Skills, Not “Stuff”: A Case for a New Kind of MOOC

This week in class, we spent a good deal of time going over the ins and outs of various practices used to assess online learning, including Item Response Theory (IRT) and other forms of computer-aided assessment, such as Automated Essay Scoring (AES), and peer grading. While the former two practices don’t relate explicitly to information literacy (at least not in any way that I could generate), problems inherent with the latter speak clearly to and in fact echo some of the problems I perceive with current educational practices: a failure to develop real, practical skills – specifically, the ability to effectively evaluate and communicate information.

Let me back up a little bit, and explain what I mean about the problems with peer grading. While it can be a useful tool, especially with proper training and practice, the argument against peer grading rests mostly on its shortfalls. Specifically, the major problem with peer grading is that oftentimes, it isn’t constructive – it doesn’t always generate the quality feedback necessary to promote growth and learning. As Jonathan Rees said in his case against peer grading, “Learning . . . comes not through the process of grades, but through the process of students reading comments . . . that’s how students find out how to do better next time.”  Rees goes on to explain that without consistent feedback and monitoring, there is no systematic way to help students to grow in their ability to think and construct an argument.  And yet these are vital skills, the capacity not only to learn but to perpetuate learning by communicating with others. I agree with his argument that “teaching these skills is much more important than teaching any particular . . . fact” (Rees, 2013). Although he was talking specifically about reading and writing skills necessary to develop an argument in an historical paper, I think it is fair to say that the underlying basis of these skills –  discernment and communication –  are in fact closely related to information literacy skills. I find it problematic that MOOCs – which by their nature necessitate the use of the web – leave little room for developing these abilities to evaluate and communicate content. Of course, I’m generalizing here – not all MOOCs have such poor feedback systems (check out an example of a better system here, which I’ll explain shortly) and not all learning occurs in MOOCs – it is possible that students can learn these skills elsewhere. Further, peer grading offers an alternative way to learn skills through critical self-reflection. One interesting take on peer grading is the opportunity it provides for students to, in the process of examining the work of others, make comparisons and reflect on their own work. One MOOC provider implemented a system whereby students qualitatively describe the peer work they evaluate, a “mirroring” practice which allows the original author to determine how effectively they communicated their ideas and met their goals (Wiggins, 2014).

As wonderful as self-teaching and learning sounds,  I do think it is important for students to get expert feedback in addition to peer feedback.  It’s difficult to be critical of one’s own work, and unless your peers are particularly skilled in an area, they may or may not know what constitutes good work or how to improve it. Moreover, even if your peers can give you a good “mirror,” a reflection is only as useful as the action you connect with it. This is called reflective practice – it can be powerful, but only if you know how to engage in it. I don’t know that all students necessarily have this level of self-awareness – in Harvardspeak, if they are that “meta” about their learning.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that I’m not sure that MOOCs possess the same capacity to teach information literacy skills that a teacher or professor can. Perhaps the lesson here is that we need to address these things more specifically in K12 education (college and career readiness, anyone?) but as it stands, much of the learning associated with research – and much of the learning done online – is relegated to higher ed. There are xMOOCs, that are about the “stuff”; cMOOCs that are about the people and connections; but where do critical evaluative and communication skills come in? How can we better foster them in online communities?


Information, Innovation, and Participation

Maybe I’ve just been tired this week, but I’m feeling a little bothered and uncertain after several course readings, videos, and activities related to innovation in the context of digital learning environments. The general impression I’m getting is that while innovation is the ideal, we aren’t doing a good job of it.

I’m wondering: what exactly do we mean by innovation? What is its purpose and what is its function? What are our intentions when we innovate, and in what manner should we do it?  Is innovation deserving of the effort we put into making it happen?

Put another way, I wonder: Are we innovating at the expense of educating?

I suspect that the reason innovation is such a hot topic right now has to do with the ever-increasing amount of information available to learners, as well as the growing number of ways in which that information is disseminated, mediated, and interpreted by media users. As Livingston points out here, we live in a time in which societies are constantly mediatizating: negotiating our relationship with technology even as we allow it to mediate (shape, act as a lens to) our experiences. As such, we exist in a sort of in-between state, eager to use new technologies and consume the media it affords us, but hesitant to truly interact with it, uncertain of the potential. We simultaneously reach out and constrain ourselves. This is the complaint of the would-be innovators: we aren’t pushing enough. Progress swirls and eddies as we look backwards to inch forward.

Holland, in interviewing leaders of various universities and other learning institutions, found that innovation was something that was aspired to, yet unrealized by many institutions as they attempted to move into an “uncertain future.” A number of interviewees described the so-called “innovation” of many MOOCs as nothing more than the rediscovery of things already known by educators and researchers of the earlier online learning era. Groom and Lamb similarly lament the lack of innovation inherent in higher education, citing restrictions placed on learners by learning management systems which are rigid, isolating, and falsely constrained – ironically, in their calls for progress, they mourn the passing of earlier versions of web interactions.

