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Experimenting with learning spaces #etmooc


Flat world for a Minecraft design challenge

I’m planning to lead a couple of different learning opportunities online in my school district and planning for them makes me think about the flexibility of virtual spaces to meet the needs of learners.

The first thing I’ve got in the hopper is a professional learning course for teachers about using iPads for “monitoring.” This four-session course will meet an expressed need in my school district since a few schools opted to purchase iPads for their teachers to aid them in their efforts to conduct formative assessment of student learning. Administrators, too, want help using the iPad to keep notes during classroom observations and to provide feedback to their teachers based on the observations. I’m planning to lead the course online, so participants can join us in the live webinar in Adobe Connect, or watch the recorded session, where they  can watch a recording that includes the interaction of the live group. Whether teachers join our sessions live or asynchronously, the images, video, sound or typed discussion that result from each of the four sessions will land in a Schoology course. Since, professional learning opportunities offered through webinars are still an emerging practice in my school district, so experimenting with these learning spaces, I hope to create some a (rough draft) model for a responsive, accessible form of professional learning. Ideal models? Maybe not. Responsive and accessible models…I hope.

Another learning opportunity I’m planning is our district’s yearly Girl’s Tech Camp. Here, we partner with a technology company to plan a 1-day event where we bring together sixth grade girls from all across our district to raise their awareness of and interest in technology as a course of study and career path. On this day, I’ll lead a Minecraft design challenge. The girls will watch a 3-4 minute tutorial video about how to build a cabin in Minecraft before they log in to our server and build houses in the sandbox game. They’ll construct their houses quickly, then revise and improve their designs during the remainder of the time we’ve allotted.  Because our students, especially girls from low income communities, have to see themselves as creators and designers who can use digital tools to draft, collaborate, and make, this learning opportunity has to inspire and engage. The virtual space for this work is a Minecraft server I’ve created in collaboration with my director and my seven-year-old daughter. We’ve got a flat world with designated plots for building. To make sure the space was inviting and also felt educational, we built a school and library. My daughter is building a house in one of the construction plots to serve as an example of what the girls might do. Right now, virtual spaces for learning in my school district are found in course management systems or Google Apps. By experimenting with Minecraft as a learning space, I hope to help generate some thinking about how virtual spaces can promote engagement, collaboration, design, and innovation.

The common thread in the planning I’m doing for the Minecraft build and the iPad monitoring course, is that in both cases I hope to foster some thinking about the kinds of change that technology makes possible for all the learners in a large school system.


Learning to vlog in #etmooc

Unexpectedly, much of my participation in #etmooc has come in the form of a vlog. At the invitation of Ben Wilkoff, I joined the Reflective Vlogging community on Google +, where I cross-post the videos that land in my untended garden of a YouTube Channel.

I accepted Ben’s invitation in part because I understood his reaching out as an example of the real promise of a cMOOC. In a course this massive, some of the best learning opportunities, I believe, will come not in the form of assignments from the facilitators but in the form of invitations from participants. Giving reflective vlogging a go is my way of also giving Connectivism a go.

I had another reason for accepting. A few years ago I watched a YouTube video by Michael Wesch, An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube. While I recommend the entire video, which is a recording of Wesch’s presentation to the Library of Congress in 2008, I found this short clip intriguing. It made me wonder about what Wesch’s students learned by putting themselves “out there” on YouTube. What had they gained? What had they risked?

So now I’m vlogging. And learning to vlog. And falling behind in my vlogging. And making commitments to vlog more.

Today, feeling inspired to film another in my burgeoning series I toured my neighborhood to do some location scouting. When I recorded several takes of  something I wanted to articulate, I reflected how my process is changing. I began vlogging with the intention to create rough, no-frills reflections. In spite of my determination to just speak into the camera for a few minutes each week and push “publish,” without concern for rough edges or flaws, I find myself learning and improving as a matter of process.

Here are some things I’m noticing.

1. I usually write down a few key points before I get started. If I don’t, I do four or five takes before I realize I need to get my thoughts straight or I’ll never be remotely happy with the result. Then I write down key points.

2. Though I’ve given myself permission to not labor over about the production quality of my videos (because I’d still be recording and editing my first vid if I did), I make incremental efforts to improve the quality each time. I’ve switched from using my webcam and not editing at all to using my video camera and doing quick edits in iMovie before posting.

3. I watch other vlogs, most recently zefrank1’s ashow and think about how I might tweak my approach.

4. Since I’ve never worked much with video, I’ve reached out to a friend who I know has some experience. He’s agreed to have me over while he’s working on some videos he’s putting together for work he’s doing with teachers in my district. I’m planning to bring a list of things I want to try, then make him teach me. While I could surely learn everything I will ask him by searching online, I’m looking forward to the face to face tutoring session.

