Innovating Pedagogy – Massive Open Social Learning
This is the third in a series of annual reports on innovations in teaching, learning and assessment. The Innovating Pedagogy reports from Open University(UK) are intended for teachers, policy makers, academics and anyone interested in how education may change over the next ten years.
Massive open social learning
Free online courses based on social learning
Potential impact: high
Timescale: short (1–2 years)
In our previous reports we covered the growth of massive open online courses, where tens of thousands of people join courses offered free to access online. Some early MOOC experiments were based on a pedagogy of connectivist learning, connecting many people and their ideas in a loose online network that enables them to learn together. While this approach harnesses the power of many voices and technologies, it is difficult to manage at large scale and requires learners to know how to navigate the web resources and engage with their peers.
More recent MOOCs have taken an instructivist approach, with course materials created by a university and delivered by video and text. While this allows the learner to control where and when to learn, pausing and reflecting on the material, it can be a lonely experience. There are
forums where learners can discuss the course and some people may get together in scheduled meetings, but there is more that can be done to engage people as active learners, sharing their ideas and discussing their different perspectives as they learn online.
The social learning effect
The big question is, ‘Which successful pedagogies can improve with scale?’ Some effective methods of teaching, such as personal tutoring, cannot scale up to thousands of learners without huge costs (although researchers in artificial intelligence have been attempting for many years to develop computer-based tutors). By contrast, methods of direct instruction scale well – a good educational television programme can inform a hundred people, or a million – but they are not very effective in engaging people in active and reflective learning.
There is a general theory of scale that can be applied to education. The Network Effect proposes that the value of a networked product or service increases with the number of people using it. For example, a telephone system becomes more valuable when we are able connect to millions, or billions, of phone users worldwide. The worldwide web benefits from interconnecting millions of people and their computers. But people are not just points in a network, we have knowledge and perspectives to share. So the Social Learning Effect can be stated as ‘the value of a networked learning system increases as it enables people to learn easily and successfully from each other’.
In our previous reports we have given the example of StackExchange, with over 5 million users, which exploits the power of social learning. It is an example of problem-led massive social learning. When people have a problem to solve in the relevant field they pose it online. Other people in the community provide answers. Yet more people expand the answers and rate the contributions, so the most interesting questions and best answers become more visible to all users. Other sites with similar approaches include e-How and Answers.com.
Another approach to massive open social learning is to support many lines of conversation. On the FutureLearn MOOC platform, rather than sending learners off to separate discussion forums, each piece of learning content is linked to a free-flowing ‘water cooler’ discussion. Any learner can see the flow of discussion about a topic and add a quick contribution or reply. The more people who engage with the course, the faster the discussion flows and the more the content is expanded with different perspectives.
Encouraging learners to review assignments submitted by their peers, forming learners into teams (as on the NovoEd MOOC platform), creating online virtual worlds such as heritage sites that people can explore together, and creating re-enactments of historical events – these are all examples of social learning that improve with scale.
Overload and disorientation
Just as telephone networks can become congested and faulty and we may receive nuisance calls, so massive open social learning has its problems. The most obvious of these is overload. Some videos on FutureLearn courses have attracted over 15,000 comments. If these are just seen as a flow of conversation, then there is no issue, but if learners feel overwhelmed or believe they may have missed an important comment, then massive scale can cause anxiety. For this reason, these discussions are initially hidden and only shown at the click of a button. In addition, learners can ‘like’ a reply so that others can filter the comments to find ones that are most liked.
Another difficulty, experienced by many who have participated in connectivist MOOCs, is the feeling of being ‘lost in hyperspace’, of having too many options and possibilities and not knowing where they are in a learning activity, who to engage with, and where to go next. Challenges for designers of such open social environments include lessening the initial shock of joining them for the first time and providing clear guidelines and pathways to progress.
Many consumer technologies have started small, then expanded, then engaged people in networked social interactions. Television, telephones, computers, and electronic games are examples of this development pathway. In a similar way, innovative pedagogies generally start small and then increase in scale and sociability, for example MOOCs, seamless learning, game based learning, inquiry learning and geo-learning are all now developing as large-scale social activities. This means they face the issues of how to reap the benefits of the Social Learning Effect while avoiding congestion, overload, and mass disorientation.
Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3. Milton Keynes: The Open University