My point here isn’t that looking backwards is bad, nor that pushing forward is good – simply that in our attempts to innovate we keep being drawn back in some ways to the past. While this may seem somewhat counterproductive, I really think this past-anchoring may be more valuable than we tend to realize. If we push forward blindly in our attempts to innovate, we risk overlooking the context in which our ideas and practices are situated. Context is powerful – it can make or break a new technology by shaping the ways in which we see and interact with it.

Perhaps instead of pushing for innovation, we should put more emphasis on learning to think critically, connectedly, and contextually – using the information at our disposal to engage problems more fully and fairly. True innovation, I think, would follow.


Information Literacy and Connectivism

I’ve been reading about both deschooling (Illich) and connectivism this week, and I’m fascinated by the ways in which these ideas address the need for information literacy as an essential component of learning in ways that other theories (behaviorism, constructivism) do not.

Let me start with a brief explanation of connectivism: according to Stephen Downes, one of its preeminent proponents, connectivism is “at its heart . . . the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and that therefore learning consists of the ability to construct and transverse those networks” (Downes, 2011). In other words, connectivism is about acknowledging the ways in which information is everywhere, and how it is intertwined with other information. For connectivists, then, learning is about navigating and participating in the systems in which knowledge exists, like a spider working to reinforce and build out its web (except a little less solitary).

So connectivism is definitely about navigating networks, for which information literacy seems like it would be a useful skill, but how, exactly, would it be used?

George Siemens, in explaining connectivism, stresses the fact that information and knowledge are constantly changing, not only in terms of content, but in terms of where they are located and how they are distributed (stored). As knowledge evolves and grows, it is important that learners have “know-how and know-where” to access it, as well as the ability to evaluate the importance of that information and to direct it to the right places to be most effective (information flow). Ultimately, the goal of connectivism is currency – the construction and use of accurate, up-to-date knowledge, in networks, so as to “[amplify] . . . learning, knowledge, and understanding” (Siemens, 2004).

This is information literacy both at its most basic level- locating, evaluating, and effectively using information – as well as in a greater context: the sharing of accurate, relevant information among people and technology so as to promote learning and utility. I think Siemens might go a step further with regards to information flow and to whom the information goes (getting it to the “right” people who need it) but I’m not sure that this is necessarily the purpose of information literacy – I think perhaps the greatest value is for the self, and the satisfaction of knowing one’s information is “good” and rooted. It adds to the foundation of learning by building the confidence of knowing – and knowing how to learn.

Illich, in taking what may be seen as a more radical approach to learning, argues that the best educational systems should do three things: make information and resources more readily accessible to learners, encourage individuals to share information with peers, and allow them to do so broadly. If this sounds like an advertisement for a MOOC, that’s because it kind of is. Illich argues the importance of networks in learning – networks of resources, networks of peers, and networks of “masters” from whom to learn skills. (If you’re interested in learning more about how this might look, check out his work here.) Although Illich doesn’t say so explicitly, embedded in his vision is the necessity that individuals know how to know – that is, if they are going to pave their own path of learning, they need to be able to independently discern what it is they want to learn, locate the correct resources (things, peers, or masters) to learn it, and then be able to evaluate the quality of what it is they have accomplished. once again, a need for information literacy.

While more current educational models (behaviorism, constructivism, cognitive theory) in place in schools today might necessitate the use of information literacy skills in tangential ways (looking up information for a report, etc), they do not acknowledge them as an integral part of the active process of making meaning, like connectivism and a deschooled society do. Information literacy is so relevant today, and I think it’s worth considering in the context of these two ideas – they really highlight why it is so important.

What do you think?


What is information literacy?

Information is everywhere – especially on the internet. Whether you are a student conducting research or an individual casually participating in social media, it is essential to develop the skills to make sense of what it is we are reading, saying, and sharing on the web. Literacy in the information age is not only a matter of reading competency, but of investigative and evaluative competency as well. Beyond simply finding relevant information (a challenge in and of itself), one must also be able to determine whether that information is credible – accurate and truthful – and how best to use or share that information to achieve a desired goal. In short, we need to be able to locate, evaluate, and use information effectively. In this blog, I hope to explore what this means, and in doing so to discover and share ways in which we can become more “information literate.”

According to the American Library Association, information literacy involves

  • knowing when they have a need for information
  • identifying information needed to address a given problem or issue
  • finding needed information and evaluating the information
  • organizing the information
  • using the information effectively to address the problem or issue at hand.

(Read more here).

What would you add (or take away) from this definition?