As I was typing this blog, I clicked over to YouTube and saw this video waiting for me. I’ll watch it soon. Likely, the suggestions of a helpful stranger will inform my reflective vlogging practice later this week…


Course comparison: f2f vs #etmooc

I read a friend’s blog today in which she offered her concerns about MOOCs, and posed some pointed questions about the capacity of a massive course to be responsive to learners. I have only had experience with cMOOCs, and I’m an unabashed supporter and fan, so I want to respond. One of the reasons I have such optimism about MOOCs comes from the comparison I regularly make between my experience in brick and mortar higher ed education classes and the learning opportunities in cMOOCs.

Since I’m currently enrolled in the Educational Technology MOOC, or #etmooc, and I’m also enrolled in a graduate class at a local university, entitled Literacy Professional Development, I thought I’d do a little three point comparison. After all, I would never argue that MOOCs are perfect learning opportunities, but I would argue that learning experiences in a MOOC are often richer than those available through traditional modes at the local university. Generally speaking, the MOOC provides a more responsive dynamic learning opportunity than the course I pay tuition for. Here’s the comparison-

Access to quality content

In my graduate course, I’m required to read the fourth edition of a text that offers a general overview of approaches to instructional coaching and a history of literacy coaching. Since I’ve worked as a literacy coach and in my current role I facilitate the professional learning of a team of instructional coaches, I have great interest in reading about the topic of coaching. However, the cost of the book I’m required to read far exceeds the cost of any of the six books I’ve purchased and read for my own professional learning about coaching and is not nearly as supportive because of its general treatment of the topic. Each week, I read what is required before completing and handing in a completed graphic organizer, responding to my professor’s reflection questions. This text and the corresponding weekly assignment is just one example of the rigid, questionable and expensive content my face to face course provides.

By comparison, etmooc also holds great interest for me, since I work in the educational technology department of a large, urban school district. Unlike the course I pay tuition for, this course offers a variety of high quality resources all for free. In the last week, I attended a web session hosted by Howard Rheingold from Stanford University, where he discussed attention literacy and crap detection. Incidentally, despite the massiveness of the course and the crowded web session, he took my question about backchannels and spoke for a couple of minutes on the topic. I also heard from Doug Belshaw from Mozilla, who shared his work on digital literacy and referenced Mozilla’s Web Literacy white paper. He also invited participants in #etmooc to join in Mozilla’s effort to establish a web literacy standard, posting the link to a follow-up online meeting where we could meet to participate. The daily reading in the MOOC is aggregated on the blog hub, where university instructors and learners of all stripes post as co-learners inviting and responding to comments about their own thinking.


My face to face course this week requires that I answer two discussion prompts posted by the instructor before responding to the answers of two of my classmates. I’m responding this week to three different readings about the history of reading research and policy in America. When I read the responses of my classmates I see a range of background knowledge on reading research but no range in interest in the topic (everyone is  writing the minimum requirement of posts and all posts are of roughly the same length). At the time of this writing, the post I wrote a few hours ago has received no comments.

As for the reading notes I turn in each week, on the only paper returned to me so far my instructor put a + sign at the top of the page indicating that I would get participation credit for the submission. She also circled one of the claims I made on my paper and wrote:


In the massive #etmooc, my posts to the community on Google + receive instant comments. My colearners write extensively and creatively in response to ideas that captivate them in the MOOC. I participated in a threaded discussion weeks ago with 3 teachers, a professor from Northwestern and one of the organizers of the MOOC. My blog has received 15 comments on the blog itself and many more in Google +. Each vlog post I create receives comment from Benjamin Wilkoff, a participant who invited me to begin vlogging with him after he watched my video intro to the course (no masterpiece, that). I also heard from Alec Couros, who congratulated me on my response to Rheingold’s presentation, writing:

Thanks very much for this, Joe. This is well articulated and fits really well with how I see the role of many learners in #etmooc. We’ve seen the community allow for, create, and share far more knowledge, tools, and information than anyone can possibly take in. Attention is key.

And thanks for the vlog format – I am hoping to see others take these on as well. I always feel closer to people when I see and hear them speak.

Couros is the lead facilitator of this course which, at the time of this writing, had 2303 blog posts submitted to the blog hub, the same place where I turned in my humble vlog.


In my Literacy Professional Development course, I chose a partner with whom I will exchange philosophy papers. She’ll read my 15 page draft tonight and I hers. We’ll email each other comments and copy the professor so she can verify that everyone is following through on this commitment. I have another partner in the course who is my “coaching partner.” On several occasions, we’ll watch five minute clips of one another’s instruction in order to provide feedback. This will allow us practice with the coaching strategies we encounter in the assigned reading. We are often grouped by the grade levels we teach for short discussions, the longest of which so far has been about 10 minutes.

