Rather Random

How to participate in an open online course

The first few weeks of an open online course are the most disorienting. As a learner, you approach the course with expectations that have been defined by previous learning experiences. You look for readings, you look for the discussion space, and you look to the instructor to detail the content that you need to learn and how you will be evaluated. 

Let go of those expectations. An open online course is quite different. You create your own spaces of interaction - whether on a blog, or in a google group, or in some other place. You contribute to shaping and defining the course. Yes, the weekly facilitators will provide some readings and resources, but you’ll shape and redirect those as you interact with them. You’ll create artifacts such as images, audio recordings, and blog posts that represent how you have made sense of the content. Each of the sensemaking artifacts produced by participants becomes a node in a growing learning and knowledge networks. These nodes often recentre the conversation from what the facilitator had planned. The curriculum develops as a result of participants contributions and interactions. In an open online course, your role is to create and share, not to merely duplicate the content that others have defined as important. 

What can you expect in the first few weeks? You’ll encounter far more content than you can possibly read. You’ll encounter many colleagues from around the world. You’ll want to connect with many of them, but time likely won’t permit. You’ll receive daily emails from us as well as invitations to live discussion sessions. Most likely, you’ll find this overwhelming because your previous learning experiences taught you to try and read/understand everything. Again, let go of that expectation. A MOOC is a network. If a node of information is truly important, you’ll encounter it again. Don’t try and read everything. Read what interests you and what is relevant to you in your life or work. If you find a few people to be particularly insightful, take time to comment on their blogs. Join a few sub-groups as well. These will be posted throughout the course in The Daily (that’s the email we send out Monday-Friday). Usually, they develop when one person finds a frustration with the course and decides to fix it and share her solution with others. 

When an online course is held in a learning management system like Moodle, and if you’re familiar with the technology, you really only have to orient yourself to the course content. In a MOOC, however, you have to first orient yourself to the environment and space of learning. This process is defined as wayfinding - learning the cues, markers, and spaces in which the course occurs. Secondly, you have to orient yourself to the course content. In Change11, the content is rapidly changing as each week introduces and new topic. It will get a bit overwhelming, but after a few weeks, you’ll find that the course structure and format make sense. 

Here then are my steps to participating in a MOOC:

1. Somewhat define your goals. What is success to you?

2. Declare/Define yourself - where can people find you? Twitter? Your blog? Give enough information so people can connect with you. An image never hurts.

3. Plan your interaction habits. These will evolve as the course progresses, but having a sense of “I’m going to spend 30 minutes each morning, Monday to Friday on this course” can help to give you a sense of accomplishment. It’s tough to feel like you’re making progress if you haven’t given some boundaries to your participation habits.

4. Build your network through participation and interaction with others. This is critical. Take time to comment on course participant blogs, share ideas with them, connect on Twitter, etc. One of the most valuable aspects of open courses is the network you build as you take the course. 

5. Think about how you’ll manage course information. How do you capture important articles? (Diigo? Delicious?). How do you handle academic papers that you want to reference in the future? How you handle information will evolve throughout the course, but you’ll find it helpful to think about it in advance. I’ve detailed my process for information management here.

6. Create and share. As you come to make sense of course content and as you gain insight into your teaching and learning practices, you are uniquely positioned to connect with other learners who are at similar stages. Sharing your artifacts of sensemaking can be extremely valuable to learners. Blog your ideas. Create images and concept maps. Try making a short video. Create. Share. These digital trails will be helpful for future reflection on your learning process as well.

7. Fix what’s missing. As this course progresses, you’ll be struck with thoughts of “why did they organize it this way? Why didn’t they create XX?” That is your inner creator crying out for an opportunity to play. Solve the problem you’ve noticed and invite others to join you. 

8. Manage you expectations. An open online course can have many learners and a high degree of activity, especially at the start. However, don’t be disappointed if your brilliant post only gets one or two comments. Or if your time spent on Twitter only produces a few followers. Don’t get distracted by metrics that might seem important, but don’t actually contribute to your learning. When I first started blogging, I was so focused on getting noticed that I wasn’t focusing on the things that were actually valuable to me (such as personal learning and growth).

9. Persistence. Building a strong learning network takes time and effort. One or two blog posts will likely not do it. If you’re goal is to connect with learners from around the world, a MOOC is a great start. Try a three-month challenge: daily tweets, one blog post a week, three comments on posts by other course participants. Stick with it. After three months, you’ll be rather impressed with the network you’ve managed to create.

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