New MOOC on the Power of Self-Directed Learning

I’m excited to announce the next MOOC that I will be hosting called Adventures in Self-Blended (and Self-Directed) Learning starting on August 15. All are welcome to sign up now through the end of the course. For those who are used to Coursera and EdX MOOCs, you may not know what to expect. My work tends to be, well, unconventional. I have every intention of making this MOOC a wonderfully enriching, quirky and unconventional learning experience. I tend to approach MOOCs less as courses and more like experiences that leverages the power of life in a connected world; and I am committed to making this a MOOC that helps celebrate and spark greater interest in the power of curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning. If any of these interest you, I welcome you to sign up and help make this an experiences that amplifies the promise and possibility of self-directed learning in a digital age. While I am the course host, I aspire for this to be a course that leverages the wisdom and creativity of the community.

If you’ve participated in one of my past MOOCs (Learning Beyond Letter Grades, CheatMOOC, or Adventures in Blended Learning), you have some sense of what to expect; but I have a few new twists in mind as well. Yes, there will probably be some use of digital badges. We will leverage the power of crowd-sourced knowledge generation. There will be some suggested resources and live events with inspirational figures in the self-directed learning world. There will be challenges and resources to help you think about how to apply these ideas in your own life and learning communities. There will also be opportunity to connect and collaborate with others around the world.

What is self-blended learning? Some use it as a synonym for what they refer to as the a la carte form of blended learning where students select between face-to-face and online courses amid a larger course of study. I have been using the term differently. I am looking less at a course level, and more at the micro level. I use the phrase to represent students (or just people) taking the initiative to self-blend their learning.

This can include:

  • unschooling,
  • people in traditional schools who enhance/augment/supplement their otherwise traditional face-to-face learning by taking advantage of life in an increasingly connected world,
  • people building rich and rewarding learning experiences by mixing and matching resources, activities and communities online and offline,
  • learning in formal and informal contexts,
  • and pretty much any learning that taps into aspects of heutagogy and/or self-directed learning…usually by blending digital and physical resources.

I’m still working on the course design, and I will likely be doing so until the official start of the class. Well, that isn’t completely accurate because I treat MOOCs as dynamic communities, which means that the course will be in flux even as it is running as I and other co-learners contribute new ideas, activities, resources, and experiences.

I probably should have led with the compelling why, but in this case I’ll finish with it. Why a MOOC on self-blended learning? It is because I believe that curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning are some of the most critical issues for our age. They are more important than testing, national standards, integrating technology, learning analytics and many other aspects of the contemporary education landscape. We read research showing that non-cognitive skills or signature strengths have a huge impact on lives of people. If we can help people discover how to own and shape their learning throughout life, then we have finally lived up to that age-old cliché about teaching a man to fish versus giving him one. The why behind this MOOC is nothing short of striving to draw as much attention as possible to the power and possibility of nurturing a generation of curious, courageous self-directed learners.

5 Examples of Self-Blended Learning

Self-Blended LearningWe read a great deal about blended learning, but I remain amazed and excited about growing examples of self-blended learning. The Innosight Institute describes self-blended learning as instances where, “students choose to take one or more courses entirely online to supplement their traditional courses and the teacher-of-record is the online teacher.”  According to this use of self-blending, it is largely focused upon individual students taking some courses online and others face-to-face.  However, many today describe blended learning as instances where students learning within an individual course includes a blend of digital and face-to-face learning experiences.  With this notion of blended learning in mind, it seems to me that self-blending refers to courses in which individual students or groups of students take the initiative to add or supplement learning experiences in a course with digital and/or face-to-face learning activities.  Here are five examples:

1) Online Learning with Group-Based, Student-Generated, Face-to-face Supplements – Two or more students take an online course together, but meet in person to study, discuss the class, or work on projects for the online class.  This is not unheard of in graduate education programs, where two or more teachers from a school take an online course together. They might meet weekly to help each other with the coursework.  They may also help one another apply what they are learning to their work environments.

2) Face-to-Face Learning with Group-Based, Student-Generated, Online Supplements – Students take a face-to-face class together, and they decide to leverage digital tools to collaborate during and beyond the regular class time.  They might choose to take shared notes using a tool like Google Docs.  They might text back and forth during and after class about course topics.  Or, they might gather in an online chat room or Google Hangout to study for a test.

3) Student-Selected Mixing or Blending of an Online Course and a Face-to-Face Course – A student takes a face-to-face course and participates simultaneously in a separate open or traditional online course with related content.  A single course or learning experience works for many students, but others want the opportunity to compare concepts across different classes.  These are often classes from completely different schools, and the student leverages work from one class to aid in the other.  For some academics, this is verging on self-plagiarism.  From another perspective, the student is creating a personalized, self-blended learning experience that is not limited to the plans and agenda of a single instructor or institution.

