Breaking it down into manageable steps

May 2, 2014 in Commentary, Course Information


During Wednesday’s webinar, someone asked asked about a recommended technique for identifying and forming groups of like-minded participants. The gist of my reply was that we don’t have a ‘silver bullet’ for managing this process online, any more than we do offline. Imagine turning up at the opening reception of a conference with 900 delegates. There isn’t a method for finding just the right people to talk to in the first 90 minutes. You have to go through an initial period of randomness and multiplicity of options, and then, maybe, at the end of three days, you’ve found a handful or two of people with whom you’ve made connections and learning strides. Probably you’ll also have a vague awareness that, if you had the time again, you’d have found a quite different set of people to talk to, sessions to attend, and lessons to learn. That’s life.

Starting a collaborative Open Online Course is a bit like that, but worse. In a conference reception, the laws of physics mean you can only deal with the people and conversations immediately around you; it takes time and effort to break off and start anew with someone else. Online, all the conversations feel close to you, and they can start to drown each other out, Babel-like. Other options are only a click away.

While the bumble bees and butterflies among us enjoy this buzz and the cross-pollination it affords, most of us find it a bit daunting. This is natural. Part of the advice is the same as if in a large conference reception: start with the people and issues in front of you, and work from there. More advice like this is in the guidance in the handbook (we may keep reminding your about this throughout the course).

If you feel a little overwhelmed at this stage of the course, don’t worry. Most of us do. It’s definitely not you that’s at fault, and I’d argue it’s not the course design that’s at fault either. I hope you take away the lesson that Emma Coles did from the webinar, “Seems I don’t have as many issues as I thought I did”. And remember the mantra that emerged from last year’s ocTEL (quoted here by Ted O’Neill, who is one of several people we welcome back, doing the course a second time):

Similarly, Steven writes from experience, “ocTEL is not my first MOOC, so I kind of know what to expect in terms of overwhelming experiences, getting lost, and finding interesting people to network with.” And Glenn’s take leads me on to the thinking behind the My Big and Little TEL Questions activity

MOOCS offer a great wealth of information, I think it’s important to think offline before diving in too deep, becoming overwhelmed or bogged down, what it is that I want to take from my participation in this course and focus on those topics. As too much information or reading too many topic threads causes me personally to overload. My phrase for this would be “break it down or break-down!”

Making it personal

Not quite break down, I hope. But the idea of using goals to break down and filter the course material chimes with what I was trying to say on Tuesday about using the Big or Little Questions as a guide to the rest of the course.  I’ve kept banging on about the value of refining the questions down to specifics — for example in comments to Hellie, Mark and Rose — but I’ve also come to realise that many people are using this opening week of the course as a way of browsing around and trying to decide what matters to them most. That’s fine. It’s probably best not to rush into detail. If you’re new to the area and just want to get a feel for it, Week 1 (coming up on Monday) will also help you do that. Also spend some time reviewing the resources we’ve provided (and which the super-helpful Jim Kerr has collected in a reading list).

Do keep honing your questions though. Last year we called the activity “My Big Question” and the emphasis there is on the My rather than the Big – if you focus on the big TEL questions for the world, you could take forever; focusing on the big questions for you will help keep your grounded and focused.

With that in mind, I liked Grant’s questions and Tim’s. In ocTEL 2013, some kind souls did an analysis of everyone’s questions. If you’re struggling for direction or inspiration, you may find it useful to have a look through these. Once again Jim has helped out with a preliminary analysis from all the questions posed in the forums. On a slightly different tack, have a look at Tim Leonard’s participation plan and consider whether something similar might work for you.

Blogs and other channels

We give you lots of discussion spaces in ocTEL and let you choose which to frequent. Don’t try and keep up with them all (you wouldn’t try and keep up with all the conversations at a conference). While others of volunteer tutors have been chipping in to the forums, I’ve been mostly reading what people have been writing on their blogs (here’s the full set so far). The reasons we most encourage you to post on your own blog are that

  • it can give you a sense of greater ownership,
  • it means the course comes to you rather than you coming to the course,
  • it helps embed what you pick up from the course in the rest of your professional life and development,
  • it leaves you with a portfolio of evidence that you control (the forums here will persist, possibly for years, but not forever).

So well done especially to those, like Julie, Grant, Russell, Meg and Glenn who’ve recently started new blogs to record and reflect their experiences on the course. Well done, too, to those who’ve take the opportunity to revive old blogs that (like mine) have fallen into disuse, and to those who have started their own online social spaces to exchange ideas about the course, including the collection and the LinkedIn group. If you have created anything ocTEL-related that you’d like to draw to others’ attention, please post in the comments below (as well as on Twitter with #iocTEL and so on).

1 response to The open course you cannot fail…

  1. Dear Maren

    “Lurkers” vs “Silent participants”?

    Here are a few other terms that could be used:

    vicarious learners?
    silent participants?
    Non-public user?
    legitimate peripheral participator?
    virtual participant?
    marginal participant?
    passive observer?
    cognitive apprentices?
    potential member?
    proximate member?
    tacit member?

    See Let’s get more positive about the term ‘lurker’

    Which term best reflects the degree/ style/ of learning? If you read a book, but never talk about it, have you learned any less?

    Best wishes


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