Success in MOOCs, step 4: Cluster

Life On The Wire

Which of your MOOC classmates will become part of your personal learning network?

This post is part of a series that expands on Dave Cormier’s Youtube video “Success in a MOOC” and applies his advice to the upcoming Mechanical MOOC about the Python programming language.  Cormier breaks down online learning success into five steps: Orient, Declare, Network, Cluster and Focus.

After networking to engage with your classmates and build your online reputation, Cormier’s fourth piece of advice is to “cluster” members of this network.  Clustering, in a sense, means “pruning”.  With the growing popularity of MOOCs, it’s becoming common for initial enrolments to number in the tens of thousands.  Many of these registrants will drop out over the course of the term. Since MOOCs are free, a lot of people sign up out of curiosity; Others lose interest, become dissatisfied, or just have other things going on in their lives.  Even with drop-out rates of 80%, you might complete the term with several thousand classmates.  Welcome to the digital age!

What happens after the MOOC is up to you. You’ll probably want to continue to learn about the topic, or to start applying your new knowledge in your job or life.  The MOOC is a great “place” to meet like-minded people. After all, they’ve stuck it out in the course, just like you.  There are probably a few you’ll want to keep in touch with.  They are the ones those whose activity in the course matches your own approach to the material, or whose contributions you find interesting or helpful.  “Clustering” is about building relationships that will extend beyond the course.

In traditional classes, the instructor and institution typically offer some continuity for participants in a course.  In  face-to-face college, students might see themselves outside of class, attend college reunions, or send the occasional email to their old professor to keep in touch. In a MOOC, students have to build relationships with each other that don’t center on an individual instructor or school.

“Clustering” is another word for building or adding to your personal learning network.   PLN is a term used by educators to refer to the professional networks, usually within a social media platform like Twitter, that help them keep up with new tools and developments in their field. Daniel Tobin outlines the following benefits of a PLN.

How can your learning network help you?

  • By helping you to sift through all the data to identify the information that will be most useful to you.
  • By helping you to identify learning resources and opportunities.
  • By coaching you and answering your questions as you try to apply your learning to your work.
  • By sharing their wisdom with you through dialogue.
  • Building a personal learning network is requires that you not only seek to learn from others, but also that you also help others in the network learn. Even when you are a novice in a field of learning, you can still make contributions. Did you read an article that might be of interest to others? Then distribute it to other in your network with a short note that you thought they might find it interesting. Did you hear of a conference on the subject? Let others know about the program and speakers and, if you attend, circulate your notes and papers you collect to other network members.
  • A personal learning network can be your most powerful learning tool no matter what the subject.

At minimum, a personal learning network can be an intelligently filtered RSS feed, where the best new content in your area of interest is curated by a collective intelligence that you assemble yourself.  Even more than that, a PLN can be a source of career opportunities, collegiality, amusement and friendship.

How will you choose which classmates to include in your PLN?

First, they may already have chosen you.  They may be commenting on your course posts, answering your questions or seeking out your opinion on course topics.  They may be your virtual “neighbors”, engaging with the course material on the same social media channel as you.  After all, if you want to maintain course relationships, it will be on social media, not on closed course discussion boards.

Second, you may wish to cluster your course contacts by location, career stage or future plans.  As you get to know people in the course, you may find people with whom you have a greater affinity.  You’ll want to invest in these relationships by answering questions when you can, and posting useful content.  Seek out ways to interact with these people via webchat or Skype.  In computer-oriented MOOCs, virtual meetups that allow screensharing (e.g. Google Hangouts) or real-time codesharing (e.g. Cloud9) might be an especially useful tool for working with members of your PLN.

Third, depending on the platform in which you’re interacting, you may not need to do much to add people to your PLN.  Simply following someone on Twitter allows you to see the content that they post.  Other platforms, like Facebook and Google plus may require that the person add you to their group or circle.

Clustering in the mMOOC

Those students who signed up to become part of a study group when they registered for the Mechanical MOOC already received their group assignments.  I didn’t choose this option, but fellow student blogger Steve Barber reports that these groups are based on time zone.  I suppose this will make setting up webchats and video meetings easier, but I can imagine a number of other criteria for organizing groups.

OpenStudy has an existing study group set up for the MIT Opencourseware materials, though it’s currently being used by independent students, MITx participants as well as Mechanical MOOCers.  This could have its advantages, since it increases the number of people participating, but it does seem to create some confusion about how to answer the questions.  OpenStudy might be a useful place to network and cluster if you are a high school or early college student.  Building your reputation there and getting to know other users may help you in future classes.  It’s also a relatively safe corner of the web for the younger crowd.

Many MOOC participants are professionals, however, and for us, I find OpenStudy too limiting.  Multipurpose platforms like Google Plus and Twitter are arguably easier to fit into a professional workflow.  I know I use Google plus for communicating with colleagues, Facebook for communicating with friends, and Twitter for keeping up with certain topics of interest.  I would much rather find mMOOCsters on these platforms than add another one.

There is a #mMOOC hashtag that Twitter users are using to label course-related tweets.  I haven’t seen any activity on Facebook, but a group may emerge once the mMOOC begins.  I have created a Python circle on Google Plus and am using the hashtag #mMOOC to label related posts, but I don’t see much Mechanical MOOC activity there either.  At least one other person (Steve Barber) is blogging about the Mechanical MOOC.  CodeAcademyOpenStudy and P2PU all maintain blogs as well.

Question-and-Answer sites that provide a viable alternative to OpenStudy for professionals include Quora and StackOverflow.  Like OpenStudy, both of these sites provide reputation points to people for active participation and helpfulness.  Both have active pages for Python, as well as other computer science topics.  The user base of these sites leans more towards professionals, including people like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.  Furthermore, Quora activity may soon be counted towards an individual’s Klout score.  Professionals working in industries where the Klout score matters may find it appealing to have their Python studying count towards this. Both Quora and Stackoverflow are being used by Entelo “to help companies large and small identify and recruit technical talent.”  Code repositories like Github and Bitbucket are also good places to find projects developed in Python to examine and, eventually contribute to.  These are the sites where professional programmers build their networks for learning and collaboration and are much better-suited to lifelong learners than OpenStudy

photo credit: wildxplorer via photopin cc


About Claudia Scholz

Higher education professional in Atlanta, GA specializing in faculty development and research administration.
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