Teaching a class of tens, hundreds of thousands has shown to be newsworthy, but what about at the other end of the telescope? How do people perhaps new, or not, to such a massive environment manage if they feel they cannot be heard? Or are not even eager to try? It’s one thing for a teacher to deal with the quiet kid in the back of the room (she knows something of him), but what of the quiet students who do not even see? What happens if they brave a question that falls in the woods of the forums like the unheard tree?

We hear much about people grappling to teach in said giant classes, but what of students learning how to learn there?

All of this stems from my own experience this week in the greater than tweet-length “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future” (hereto after fantasically abbreviated as #FutureEd) being led by Cathy Davidson.

Like the tagline for Aliens about in space no one can hear you scream… how often in a massive course does no one hear you ask or speak?

My question arose from the first week’s videos for #FutureEd about Cathy Davidson’s repeated assertions about all that happened on April 22, 1993 (and yes I know it was the day Mosaic 1.0 was launched) (and yes I know of the Wired link, it’s in my post). So my first level of asking a question was my blog post which was tweeted with the tag. I also posted a question in the course forum someone else started with the title “April 22, 1993” — I went there expecting some discussion about my question, but it was more scattered.

In response there.

A few tweets later, and thanks to some followups by John Becker

Cathy responded, and in volume

and Phil Hill made soure I saw both the extended response from Cathy on her HASTAC blog and a comment on my own post and in twitter

and I could not be more content with the answer. Whether anyone is “right” or not matters little, but dialogue does. I might not feel like you can associate causation between discrete events; hence my comic reminder that other influences in 1992

Again, having such a conversation did much for my own understanding, especially given Cathy’s explanation of her role at that time. Heck I was just a green horn ed tech new in 1992 (photos exist of me in a tie and mullet with relevant annotations).

My only point here is I have been around the internet game field a while, and know a few things about trying to get attention. I can benefit from a network of others that chimed in. I know to ask a few times, and also not to get bent out of shape. I’ve had experience in the environment.

But how do others new to this learn this? Sure you can create documentation and FAQ and tutorial videos, but people learn this through trying, experience, and… well, how do we make it something not difficult to advocate for oneself in a mega massive (or for that matter any size) course? It’s no different from the campus experience, when some students will learn to use professor office hours, to stay after class to ask questions, to sit in the front, etc, all as means of being advocates for their own learning. Not many do this in person either.

Just sending people to the forums is like sending someone form the country to New York City wit $100 and tell them to find a good place to eat (this metaphor is leaking already, ok?). Where do you even start? Forums are not an answer on their own.

Anyhow, I am thankful for the experience to remind me how people can easily be reinforced to be quiet in an online class. And I must have over-used my allotment of Cathy Davidson individual attention; her reply was not just detailed, it was personal, and she showed her personality, guessing “CatintheStack” is a nickname?


Cathy does suggest that she will stay with the video format as it is more or less “what people expect”:

Unfortunately, the format of the weeks continues to be mostly lectures and reviews. I went with that because there is a subset of MOOC participants who really loves it. I don’t deviate from the lecture format in any thing like the way Al Filreis does at Penn and many others–or that my own online open learning network HASTAC does in its various Forums and projects and has since 2002. The movement part comes by building on the MOOC. Sometimes it’s a project.

It does see an assumption that the video lecture is needed, much the same when Jim Groom started teaching ds106 and people said he had to run synchronous sessions in things like Elluminate/Collaborate. When I joined him and Martha Burtis in teaching sections of ds106 online we managed to do so without any lectures.

It is possible.


I also want to comment on the quizzes. I am a consistent critic of multiple-choice standardized summative testing, in my research and writing and in the MOOC. But that’s the format thousands want. So at the very least I try to turn every test into a summary and therefore a study guide–there is no (intentionally) false information on any quiz.

I read between the lines that she is trying what she can, and it is a first time effort, to change up some of the form; yet it begs a little of the question she poses about whether we are designing learning for the present generation or the future one. If Cathy’s own answer is what we all suspect (it’s a bet of a setup question anyhow), then we will expect to see her use this experience as a platform to start changing people’s experience.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Maybe I’ve missed something in the exchange (likely given I can’t see anything in Coursera without signing up, something I don’t plan to do) but your original question and prodding seems to imply only Cathy had the answer you sought. You said the discussion in the forum was “scattered”. I guess my response would be that the whole idea of the MOOC is supposed to be that the person leading it is not the one with the answers. If we’re buying into the constructivist approach to learning then a MOOC is only as good as every one of its participants to engage in each other and seek answers. I’m not arguing there are fault lines with 16k participants, of course there are. I’m just not sure the inability to get your specific question answered to your satisfaction is a fault of the course design.

