10 reflections on the SPOC vs MOOC conversation – Is Harvard moving out of the 1990s?

In the past two weeks, I’ve read countless articles about how Harvard is moving to the “post-MOOC era.” These same articles describe their gradually shifting attention from MOOCs to SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses).  Of course, those of us in the field of online learning know that small private online courses have been around for decades, and we have a solid body of research and literature about what they call SPOCs and the rest of us just call online courses.  Until a couple of years ago, with the media fascination about MOOCs, almost everything that we did in online learning was about small, private, online courses.  That is why it baffles me when the authors of these newest articles write about SPOCs as if they are some innovation.  At this point, I offer ten simple observations and reflections.

1. Many of the MOOC providers have mostly limited their massive online course experiments to xMOOCs, with few to no examples of cMOOC experiments. Many xMOOCs are stuck in some of the early 1990s versions of online learning that sought to build online courses which replicate face-to-face instruction, especially relying upon instructor-driven learning and video lectures. They are the digital equivalent of large lecture classes. As a result, they have rarely sought to leverage the power of a massive group of online learners to experience and leverage collective and networked knowledge.

2. There have been some interesting experiments with peer feedback in a few of the xMOOCs, but that sort of crowd-sourced assessment is one of the few real innovations that leveraged the distinct affordances of a large open group of online learners.

3. SPOCs are not new.  They are the norm in online learning.  Attend any online learning conference from the past 20 years and you see them dominated by conversations about the design and facilitation of high-impact small, private, online learning communities.

4. Most online learning scholars have moved beyond conversations that focus upon comparing face-to-face and online learning.  The informed student/scholar knows that there are thousands of different types of online learning environments and thousands of types of face-to-face learning environments. Online learning is not one thing any more than face-to-face learning is all the same.  The course design, the learners, the instructors and facilitators, and the media all contribute to a unique profile for every learning experience, face-to-face or online.  This is why one specific model is not the answer for all times, places, and needs.

5. Class size is one of these many factors.  There are certain affordances to having a class of 15 and certain limitations.  The same is true for classes of 10,000.  One is not right and the other wrong.  It is all about experimenting with class size, course design and instructional possibilities to get a mix that works for a given set of goals.

6. I’ve taken several MOOCs where I’ve built ongoing professional and academic relationships with dozens of people.  I’ve never taken a face to face course that allowed me to build that many personal connections with such a diverse and geographically diverse population.  I state this to point out that making a course “personal” is about more than the size of the class. Peer-to-peer interaction can be vibrant and intimate in massive online courses. Some MOOCs are more personal than some SPOCs.  Some SPOCs are more personal than other SPOCs and MOOCs.

7. It makes sense to me that some at elite schools would push for SPOCs.  They fit perfectly with the values of exclusivity and high achievement by limiting access to those who are already high achievers.

8. From the early days of distance learning, leading scholars wrote about being inspired by the vision of increased access and opportunity, empowering a type of learning that is possible while remaining in one’s community and current context.  The question for me is not MOOC or SPOC, it is about what will best accomplish our goals of increased access, opportunity and empowerment.

9. The size of a MOOC gained the attention of most, but I contend that we can benefit from more attention to the “open” part of the online course, whether we are talking about MOOCs or SPOCs. Of course the “P” in SPOC stands for private, which strikes me as the opposite of an open course.  A course that is built upon openness is a newer part of the online learning conversation.  As I see it, that is the true innovation in the xMOOCs and cMOOCs. We are seeing an increase in entire learning environments/experiences that are open and available to anyone, clearly separating the learning from the formal trappings of the traditional University like grades, credits, and degrees. I would like to see broad conversations about the significance of open learning, a phrase that goes back over forty years.

10. While the media may give precedent to whatever élite schools are doing with online learning, these are not the leaders in online learning, nor do they consist of the dominant influence in online learning.  At that same time, it is hard to deny that these recent experiments with MOOCs from selective Universities have helped to promote important conversations about the benefits and limits of online learning.  In the end, despite my critiques, what is happening in the media is helping to increase broader acceptance and reflection about the ongoing role of online learning.




Is your school a schooling community or a learning, thinking, and doing community?

Have you seen the video by Jacob Barnett at the TEDxTeen Event?  The video has been online for over a year, with close to two million views on YouTube so far. If you have not seen it, I encourage you to take twenty minutes and watch it.

I first watched the video a little less than a year ago, but one idea from it continues to occupy my thoughts.  Throughout his presentation, Jacob makes the case that great things happen for people when they stop learning and start thinking.  Educationists who watch the video might get trapped by critiquing his word choice, arguing that thinking is a form of learning, but that misses the spirit of the message.  By “learning”, Jacob is referring to schooling and the formal trappings of learning in schools and more formal settings.  He contrasts that with times when we just think and explore a question or curiosity. As an example, Jacob describes Isaac Newton, when Cambridge University closed due to the plague. According to Jacob, this was critical for Newton, because it forced him to “stop learning and start thinking.” It was during this time that several of Newtons discoveries took place.

