A love letter to fellow ‘non-strategic’ learners

In 2014 and 2015, this blog was peppered with accounts of my adventure in the wilds of MOOCs. And like most academic tales, the journey has culminated in a journal paper. As you may have noticed, when I publish something, I like sharing a little bit of marginalia (e.g. here and here). This post is about the MOOC paper, which has just come out.

Lee, Y. & Rofe, J. S. (2016). Paragogy and flipped assessment: Experience of designing and running a MOOC on research methods. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning. [* 50 eprints available here] [available through Gold OA]

As I have readily admitted on many occasions, despite the growing cynic in me, part of me will always be an Internet idealist. I still vividly remember the flutter of butterflies when I first encountered the world of PC Tongshin, a text-based form of online communication through nationwide intranets in Korea in the pre-WWW era. Bulletin boards were full of voluntary contributions by sharp-witted and good-hearted strangers. Of course there were trolls back then too, but at least in my experience, they were a rare minority. To draw an analogy from Coleman’s ethnography of hackers (2013), most users were committed to the ‘aesthetic’ experiences of cyberspace.


At the risk of sounding like a grumpy grandma, I will go ahead and say the Internet is not what it used to be. It is difficult to say otherwise, especially having read vile comments and other horrible stuff everyday of the past one year. But the MOOC was a non-stop series of moments that made my Internet-idealist heart sing.

Let me share two examples. (I am linking the original posts here for my own reference, but these are behind a login wall.)

How do you teach military officers to apply creative and critical thinking in their office-based jobs?

Busy life!! Prefer cricket or basketball 

In the first thread, a student proposed a research question about how to assess and improve military training programmes. Totally out of my field and I would not have been of much use. Then I saw former military officers in the cohort chime in and provide detailed and meaningful feedback. Another student in the second thread proposed to compare whether watching 2 hours of a basketball match is better than 4 hours of cricket. In that original form, the research question would not have been considered as a good one according to the common criteria. However, through a dialogue with a fellow student, the idea was clarified and the project was further developed into one about people’s perceptions of the value of time. Through these observations among many others, I became curious and wanted to have a more systematic understanding of what was really going on in the forums.

Against Dunleavy’s great advice on summarising a journal paper into a blog post for better visibility and reach, I won’t repeat my findings here. Maybe except for one highlight. The pretty map below is a visual representation of peer interactions in the first e-tivity forum. It shows two distinct groups of students: those actively engaged in the forum (the cluster located in the centre) and those who were not (the peripheral ring). More strikingly, when we colour-coded the nodes as per the students’ overall grades at the end of the course (red for those who received a distinction, yellow for successful completers but without a distinction, and grey for those who did not meet the completion criteria), we found the red and yellow nodes were distributed evenly over the map, suggesting no correlation between the levels of active engagement in the forum and the formal assessment results. To put it another way, among those who did not complete the course, many were actively engaged in the forum discussions and took away feedback from their peers, demonstrating signs of learning that are not routinely captured in the metrics.


To wrap up this post, I would like to record two personal achievements. First, I got to play with Gephi for the first time and it was a lot of fun! Special thanks go to Raquel and Fabio for patiently putting up with all my questions during that time. Second, our findings once again remind me that all students operate differently. Having always been a Lisa Simpson-like student myself, I keep forgetting how ‘strategic’ a student could be with regard to coursework and exam scores. So, I was happy to see that such many learners were willing to engage irrespective of the ‘grading formula’.

I feel like I have grown up a little as a teacher. 🙂


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