    My only other pushback (because I must be in a pushback kinda mood) is that I’d tend to disagree with the idea that DS106 doesn’t include any “lectures”. Maybe we’re defining things a bit loosely but I can find plenty of videos filled with tutorials and information, some lasting almost an hour. Is it different? Well they’re often Google Hangouts or something done live using Wirecast so the look and feel is different. And no doubt DS106 doesn’t take itself too seriously so pirate outfits and chainsaw background noise is the norm. But I do think there’s been a slow move back to the idea of synchronous having some value and I don’t think it’s fair to paint a Google Hangout as something different from elluminate. In the end the vitality of a course comes back to the community and there doesn’t seem to be a lack of that in #FutureEd (though I’ll admit I’m not registered so I don’t get to follow along all that closely #grumble).

    1. Fair enough… let’s see if I can clarify…

      Maybe I’ve missed something in the exchange (likely given I can’t see anything in Coursera without signing up, something I don’t plan to do) but your original question and prodding seems to imply only Cathy had the answer you sought.

      Actually, that was true. IN the videos for week 1, at least 3 or 4 times, Cathy referenced / alluded that the fourth information age started with a key event on April 22, 1993. I went through the video with captions on to get her exact words, quoted in my blog post where she said what happened on this exact date involved scientists, the FCC, and Al Gore! What she said did not make sense to me, and she never said specifically what this event was, only the date. Something did not click with me, so here is what I did to seek clarity:

      • I researched major internet events for the month of April 1993. I looked for what Al Gore was doing in that period.
      • I wrote th blog post as a reflection
      • I tweeted twice seeking clarity from anybody
      • I posted in the Coursera forums

      It seemed only when the tweet was retweeted and others chimed in via twitter that Cathy responded. But it is less about getting a specific answer, but to me that in such a massive number of participation, that I would think people new to the experience might have questions, and maybe only ask once. It is a question that goes beyong just the MOOC structure, as to how do students learn the skills and fortitude to keep asking if they get a feeling that they are not heard? I’ve been around the bend, and it was not critical to me to get an answer. I feel like I answered it myself. I did not have an expectation that every student’s question is answered by the instructor. Ideally, yes, the community might support itself… but here again, a design questions.

      With these courses tending to focus down to the 4-6 week time frame, is there even enough time for those self managing structures to form?

      And I will push back the push back. Is all video lecture? No. In this course, there is specific content being made solely in video format. So that is a singular point of information source. The videos you refer to in ds106 are not primary course content; the hangouts I used when teaching were not necessary information, they are auxiliary. They are not teacher led, they were discussion.

      I will agree that an hour of video from a google hangout is a lot to parse, like an hour of lecture in Coursera.

      And again, it is this back and forth that I find value in as we worth through ideas we may not agree on, not to come to some arbitrary agreement or “right” answer.

      1. Thanks for the response. You’re right, the larger questions of student agency and voice go beyond the MOOC format, but it’s definitely amplified by the format and nature of the course. I actually didn’t realize the course was only 4-6 weeks. That is definitely short. Not impossible to build a community in that time but certainly a challenge. I did see a lot of activity around #FutureEd leading up to the beginning of the course so I think there’s clearly been an effort to start building momentum since they announced their plans to do it (if my Twitter feed is any indication). Wish I could follow along from the sidelines without having to register and login….

        The video lecture thing is a moving target. Are some discussions? Sure. Are some an hour of one person doing a tutorial? Yep. Are some people acting crazy in front of a green screen while people tweet their commentary live? Awesomely so. I speak from experience that when we did DTLT Today there was a habit to want to just keep talking and conversing but I would never go back and watch the videos because sometimes they were just too long. I can imagine some students having a hard time discerning what pieces they need to watch from the ones they can readily discard. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when we put this content out there (I know my gut reaction if a student had a question about something I talked about in a video would be “Hey you should have watched that” but then that’s not fair to them unless the expectation is to watch everything).

        As a sidenote when the hell are you going to teach any of my Mason classes? They need a shot of cogdog adrenaline stat!

        1. There’s a lot to be said for what is happening in FutureEd- a number of courses at different institutions connecting, some good collaborative activities, and outer community action in Google+ Facebook and twitter. I honestly do not have the intensity to dive full into the flow, there is conversation everywhere. I do wonder once you have had an intense cMOOC networking experience how many times you can go back in that deep.

          The videos are broken up into 8, 10, 12, 18 minute slices, but most of what I saw in week 1 was Cathy talking to the camera, and a few guests in the last one. They have been doing hangouts as well.