I often think about Jacob’s comments when I”m walking through the hallway of a school.  I hear students talk more about schooling than they do about ideas.  They talk about how much homework they have, the need to prepare for the next test, anxieties about school, what grades they did or didn’t earn, what they do or don’t like about a given teacher, about meeting to study with one another, about what courses they are taking or want to take in the future, about their class schedules.  And these are the conversations that I hear in the “good schools.” Notice that all of these conversations about are schooling, not about learning or thinking about ideas, problems and possibilities. It is with this in mind that many critique modern schooling as teaching about schooling as much or more than about content, ideas, and possibilities.

In these sorts of schools, when students are not talking about schooling, they are usually talking with each other about life outside of school: family, friends, relationships, gossip, sports, entertainment, and other out-of-school activities. These are the conversations where I see student interest ignited and they begin to use their mind in creative ways as they imagine, collaborate, solve problems, give one another advice, support, encourage, tell and listen to jokes, argue, experiment, and think. As I think about it, these are rich, important and authentic thinking experiences. Students learn a great deal from such times, even though they happen amid or outside the planned structure of a schooling experience. Lunch periods are just long enough to get through the line and eat your food. Time between classes is just enough to get your materials and move from one class to the next. These happen despite school, not because of it.  It is simply the fact that school brings them to a common place that makes these sorts of interactions possible, something that could just as easily happen through any number of community hangouts or events.

At the same time, I’m honored to visit many schools, and it is a delight to visit some where the conversations among students are about what they are exploring, learning, and doing. This is not about grades and homework.  It is about ideas.  They talk about dreams and aspirations, questions that interest them, how to address needs in their own lives, their friends lives, the community and the world. They collaborate and discuss issues and creative projects.  They are not just a schooling community.  They are a thinking, learning and doing community. The ethos of these schools is qualitatively different, places where the participants/learners value ideas and the intellectual life. They value creating, solving problems, and life in the present.  While they have dreams and aspirations about the future, they also embrace the current moment as meaningful, not just as a preparation period for some preferred future condition. For them, school is not purgatory.

It is encouraging and inspiring to see such learning communities in the physical and online world. This leads to an important question. How do we encourage and facilitate the formation of schools as learning, thinking and doing communities…not simply schooling communities? There are many answers to that question, but I’ll offer 11 suggestions.

1. Revisit or downplay the role of grades as motivators.  As long as the goal is about getting or avoiding a certain grade, we are not going to make progress toward a genuine thinking and learning community.  It will be about the school trappings of grades and GPAs.

2. Create space and time for free and open conversation and communication.  A tight schedule is the enemy of creativity and collaborative work (unless it is highly structured collaborative work like people on a factory line).

3. Provide room for student choice. Giving learners places in the school day to explore, create, design, imagine and discuss topics of deep personal interest is critical for a thinking community. These things are not necessarily in line with a formal curriculum, but as students explore, they will also discover the need for and value of traditional lessons about reading, writing, calculations, logical thinking, the scientific process, strategic planning, and any number of important skills.

4. Create room and opportunities to experience novelty. A great way to provoke creative thought is to put ourselves in a place that is new, one where we don’t have an existing vocabulary to describe or analyze it.  Then we are less likely to fall back on lifelong habits and routines.  It challenges us to think, analyze, and create.

5. Get out of the classroom. Move learning into the community, hallways, libraries, the front yard or somewhere else.  These places do not conjure the same thoughts about homework, grades, hall passes, and raising your hand to speak. They offer a chance to reconsider how we think and interact with each other.

6. Consider a 1:1 program.  Giving a web-enabled device to every learner instantly connects everyone with a massive body of knowledge, an immense number of people with whom to collaborate and network, and a powerful tool for creation and reflection. It also frees the teacher to imagine learning experiences that are not focused upon controlling students but about challenging them to think, learn, and do.

7. Teach with questions, especially questions that start with what if, why and how.  Encourage students to ask and seek answers to these questions as well.

8. Give students a chance to learn through projects, as least some of the time.  Projects have a way of drawing us in, especially projects prompted by a good driving question.  They are also the things that many of us most remember from our own schooling experiences, and they spark wonderful idea conversations among students, even between students and their family members.

9. Tackle real-world problems together.  This sort of authentic problem-based learning immediately makes school about something bigger than grades, degrees, credits, and transcripts.  It becomes about life, and that motivates us to think, create, and do.