4. Face-to-Face Course with Individual Student-Generated Digital Expressions and Reflections – A student in a face-to-face class might create digital study aids to aid with reviewing content, reflecting upon class concepts or preparing for an exam.  One example that I see quite often is the face-o-face student who chooses to blog or comment in a social network about the course learning experiences.  At times, this might involve venting about class frustrations. In other instances, it can turn into deep and substantive musings about the course content, comparing it to life beyond the class, contrasting it with diverse disciplines and ideas, or adding personal commentary to topics discussed in the class.  This also shows up in other creative expressions like the creation and sharing of infographics, YouTube videos, Tweets about learning experiences, mind map study aids, digital stories, etc.  Note that these are not assignments for the class, but rather student-initiated resources, musings and experiments.

5. Online Course with Individual Student-Generated Face-to-Face Reflections, Extensions, and Experiences – Individual students in an online  course discuss what they are learning with family members, friends, and colleagues; sometimes using the course content analyze problems or needs in the physical world.  As with each example, I’m describing situations where the learners do this on their own, not because the instructor suggested or required as part of the class.  The online learning simply and seemingly naturally flows into the face-to-face interactions and activities of the learner.  In some cases, what the students learn in class prompts them to informally interview someone, go on a self-generated field trip, or invite people to gather for lunch or coffee to discuss a topic that captured their interest during the class.

All of these examples invite us to consider the power of self-directed learners who take the initiative, becoming co-designers of the learning environment. They are not passive participants of an instructor-controlled context, but are active creators that connect and extend their learning beyond the domain of the instructor.  Isn’t this ultimately what we hope for learners, that they will grow as courageous, connected, creative, collaborative, self-directed, and self-blending learners?

Beyond Blended Teaching to Self-blended Learning

Blended learning is a hot topic today, as is self-directed learning and customized learning.  Put them all together and you get a self-blended model like this.  It is a laudable effort with good potential.  This idea of the self-blend is a powerful concept and I would like to expand it beyond just this one approach.  In order to do so, let me suggest a few thoughts and questions.

Before we talk further about self-blended learning, consider this short explanation of blended learning. “Blended learning is the thoughtful fusion of face-to-face and online learning experiences” – Garrison & Vaughan in Blended Learning in Higher Education. Or, we can look at the good work coming out of the Innosight Institute.  They name two characteristics that distinguish blended learning from other types of learning strategies. The first is that the student is spending at least a portion of the time in a “supervised brick-and-mortar location.” The second is that, “students experienced online delivery with some control over the time, place, path, and/or pace.”  You can read this and more at the Innosight Institute web site.  By the way, if you want an excellent introduction into blended learning, be sure to also read their three white papers on blended learning.

In most references to self-blending, people stop at the idea of students mixing and matching online and face-to-face courses.  They are blending different types of courses to meet their needs on a program level.  This would be like the college student who takes some classes on campus, some classes at an off-campus site, and yet other online courses. The have essentially created a self-blended program.  It is an important concept, one that many higher education institutions are wise to consider, because most college students today will do it with or without the help of their University.  I’m talking about the thousands of students who take far less expensive online community and technical college courses and then transfer them into their liberal arts college.  More and more schools are finding their students getting portions of their general education credits through this type of blend.  For those institutions, they have a few choices.

  1. Be more restrictive on what credits students can transfer.
  2. Allow it.
  3. Join the game and offer some high quality online options of their own, ones that align more closely with their overall general education outcomes. Of course, this doesn’t address the cost differential that so often informs student’s decision to self-blend across institutions, especially when we consider potentially disruptive innovations like Straighterline.

These are important decision for higher education institutions today, and it requires an understanding of this type of self-blending.  And yet, there are other types of self-blending that are worthy of our attention as well.  Allow me to start the conversation about them with a few questions.

Most of the literature that I have reviewed on blended learning looks at it from the teacher, school or instructional design perspective.  However, I recently read an excellent post (with an accompanying video interview) by Howard Rheingold called, “Assessment: Turning a Blunt Instrument into a Powerful Learning Tool.”  It is a thought-provoking article that invites us to consider what would happen if we put assessment  into the hands of the learners.  In the same spirit, let me ask a similar question about blended learning.  Blended learning is a powerful and promising strategy, but what happens when we flip the blended learning model and think of it from the self-directed learning and the student-centered learning perspective?  What happens when students choose what and how to blend? 

Here are a few questions to get us thinking about other forms of self-blending.

  1. What does it look like for a student-initiated flipped classroom, where each learner or groups of learners begin to create the video content that others use as a learning resource, regardless of whether or not the instructor is involved with it?
  2. What does it look like when students choose when and how to prime or extend face-to-face classroom activities through online social interactions?  Again, consider when and how this is initiated by the learners and not an instructor.
  3. What does it look like when a course is designed in a way that each learner can choose to attend sessions in person, choose to attend using a variety of synchronous tools, or chose to take part using asynchronous tools after watching a recording of the sessions? What if the student chooses how to blend these as he or she sees fit?
  4. What if you place the rotation model described here into the hands of each learner and groups of learners?

It seems to me that this is the power of things like self-organized learning environments described by Sugata Mitra.

What are your thoughts and experiences with these sorts of self-blends?