Modeling Learning Support in MOOCs in Netlogo

George has written a great response to my Feelings about MOOCs. He quickly zeroes in on my main argument about MOOCs, and elaborates.

[David] suggests that MOOCs are a poor fit for people who aren’t academically prepared. It’s an important consideration. If, in our attempt to open education, we throw barriers in front of learners, we are defeating our goals. I’m not sure how David defines a “prepared learner”.

By “well prepared,” I mean someone who has had the necessary prerequisite learning experiences and who has succeeded in those experiences. A person who is well prepared is ready for the current learning experience in terms of prerequisite knowledge and skills.

A growing percentage of students perusing formal education (both at the secondary and tertiary level) do not possess the necessary prerequisite skills for the topics they study. Hence the huge rise in remedial courses (e.g., in reading and mathematics) in high schools, community and technical colleges, and universities. I think it’s safe to say that the level of preparation of those who stop pursuing formal education (who drop out of high school or never begin a post-secondary experience) is no higher than those who continue pursuing formal education. While we want to continue providing great learning opportunities for students who are well prepared, we can’t ignore this large and growing group of underprepared students.

I’m sure I’ll use the connectivism technical jargon incorrectly, but perhaps we might say that a prepared person is someone whose personal knowledge network shares a large number of nodes with the knowledge network made available through the MOOC. The definition of Zone of Proximal Development in Wikipedia is “the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.” Maybe a way of operationally defining the ZPD is the degree of node overlap between a person’s knowledge network and the knowledge network they’re trying to assimilate with the help of the MOOC. I’ll return to this in a moment.

In 2000 an LMS was a bit foreign, quite clunky, highly technical, and likely only worked well for prepared people with basic tech skills. Today, LMS’ have buried most of that complexity and they are easier to use. People are generally more technically literate as well – most of us have used social networks, social media, and the participative web. It’s easier to use an LMS and learn online when you’re comfortable with the medium.

Agreed. When you compare a product like Canvas with early versions of Blackbaord, the usability has improved greatly. And yes, many learners (though not nearly as many as the “digital natives” crowd would have you believe) come to the LMS with a large repertoire of experiences using similar web-based systems. So, over the last decade, the “problem” introduced by LMSs has decreased. However, the same won’t be true for MOOCs.

I have a hard time seeing David’s point here – the fact that people don’t have the skills to participate in distributed networks for learning and sensemaking is exactly why we need MOOCs. The problem David sees is the solution I envision. This has been a sore spot for participants in each of our CCK courses. When the course begins, we inform learners that the process of clarifying confusion and disorientation – sensemaking and wayfinding in complex settings – is the learning.

Learning to work your way out of confusion and disorientation can be a technology problem, as it was for LMSs with poor user interfaces. And better LMSs, combined with an increased amount of exposure to online systems, can significantly decrease that problem. However, when the problem is a lack of sufficient relevant prior knowledge, and this lack is what impedes a person from being able to orient themselves and way-find or sense-make, you don’t fix that problem with better user interfaces. The answer suggested by the LMS analogy is “if we wait ten years, people will come to our classes with more of the content-related prerequisite knowledge, and consequently won’t be so lost.” In practice, though, you typically fix problems with a lack of prerequisite knowledge (or an insufficient degree of node overlap in the learner and domain networks) with instruction – not by waiting for that expertise to somehow appear on its own.

Hiding inside the word instruction is structure. This is what teachers are supposed to do, I believe – present a structured view of a domain. Even though there is more than one way to invision the structure of the network, that doesn’t mean that novices are ready to deal with that level of abstraction right away. They need a help. A great teacher is someone who manages to present the view of the structure which bears the closest resemblance to a learner’s existing knowledge network.

People who aren’t sufficiently prepared (and I continue to believe that’s most people on the planet for most subjects) are clearly outside the realm of what they can learn themselves. Vygotsky defined the ZPD as

the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.

When this “distance” is large (or when the correlation between nodes in the networks is small) learners need help. Now, Vygotsky himself clearly states that this help can come from more capable peers. So, doesn’t that mean that MOOCs can succeed in supporting learning, at least theoretically?