In #etmooc, I have been invited by Couros to participate in a crowd-sourced lip dub, something that intrigued me, though I didn’t follow through. In Rheingold’s session, he offered up the mic on the webinar and implored everyone in the session to jump in saying, “Go ahead. It takes a little courage but I know you have questions.” More important, I mentioned above that I was invited to participate in Benjamin Wilkoff’s vlog channel. He’s also invited me to participate in a weekly vlogging experiment patterned after the Fellowship of the Ning. Though neither of us is required to work together, we regularly provide feedback to one another’s videos, sometimes responding with video.

While this comparison could go on and on, I think it illustrates how a self-directed learner might have a superior learning experience in the MOOC, while a face-to-face course, bound by tradition, can discourage self-direction, exploration and creativity.

Re-entering #etmooc and re-orienting

Absent a while from #etmooc, I jumped back in yesterday with no apology for missing class. I took note of Rhoni McFarlane’s posting about her own absence. McFarlane explains in a blog post how she missed the digital storytelling topic in #etmooc. In her two week absence, email notifications piled up to remind her that the mooc rolls on. Posting yesterday, she indicated that she’s trying to catch up. In her post, I found room for hope about this type of open learning.

In another type of course, falling behind means having to apologize to the teacher and make strategic decisions about how to manage an increased workload. In the mooc, falling behind is either a natural state or a misnomer. Everyone’s behind.

My guess is that the most MOOCed-out, wired-in, connected learner will never “catch up.” This distributed content is so slippery and elusive. In the time it takes me to write this post I’ll miss Tweets, blog posts and articles curated in Diigo and ScoopIt.  Looking back is a dangerous proposition because the conveyor belt of learning opportunities continues to churn with more offerings.

I’m not sure what it will take Rhoni to feel caught up. For me, I’ve opted to set a few goals to re-engage. Some content I’ve missed will resurface in the streams I watch. Other content won’t. I caught Doug Belshaw’s session on Digital Literacy, and hope to make Howard Rheingold’s upcoming session on Literacies of Attention and crap detection. I hope to get back to Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning session. In fairness to myself, that might happen this summer.

Thankfully, the digital footprint of this course means the end date might also be a misnomer.

Right now, my desire to join, participate, and respond in these sessions far exceeds my capacity to make time. A crucial web literacy for me in this moment is both my ability to find these opportunities and know how to access them when I do find time. A second literacy that seems important is what Deborah Seed demonstrated when she responded to Rhoni’s post. Welcoming her back to the mooc, she wrote

Deborah reassures a co-learner and shares her approach to reorienting in a massive course. More vital in this networked course than getting back to Cormier’s session, is doing what Deborah does: participate and respond to participants in the moment. An archived web session is one type of content we can learn from in #etmooc, the opportunity to participate by jumping in right now and responding to others is a different, newer type of content.

In the threaded discourse, I see great hope for a shift in learning culture online, away from instructors as authority and learners as recipients. Open, massive models situate instructors as organizers and content experts, and learners as engaged participants, content-creators and collaborators.

A role for networked learners in #etmooc: Translator

In a newly released report, Connected Learning: and agenda for research and design, researchers from MacArthur Foundations DML Research Hub write,  “There are roles and supports for teachers, mentors, and outside experts to act as translators and connection-builders for learners across domains and contexts.” (pg 78)

During a recent Connected Learning webinar, Mimi Ito, one of the contributing researchers described some of the ways adults can play the role of translators, explaining how we can help children make sense of the learning opportunities online.

The concept of working as a translator stuck with me. I chopped this short clip out of the hour-long session because I appreciate the personal nature of the examples Ito gives.

Ito explains how adults have to change from monitoring screen time to supporting children developing filtering and crap detection skills. Her comments indicate that the navigation skills participants in this cMOOC are practicing and developing are essential fluencies for this generation’s parents.

I feel a sense of urgency to grow my capacity to act as a translator for my own children, students in my district, and the adult learners I work with in my school district. That same urgency likely brought me to this MOOC and contributes to my sense of falling behind in it.

Translating takes different shapes in the media and texts about learning online.

In Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education, Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli act as translators for budding networked learners when they offer a tip about Twitter.

Here’s an important reality: few if any Twitter users actually read all the tweets from those they follow. Most just check in from time to time to see what’s coming through the flow at any given moment.

This supportive information is exactly the type of help educators need to work in networked ways online. Also, Mancabelli and Richardson’s tip offers important permission, to let go of the web content you can’t get to.

