discussions; for instance, individuals may decide to blog about their activities, or in a larger online community of practice a small group that live or work close together may also decide to meet informally on a face-to-face basis
  5. Focus on value. Attempts should be made explicitly to identify, through feedback and discussion, the contributions that the community most values, then focus the discussion and activities around these issues.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement, by focusing both on shared, common concerns and perspectives, but also by introducing radical or challenging perspectives for discussion or action
  7. Create a rhythm for the community: there needs to be a regular schedule of activities or focal points that bring participants together on a regular basis, within the constraints of participants’ time and interests.

Subsequent research has identified a number of critical factors that influence the effectiveness of participants in communities of practice, These include being:

  • aware of social presence: individuals need to feel comfortable in engaging socially with other professionals or ‘experts’ in the domain, and those with greater knowledge must be willing to share in a collegial manner that respects the views and knowledge of other participants (social presence is defined as the awareness of others in an interaction combined with an appreciation of the interpersonal aspects of that interaction.)
  • motivated to share information for the common good of the community
  • able and willing to collaborate.

EDUCAUSE has developed a step-by-step guide for designing and cultivating communities of practice in higher education (Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter, 2005).

Lastly, research on other related sectors, such as collaborative learning or MOOCs, can inform the design and development of communities of practice. For instance, communities of practice need to balance between structure and chaos: too much structure and many participants are likely to feel constrained in what they need to discuss; too little structure and participants can quickly lose interest or become overwhelmed.

Many of the other findings about group and online behaviour, such as the need to respect others, observing online etiquette, and preventing certain individuals from dominating the discussion, are all likely to apply. However, because many communities of practice are by definition self-regulating, establishing rules of conduct and even more so enforcing them is really a responsibility of the participants themselves.

Learning through communities of practice in a digital age

Communities of practice are a powerful manifestation of informal learning. They generally evolve naturally to address commonly shared interests and problems. By their nature, they tend to exist outside formal educational organisations. Participants are not usually looking for formal qualifications, but to address issues in their life and to be better at what they do. Furthermore, communities of practice are not dependent on any particular medium; participants may meet face-to-face socially or at work, or they can participate in online or virtual communities of practice.

It should be noted that communities of practice can be very effective in a digital world, where the working context is volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous.  A large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation.

These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

One of the significant developments in recent years has been the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) for developing online communities of practice. To date the focus of the majority of MOOCs from providers such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, has been on academic ‘courses’, on topics such as artificial intelligence or dinosaurs, which do have a widespread interest. However, these more instructionist MOOCs are not really developed as communities of practice, because  they use mainly a transmissive pedagogy, from experts to those considered less expert. Even though there may be massive numbers participating in online forums, they are not constructed to maximise the contributions from the participants (despite the fact that most MOOC participants already have high levels of education.). Indeed there is evidence that in really large instructionist MOOCs, participants feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and lack of structuring of the participant contributions (see for instance Knox, 2014).

In comparison, connectivist MOOCs are an ideal way to bring together specialists scattered around the world to focus on a common interest or domain. Connectivist MOOCs are much closer to being virtual communities of practice, in that they put much more emphasis on sharing knowledge between more or less equal participants. However, current connectivist MOOCs do not always incorporate what research indicates are best practices for developing communities of practice, and those wanting to establish a virtual community of practice at the moment need some kind of MOOC provider to get them started and give them access to the necessary MOOC software.

In the long run, MOOCs need to evolve to the point where it is possible for those with a common interest to easily create their own open, online communities of practice. As open source MOOC platforms evolve, it should become easier for people without computer science degrees to create and more importantly manage their own MOOCs, without having to go through a MOOC provider such as Coursera or edX. Also, there are other simpler tools, such as wikis, or more complex ones, such as virtual worlds, that may in the long run have more potential for virtual communities of practice created and organised by the participants themselves.

Although communities of practice are likely to become more rather than less important in a digital age, it is probably a mistake to think of them as a replacement for traditional forms of education. There is no single, ‘right’ approach to the design of teaching. Different groups have different needs. Communities of practice are more of an alternative for certain kinds of learners, such as lifelong learners, and are likely to work best when participants already have some domain knowledge and can contribute personally and in a constructive manner – which suggests the need for at least some form of prior general education or training for those participating in effective communities of practice.

In conclusion, it is clear is that in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, and given the openness of the Internet, the social media tools now available, and the need for sharing of knowledge on a global scale, virtual communities of practice will become even more common and important. Smart educators and trainers will look to see how they can harness the strength of this design model, particularly for lifelong learning. However, merely lumping together large numbers of people with a common interest is unlikely to lead to effective learning.  Attention needs to be paid to those design principles that lead to effective communities of practice.

Over to you

Once again, I’m not an expert on communities of practice, so feedback on what I have written on this model of learning will be much appreciated. In particular:

  • Have a got it wrong? Are their important elements missing?
  • Is there good research on the design of communities of practice that I have missed?
  • Do you agree that they are NOT a replacement for other forms of education?
  • Can you really design a community of practice or do they just evolve naturally? If so, what conditions are needed for success other than those already discussed in this post?
  • How would you evaluate the success of a community of practice? What would you look for? How could this be identified or described?

I would love to hear from anyone who has attempted to create communities of practice and what design elements they would recommend.

References

Brown, J. and Duguid, Paul (2000). “Balancing act: How to capture knowledge without killing it”Harvard Business Review.

Cambridge, D., Kaplan, S. and Suter, V. (2005) Community of Practice Design Guide Louisville  CO: EDUCAUSE

Knox, J. (2004) Digital culture clash: “massive” education in the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press

Wenger, E. (2014) Communities of practice: a brief introduction, accessed 26 September, 2014

Wenger, E, McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice (Hardcover). Harvard Business Press; 1 edition.

 

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

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I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.

Background

I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.

Challenges

From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.

Conclusions

Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.