10. Talk about ideas.  Make it a point to model the life of a person who loves to think, learn, and do. What do teachers talk about at lunch, in the hallways, before or after school?  Is it just about schooling things and sports?  Or do they enjoy great idea conversations as well?  Students see this, and it makes a difference.  In fact, why not invite the students into these informal conversations? Those were transformational experiences for me in high school, informal idea conversations with teachers before and after school.

11. From the concluding remarks of Jacob Barnett, don’t just be a student of the field, be the field. In other words, don’t just talk about studying biology.  Invite students to think and act like biologists.  The same going for being a writer, scholar, musician, historian, artist, psychologist, and mathematician. Granted, learners will not be brilliant biologists at first, but this has promise to change the culture as biologists, for example, don’t just learn about biology, they do and think biology.  If our goal is a learning, thinking, and doing community; this sort of disciplinary thinking is a great start.








From learning to thinking

Instead of being a student of that field, be that field.

Impact the World in Your Pajamas – Virtual Volunteerism for Educators

Yes, I’m one of those “I want to make a positive contribution to the world!” people. I say it with excitement and a genuine desire to contribute to projects that have substance, significance and benefit to the lives of others in tangible ways. There is something wonderfully engaging about participating in a high impact community of purpose, possibility, and measurable impact. There is also something rewarding about helping out with the small and simple needs around us.. I interact with enough people in person and online to know that I am far from alone in this.

As we are gifted with such opportunities to serve and volunteer, there are any number of benefits.  With this in mind, there are several organizations that champion the idea of blending service, volunteerism and learning. As one reads and learns about the unschooling movement for example, it is striking to read and hear countless stories about the lessons learned through volunteering. Whether it is working for free at a place where one hopes to learn something new or engaging in a formal volunteer project on the other side of the world, it is clear that these people are having a positive impact on the world (or at least the lives of the people that they serve through their work).

From the National Service Learning Clearinghouse

Through service-learning, young people—from kindergarteners to college students—use what they learn in the classroom to solve real-life problems. They not only learn the practical applications of their studies, they become actively contributing citizens and community members through the service they perform.

Simply stated, service learning is about serving through our learning and learning through our service. I’ve used the many excellent resources at the Service Learning Clearinghouse in the past to explore this idea of service learning with my undergraduate and graduate students.  At the same time, as I continue to learn more about self-directed learning, unschooling, and learning by doing; I also see value in simple service and volunteerism that does not necessarily integrate with a formal school curriculum or larger formal education plan. People just do things that matter to them, the help others, and learn a great deal along the way.

The “make a difference mindset” is especially prevalent among educators that I meet, whether they be University professors, early childhood teachers, or community educators; there is something that drives many of us that goes well beyond a salary. There is a desire to influence in a way that benefits, to guide, empower, support, encourage, create, collaborate, and to teach.

In the digital world, it is possible to get started now, even without walking out the front door of our home. I’m referring to the growing number of virtual volunteer opportunities related to education. I wrote about this in one way before, when I explore the idea of building a Personal Teaching Network, creating or participating in any number of pre-existing opportunities to share your educational gifts, talents and abilities through any number of online activities like teaching open courses, leading Google Hangout book clubs, being a volunteer writing for the growing number of wikis on the web, contributing to blogs, volunteering at online conferences, or making positive contributions in social media.

For those who are looking for more formal virtual volunteer options, I’ve put together a short list of links to get you started.  Check them out and let me know what you think.  Or, if you have others to add, please suggest them via a comment.

All for Good – From the site, “All for Good helps you find and share ways to do good.” If you click on “search opportunities”, you can limit your search to virtual options.  The last I checked there were over 500 such listings. As more educators get involved with these sorts of virtual volunteering efforts, it might also provoke some ideas on how to engage learners in virtual volunteering or even some new forms of virtual service learning.

Tutor Chat Live – This non-profit offers free live online tutoring to disadvantaged students, and they are looking for qualified volunteers.

United Nations Volunteers – This site provides information about virtual volunteer opportunities that seek to meet needs around the world, and they have a dedicated section to “education” volunteer opportunities.

Volunteer Match – Limit your search to “virtual” and there are ample virtual volunteer opportunities in education.

MicroMentor – This one focuses upon providing fee business mentoring online.  If you have an entrepreneurship background this might make for a great virtual volunteer project.

YouGiveGoods.com – This is a site dedicated to helping coordinate and support different types of drives. You can find and existing drive to support or promote, or you can start a new drive. This one might be called a sort of blended volunteerism, as it mixes online advocacy with drives for actual physical items.







6 Steps to Getting out of a Teaching Rut

What is a teaching rut?  I’m sure that people use the phrase in different ways, but in this instance I am using it in reference to a teacher who is stuck doing things the same way over and over. The more we do them that way, the more likely we are to keep doing them, and the less likely we are to consider other options. In that sense, ruts are a type of teaching habit.