Yes, MOOC-like networks can support learning when a few conditions are met. (1) There must be a sufficient percentage of learners who already understand the domain sufficiently well to answer other learners’ questions, and (2) there must be a sufficient percentage of this sub-group of learners who have the time and the willingness to answer questions in the MOOC. “Sufficient” in these conditions is a relative statement comparing the number of questions that will need to be answered with the number of qualified+willing volunteers.

Several years ago, as part of my Visiting Fellowship to the Open University of the Netherlands, I built a Netlogo simulation that contains the parameters I think are important for learning in (what I then called an online self-organizing socials system or OSOSS, which is an equally terrible name) MOOCs. Looking back through my blog, it doesn’t look like I ever shared it with you. Sorry.

The building exercise greatly improved my understanding of the problems with scenarios in which the learning support required for underprepared learners is provided solely by volunteers (e.g., other MOOC-mates). Grab a copy of Netlogo, then download the OSOSS Model and mess around with it. It’s actually pretty well documented. You’ll either find a problem with my logic or see the problem I’m talking about very quickly. The problem? MOOC-like courses only support student learning if most of the people in the course already know the material. This is another, perhaps clearer, way of stating my original objection that George responded to in his post.

(As a side note, I think environments like Netlogo are absolutely perfect for modeling these types of learning environments. It would be a kick to take data from a previous MOOC or from OpenStudy and try to empirically estimate some of these model parameters. I think I’ll do that.)

There’s more to say, but I’ve run out of time for this morning. More later.

2 thoughts on “Modeling Learning Support in MOOCs in Netlogo”

  1. From my experience with adult returners to higher education is that a very significant element of preparedness is motivation/determination. ‘Access’ courses can help restore confidence and support growing motivation as much as convey knowledge and skills. Once the adult learners can cast off any feelings of inadequacy they can bring their hard-won life skills to bear on learning and make very fast progress.
    Conversely, in HE we all meet young students who are academically prepared but not at the right point in their life (say because of immaturity or other personal issues) to take advantage of the education on offer.
    I was interested in what you said about ZPD and networks – the network could be just as influential in supporting the development of motivation (when it might be fragile) as of knowledge.

  2. David, that model is very cool; I only played with it a bit, but one thing I wondered – does it factor in changes in people’s behaviours & changes in the community’s behaviour over time? – how helping others can change your relationship both with the material to be learned but also with the community of learners in a virtuous cycle; how helping others can effect the overall helpfulness of the community (the more people see others helping, the more they want to help); how people may become more helpful the more they learn, etc.? Anyways, just an initial reaction to that model. (For others trying to get it to work – click “Setup” when you have the variables as you like them, then “Go” to run the model. Or maybe that’s obvious already.)

    I’ve always wondered the extent to which framing MOOCs as “Courses” is part of the issue here. The “Course” term is the part that’s always bugged me. Because it seems like we have examples of “MOOCs” all over the internet that work, except we don’t call them that, we call them “communities,” not “courses.” Which doesn’t resolve the question of whether or not learners need some basic domain knowledge to ‘succeed’ in them (it seems obvious to me they do) but does, in my mind, speak to how imposing artificial start and end dates, authorizing bodies and people with “official” responsibility for all of the learners actually can lead the community as a whole to have LESS ownership over the community’s health and each other’s learning, to have lower “AvgPatience” “AvgHelpfulness” and “AvgShowOff” numbers (if I understood these correctly) to refer to David’s model. I am sure someone has researched this already and so can prove me wrong.

    But even if this is correct, it will be argued that’s exactly what instructors/tutors/facilitators are trying to create, environments with higher tendencies in these regards, along with individual interventions where needed. Ok, sure. But when we’re talking about *open* ed, providing access to people not served within higher ed (which I take to be at least part of the goal,) Lord forbid we actually funded savvy tutor-types to *join existing learning communities* and help there; better to bring the mountain to Mohammed. At least we can measure mountains.

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