On his YouTube Channel where he comments about learning and #etmooc, Benjamin Wilkoff acts as a translator, too, modelling for all who tune in the power of vlogging, the importance of reflective practice, and the participatory nature of learning online. His videos encourage me to turn on my web cam and speak. I look forward to the long hours of practice I’ll need to develop both the speaking skills and video capability Wilkoff demonstrates every day.

Learning on the fly as I am in this #etmooc, I often find that I’m translating a language I’m just learning. When I’m done translating, I hope that I’ve helped share the power and possibility of digital tools and online learning.

No Dropouts, Just Learners #etmooc

I tagged this question from the #etmooc twitter stream over a week ago and it has been nagging me to respond ever since. Through all of the reading I’ve done about moocs int he last two years, which has been just enough to make me dangerously loaded with opinions, I still like Dave Cormier’s YouTube video for my working definition.

Cormier says at the end that “only you can tell, in the end,  if you’ve been successful…just like real life.”

While Cormier’s words might not apply to other types of MOOCs,  in a connectivist MOOC like #etmooc, I hope the resounding answer to Jenny Ankenbauer’s question is that only she can categorize her course experience.

Audrey Waters, in her blog for Hack Education, posed the question, “How do we know if students are learning – even those who complete the courses?”

Loaded dangerously with opinions as I am, and having lurked, participated, flourished and fizzled in MOOCs, I think a great question to ask yourself about your learning in a MOOC is:

What stuck?

The #change11 mooc was a 35-week marathon offering and if memory serves, the home page explained to participants that practically no one would participate actively in all 35 weeks. For my part, I arrived late then drifted in and out, but the learning I did in the course was as meaningful as any I’d done in my graduate program at a local university. One week in particular that stuck for me featured Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge, presenting on complexity and the Cynefin framework.  I’ve since discussed his framework with different people in my learning network and recently reread A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, which I find helpful in my work. The learning I’ve done about complexity and Snowden’s framework is an example of the rhizomatic  nature of learning, which was an idea I was exposed to in #change11.

To  return to Water’s concern about how we know, I’m not certain that it is important that we know what people are learning in MOOCs, especially if we have to use any measure besides asking them.

Since a traditional university couldn’t have managed the openness or the complexity of that MOOC and certainly would have no use or category for my late arriving, here-one-week-gone-the-next approach to the course, I don’t think that the categorizations from traditional institutions ought to apply to MOOCs.

Just as  the number of inactive Twitter accounts doesn’t diminish the power of Twitter for joining conversations or expanding a PLN, MOOC dropout statistics don’t paint a picture of the amplified learning opportunities in a MOOC, even for participants who come and go.

More important than deciding if you’re a dropout or a finisher, is knowing if you’re contributing to or benefiting from a connectivist MOOC. On the “How this course works” page of #change11, Downes, Cormier and Siemens paint the picture of a MOOC in full swing.

When a connectivist course is working really well, we see this great cycle of content and creativity begin to feed on itself, people in the course reading, collecting, creating and sharing. It’s a wonderful experience you won’t want to stop when the course is done.

And – because you can share anywhere – you won’t have to. This course can last as long as you want it to.

To which I’ll add, if the course can last as long as a participant wants it to, we should reflect on the need to identify dropouts when we can be making connections.

Advice (to myself) on working in the #etmooc

In “Is that a question I see before me?” Stacey Kerr explains that she holds a question in mind when she sits down to read through the content of the MOOC. She arrived at this helpful strategy by taking the advice of another participant, Jeff Merrell.

Kerr’s post, and her relief at receiving some helpful guidance from a connection in the course, reminded me of a request for help posted in an open course I helped with on last summer.

Our course, decidedly not massive ( 30 registered participants), had a group of facilitators anxious to dig in as learners when the course started. One participant, a relative newcomer to open format (aren’t we all), posted for help when 4 or 5 facilitators jumped on the start of the course armed with their ideas, their keyboards and, presumably, a great deal of caffeine. In the first few hours of the first day, the text of the course became massive. Our newcomer felt buried. He sent a group message to the facilitators on the second day of the course, saying the experience was overwhelming and “too free.”

I’ve excerpted from the message I sent him in the hopes of helping him and keeping him in the course. Digging through my sent file reminded me of my own approach to learning in a course with so much content. The advice I gave then I’ll follow now myself starting this new course.

Don’t despair! While it is definitely up to you to decide if this medium is too free for you, I think there are some strategies you can apply to make things feel more manageable.

You might try setting some goals before you log in. How long will you read? How many posts will you respond to? Do you want to do some extended writing or ask questions of participants? Perhaps by choosing a direction each time you log in at first, you will feel a little more comfortable. Thanks for reaching out for help. Keep letting us know what you think.