          I agree about the problems with long videos– I bet I have never gone and watched a full archive of any video/synchronous presentation ones.

          I’ll see how I survive my first GMU teaching. So far just the paperwork to get set up is overwhelming… but they are giving me latitude to do a ds106 like experience.

      2. Thanks for this, Alan. As always, you give us plenty of chow to chew on. I’m along for the #FutureEd ride as well. To further comprehend to the difficulty of forming a collaborative community in six weeks let me add the stark fact that I’m only now finding this post of yours. We are all running through the course at our own pace (I saved up the week #1 stuff and binge read/watched it all over the weekend). So it’s easy to miss a raft, floating down the Twitter stream, that you would have liked to have jumped on.
        One other thought about the course videos… I’m painfully aware of a strong point of view in these videos. Cathy Davidson’s is a point of view I tend to agree with, but still. With a straight, didactic presentation of content like that, a “singular point of information source” (as you put it), we all feel less available space for working through ideas collaboratively.
        This is not to say that I’m against video content in an online course. Far from it. I took the UPenn Modern Poetry course (Al Filreis) last year and thought that he used video very effectively in his course design. He and a small gaggle of thoughtful graduate students sat around a table discussing the week’s readings. The video was shot as if you were sitting at the table with them, engaging in the conversation. They debated (sometimes hotly), disagreed, added to each other’s insights – and in so doing, they modeled the conversations they hoped the course learners would have. Worked for me.

        1. Thanks Robin. Like anything, when designing a course you are aiming it at a diverse range of interests and motivations.. so the more there are multiple/alternative approaches to content and activities the more likely you can hit that sweet spot.

          I will try to get my avatar lined up next week for your hangout! Maybe.

  2. Dear Alan,

    I read your blogpost with great interest. I don’t remember exactly how I ended up on your page, so I dutifully bookmarked it in my “Cathy’s MOOC” folder.

    First things first: your blog is very beautifully set up, aesthetically speaking. I also love dogs, which adds to the pleasure. 🙂 And your flickr photos are quite good, considering the ones I saw are probably pre-photoshop images.

    The substance of your blog entry is rich and inviting, too. In other words, I have posted some comments on the #highered forums myself, but am not too attracted to the forum. For one thing there is no incentive to read any specific entries at random. [Although to be fair, I must say, I did get a thoughtful response to my Hangout Favorite Teacher Interview from one classmate – that was encouraging. I suppose one out of 16K is not to bad!] The posts lack personality, a quality your blog does not lack. So, it caught my eye, I could imagine the person behind it, and voila, I became interested in communication.

    Yes, 6 weeks of community building may be very short, but in my college classroom, my students also don’t automatically build a community of learners just because they share the same space for 4 months. It’s when I assign small group projects that they really start connecting and learning together. They then present their work to the class as a whole and we all learn. Perhaps in these massive courses one needs to find ways to assign “smaller” group projects to give people a purpose that is manageable and meaningful?

    I like Cathy’s approach. She doesn’t claim to have any answers (well, some) but rather invites her students to help find answers to teaching and learning effectively in the 21st century (actually, as fast as time is moving, we should probably break it down into at most decades) or better in the 2010’s. And look, we ARE contributing.

    And now I am going to go for a walk with my dog and my I-pod (I-phone actually) while listening to “Now You See It”.

    Lovely chatting with you,

    Oh, and hello Tim Owens! Great comments, too. Although you probably want to try the MOOC yourself as well. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the kind words and dog fellowship, Gabrielle… the positive parts of the FutureEd experience are that we can make new connections like this via the course, which will not wide open, is at least somewhat porous.

      There are of course some significant motivation differences between students in a free/open course and the ones in your classroom, but still the activities matter above all else (and the personality of the teacher).

      I might see you around the course, but week 2 is about where I start putting my energy elsewhere!

    2. Hi, Gabriele. Nicely said. Your comment here sent me back to the #FutureEd forum to find your “Favorite Teacher” post. Wading into the Forums in a Coursera course is a bit like diving into the sea without a life preserver, but I braved it. I searched on your name – hey that worked. Found not only one “Favorite teacher” post, but two. Ah ha! you did them as Google Hangout interviews, pulling in other voices – clevah. And I particularly appreciated the twist of selecting your interviewee because he was one of your favorite teachers. Nice touch. Good interview skills too. After I watched your videos, I went to the introduction you wrote on yourself to find that you’re enrolled in one of the networked courses. Pay dirt. I’ve been hoping to get some insight from #FutureEd participants linked that way. So, with Alan’s help (thanks again for barking, Alan), the networking in this course is starting to work for me.

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