With this definition in mind, it seems wise to acknowledge that ruts can be helpful or harmful.  There are many positive habits that one wants to cultivate as a teacher.  At the same time, ruts can be harmful when they prevent us from adapting to change, taking advantage of new and potentially beneficial alternatives, or being willing to consider different approaches and perspectives.

How do we get into ruts? It occurs for any number of reasons.

  1. We find ourselves falling back on how we were taught.
  2. We lean toward methods and approaches that resonate with what we enjoy or how we find success as learners.
  3. We are overwhelmed with life in and/or out of work, and we gravitate toward what is readily available or what requires the least time or emotional investment.
  4. We stay so busy that we are unable to find the time to consider other options.
  5. We convince ourselves that our way is the best (or at least not inferior) to alternatives. We might hide behind the claim that “nothing is new under the sun.” The problem with using that quote to justify our ruts is that it only works if we claim that we already know everything that is “under the sun.”
  6. We do what is easy and manageable.
  7. We feel restrained by policies, procedures, the number of students, the behavior or background of students, and/or internal and external mandates.

How to do we get out of these teaching ruts? I am sure that there are many ways to do so, but I offer these six as discussion starters.

1. Choose to become curious.

Ask questions about what is happening in our teaching and in the lives of our students.  What is working well?  What is not working well? How are students doing in terms of performance, attitudes, and motivation?  Which students are prospering and which ones are struggling? What is the difference between those two groups?  What are others doing to address these types of challenges? A good question can spark curiosity. Once we are curious, then we can find the motivation to learn about our options.  That brings us to the second part.

2. Get informed about new possibilities.

If we don’t know possibilities, then there is a good chance that they will not impact the way that we teach, just as a carpenter who had never heard of an electric saw would not be able to consider the benefits of such a tool for a given task. This means reading, visiting other places, taking advantage of the massive repository of teaching and learning videos that give “real world” examples of other possibilities in action.  We can talk to others and ask them about what they do.  There are hundreds of ways to get informed, but at this point, the important part is to know more about the possibilities.  This step informs most of my own work and research.  I look at something like the letter grade system and and I ask, “Is everyone using these or are there alternatives?” Or, I might ask, “How did people learn before that system was in place?”  Then I start reading, talking, and learning about the alternatives.  We are not adopting the alternatives necessarily, just learning about the possibilities. Even if we stop here, we will find that some of these ideas will pop into our head as we go about our work, giving us additional ways to think about a challenge, opportunity, or experience.

3. Gain experiences with these new possibilities.

Knowledge and insight helps, but they stay in the abstract until we get some first-hand experiences. If we want to learn about project-based learning, for example, why not do more than read about it?  Visit a PBL school, or take a course or attend a workshop that is taught using a PBL model. The same is true for things like blended learning, online learning, adaptive learning software, game-based learning, emerging educational technologies, 1:1 learning, or self-determined learning environments. Reading about it helps, but experience brings it to life, and ignites our imaginations. This experience, while not necessarily critical, is extremely valuable in developing a deep enough understanding that can inform our own practice.

4. Reflect on these experiences.

This can be in a personal journal and/or by discussing it with colleagues and family members. The important part is that we are reflecting on the experience, considering benefits and limitations, thinking about when/how/if it might inform past, present and future situations in our own practice.  This is an important step in internalizing the possibility, avoiding blind rejection or acceptance of it, and making it our own.

5. Experiment with these new possibilities.

At some point, we want to try it out, at least on trial basis.  We can test it with a group of learners.  We might even tell them that we learned about this new possibility and we are wondering if they would be up for experimenting with it and giving some feedback about it.

6. Experiment and explore more.

In many ways, teaching is a craft, one that we hone with practice and feedback.  It is not wise to assume that things will go perfectly the first time around. Many people tell me that they don’t “like” or “believe in” a certain teaching and learning possibility. When I ask why, they often support their position with a bad experience.  The problem is that it is usually just one experience (at the most, a few), and there are any number of variables that contribute to the effectiveness of a learning experience.  Just because it was not a great experience in one instances does not mean that it would not be worth further exploration.  What if everyone quit playing piano after their first lesson because the music didn’t sound good?  Do basketball players quite playing basketball because they take a dozen shots and only a few go in the basket? Or, what if we judged juggling to be bad, impossible or unreasonable because we once tried to juggle six balls and we dropped all the balls? Juggling multiple balls might seems impossible until we see someone else do it well. But how long did it take them to get that good? It likely took more than a few tries.  Learning about new teaching and learning possibilities is similar.  Give it time, experiment, learn more, observe more, practice, get feedback, practice more, talk and reflect more.  In the end, what is likely to happen is that we walk away with new insights, new skills, and an awareness of new possibilities. All of the sudden we discover that we are trying new things and we are no longer stuck in that rut.