My friend and neighbor Beth Plale send me a link this article about Anne Balsamo's distributed open collaborative course, or DOCC (pronounced "dock") on Feminism and Technology. Beth is a Professor in the School of Informatics and Computing. Beth studies "big data" and I have learned a lot from her about computing.
I first heard about Balsamo's DOCC from Jenna McWilliams. Jenna is a doctoral student in the IU Learning Sciences program who helped me expand my learning sciences research into social media back in 2007. Jenna teases me about coining the term BOOC (big open online course) for the course on educational assessment that we are offering for up to 500 learners starting this September. But Jenna was quite excited about about the content and the approach of Balsamo's course. We both laughed about this proliferation of acronyms. My favorite is small private online course (SPOC). As Jenna pointed out, this is simply another name for "online course."
Some Serious Innovation in Open Online Coruses
Since I began drafting this post, Balsamo's DOCC has already gotten a lot of press. Mark Guzdial has written about it on the Computer Educator's Blog. Cathy Davidson's blog post at HASTAC pointed out that while some find this "acronymic tendency" humorous, it highlights a much-needed search for innovation in instructional models in open courses (here here!). The title of the September 18 article about the DOCC ("Feminist Anti-MOOC") suggested yet another rant in about the dubious engagement in many massive open courses. But Balsamo's description of the course suggests some serious innovation in learning:
A DOCC is different from a MOOC in that it doesn't deliver a centralized singular syllabus to all the participants. Rather it organizes around a central topic. It recognizes that, based on deep feminist pedagogical commitments, expertise is distributed throughout all the participants in a learning activity," and does not just reside with one or two individuals.Like many MOOC's this course will feature weekly videos. In this case the videos will feature interviews and discussions with leading thinkers about feminism and technology. At more than a dozen participating colleges, professors will offer their own courses for credit and create their own assignments and assessments.
I really like this idea, because it supports the kind of deep disciplinary engagement and local learning community that seems so lacking in most MOOCs. Balsamo pointed out
Who you learn with is as important as what you learn. Learning is a relationship, not just something that can be measured by outcomes or formal metrics.I could not agree more. Many of these same ideas are represented in the approach known as Connectivism, as advanced by George Siemans and Stephen Downes. They take the notion of distributed knowledge even further, allowing the majority of the content to be constructed in the interaction among online participants. A particularly noteworthy development in this regard is the History and the Future of Education project that Cathy Davidson and others at HASTAC are heading up. This is a "coordinated multi-university initiative dedicated to thinking together about the future of the university."
But is Distributed Content Always Best?
However..... there are some online course contexts where one does not want all of the core course knowledge to be constructed by participants. This is certainly the case in our upcoming BOOC. There is a core body of knowledge about educational assessment that I want to use as a starting point for creating communities around productive forms of disciplinary engagement. We are using a widely respected textbook that Jim Popham has done a great job keeping up to date.
But just because we are using a textbook does not mean that Popham gets the last word on all things assessment. Quite to the contrary. I disagree strongly with some of his arguments. For example, he says that grades should be based entirely on things that can be objectively measured; I think that doing so forces teachers and students to focus only on forms of knowledge that can be captured by classroom assessments and external tests. My colleague Cassandra Guarino will be leading the part of the BOOC that focuses on controversial new "value-added modeling" teacher accountability policies. When she and I covered that topic in my previous for-credit version of the course, she felt that Popham's text steered the class to focus on the criticisms of value-added modeling. She felt they needed a more objective consideration of how they work. And I agree. I personally think that introducing VAM alongside new standards and new tests will be a disaster (because increased stakes demands that tests be even more "objective" and therefore more removed from each teachers' actual classroom practice). But value-added teacher evaluation is going to happen. Someone who takes my course should understand VAM and be prepared to deal with its consequences.
In short, it seems like a distributed approach to a topic like this might do what happened in our class previously--lots of criticism and dismissal, but not enough engagement with the actual disciplinary knowledge up front for that discussion to be truly productive.
Complex Concepts need Concrete Contexts
But in these an many other examples, starting with a core text allowed for a focused discussion of these very issues. By having the students first rank and discuss the relative relevance of the key concepts in the textbook for their own practice, the three professional networking groups in the class established a sufficiently "personalized" understanding of the disciplinary issues so that they were able to understand and discuss the issues. This in turn would prepare them understand how the disciplinary ideas in the text took on new meaning and relevance in different contexts of practice. For example, the students in my class came to appreciate why I think purely objective grading might make more sense in an Algebra class (where most of the knowledge is likely to be very procedural) than in a Composition class (where most of the knowledge is contextual therefore consequential for practice).
In the previous course and the BOOC, students' personal interpretation (in weekly wikifolios) and shared discussion (in threaded comments on the wikifolios) are use to contextualize the nuanced and more advanced course content. For example, Dr. Guarino initially suggested that we have the students instead read the Gate's foundation report on Measures of Effective Teaching. I agree that this is a great discussion of the evaluation of teaching (particularly because they focus on evaluating teaching and not teachers). But after a decade of teaching this course, I am confident that most of the grad students who take it (mostly MEd students but a mix of doctoral students, researchers etc.) would simply not be able to make sense of it as a formal course assignment. It is simply too dense and disconnected from the practice of running a classroom or a school.
By participating in the threaded discussions of the student wikifolios where they discussed value added modeling, Cassie and I were able to insert these more abstract and difficult concepts and links to external resources directly into the contextual interactions of the students. Importantly, we also learned ways to connect these concepts to the students experiences. For example the future administrators in the educational leadership group looked at VAM differently than the students in the other groups. We were able to use this knowledge to craft a highly contextualized weekly summary whereby we raised some of these more complex concepts and pointed them to the links. Interviews with students after the class was over suggested that most of them read and understood the weekly summary and that some (but not all) eventually read the executive summary of the Gates MET report. Most importantly, I am confident that every one of the students remembers that there is a report and other resources out there and will know that they can turn to it next year when VAM gets introduced and starts turning our schools on their heads.
I am curious what others will say about this. In particular I wonder if people think that the content of the educational assessment BOOC should be more distributed in the future. If so what would that look like?