REVISION MADE: 3/19 @ 4:39 pm

Hello everyone, and welcome to the iTeach Podcast. Typed out, you’ll have noticed. Let me explain.

While I was at ASTE, I spoke with Lee Graham, Chip McMillan and Virgil Fredenberg over lunch. The three UAS faculty had just finished their presentation, and some of that momentum carried on into our fine conversation. I wish I could upload the file for everyone to hear — unfortunately, the restaurant where we had our lunch was experiencing a rush and significant stretches of the recording are too muddied with background noise to use. So, I opted for something completely different, by which I mean traditional, by which I mean I am writing this article.



Lee and her compatriots developed and are overseeing #diffiMOOC, also known as Differentiated Education through Technology, a for-credit MOOC offered for the first time this semester at the University of Alaska Southeast. Its structure is student-blog based, with a central site where the teachers post instructions and a Twitter hashtag for collaboration and meta-discussion. Individually, students are directed to find new tools, experiment with them, and introduce them to the rest of the class; in groups, students curate and annotate wikis which list out the tools that they find useful, focusing their efforts on what is useful for education.

#diffiMOOC is not near the scale of the more notorious MOOCs out there, as it only has 35 enrolled students. Its open structure, however, definitely belies MOOC sensibilities. Lee tells me that the class site and its Twitter feed get, on average, about 400 “lurkers” a week, drawn at or around Mondays, when new modules are unveiled. Sometimes one of the lurkers will participate, even though he or she is not enrolled in the course. That bleed between classroom and public space is essential to #diffiMOOC in particular, since its subject (not unlike most MOOCs) is communication/education technology.

#diffiMOOC is, at the same time, consciously distinct from the popularly understood MOOC model. The three (real!) credits students get for completing the course cost the same as any other three credits at UAS, for one. Also, despite its small size, the course involves three faculty in its ongoing maintenance and delivery, effectively bringing the student-to-teacher ratio down to 15:1. That low number must in part result from how new the course is; even so, the ratio isn’t likely to change very much. When I asked her, Lee hypothesized a 75 student “for credit” cap, which brings the ultimate teacher to student ratio to an extraordinarily normal 25:1. REVISION: Lee got in touch with me and clarified: She felt that she could handle the 75 students herself. This does change the ratio quite a lot, but still pales in comparison with the student-to teacher ratios of the larger MOOCs.

“[As] the instructor/facilitator my focus will always be on the students taking the course for credit,” Lee said t me in an email. “I am thinking about the number of blogs and ultimately projects I could grade in a timely manner.”

During their presentation, Lee differentiated between her role and the role of the “Super Professor” at the head of the truly massive, 10,000+ student MOOCs which so regularly make headlines these days. The #diffiMOOC is part MOOC, part instructor-led online boutique course. For instance, hers, Virgil’s and Chip’s function as Twitter moderators came up several times during their presentation and our lunch, a function which would become increasingly impossible with a massive student body.

“I was thinking Modest Open Online Course,” she joked.

Still, the faculty are mindful of becoming too involved. The course is based on a connectivist model, which emphasizes the classroom as a learning environment wherein most of the meaning-making arises from students interacting with each other. Lee self-identifies as a connectivist, and at the same time that she was becoming excited about MOOCs, Virgil was realizing in his own course just how much he could learn from his students, and they from each other.

“I’m sitting back and going, I’m learning all this new technology ‘cause they are out there using it,” he said.

Actually, I’ve had a similar realization in my time as a teacher. I remember the thought as if I said the words aloud: This class will go faster if I’m not its engine.

Over Twitter and on their blogs, students introduce each other to new tools and to the products of their experimentations with those tools. Students also group up to edit and publish wikis on the tools, complete with instructions and recommendations on their use in education, etc. Regularly urged to cycle between private exploration and social sharing, the hope is that students develop a skill for keeping pace with the rapid development of education technology and education needs.

One of the #diffiMOOC students, Colin Osterhaut, joined us for lunch.

“To be successful you need to really have something that you want to work on, and find stuff that helps you to make that work,” he said. “If you’re like me and you’ve been conditioned so long just to be in class and bored, it’s hard to say, ‘Well I want to be able to do this at the end’ and find stuff that works and work on it. It’s a big jump, at the end.”

The conditioning he speaks of is what #diffiMOOC seeks to differentiate its own educational process from, all while encouraging its students to do the same for the classes they teach. But will they all want to start MOOCs? Apparently, several of the graduate students in the course are writing their theses on MOOCs. I missed an opportunity with Colin; I should have asked him. I will ask him, and update this post when he responds.

I keep returning to Lee’s pun — Modest Open Online Courses — and thinking about reverse scalability, the bisection of acronyms from their meanings (like FFA), and the fundamentals of good education. How large does a course have to be before it is a MOOC? What is the benefit of Massive-ness (75 students?), and what constitutes Open-ness? There is a granularity to the future of online education which defies the collective demonization / deification of the stereotypical Super MOOC. #diffiMOOC, and some of the more innovative instructor-led courses, show this to be the case.

NOTE: Actual audio podcasts will recommence next time around. Sorry audiophiles! But really, the sounds of lunching overwhelmed.

About Malmberg
Chris was a teacher before he became an instructional designer, and since he was a child he’s studied the craft of communication through story. Though his specialty is English, Chris is fascinated with all languages: verbal and nonverbal, binary and intuitive, mathematical and cultural. In his free time he studies the effect of technological innovation on the fundamentals of narrative; narrative, he believes (while admitting his bias), is the fundamental structure of knowledge.

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2 Responses to The iTeach Podcast 006 – What defines a MOOC?

  1. Madara says:

    I really think that the model we’re using for many of our open courses (Open Boutique Courses) is a good one and serves the same “open” purpose that a MOOC does, only the students have the benefit of high levels of interaction with the instructor.

    • Malmberg says:

      This came up during their ASTE presentation, but a discussion did not come of it.

      I wonder if there is a belief that massiveness and openness and (in this case) course-flipping are inextricably linked: Like, a course needs “At least this number of students,” or mass, for the non-teacher-centered, open model to function.

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