Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Small is Beautiful – Making it Work

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I’ve been invited to this really interesting “thing”, and heard someone refer to it as a mini-MOOC on twitter, and I responded laughing that you can’t really put “mini” next to the M for Massive in MOOC – especially when something is really quite small (like I think it was intended for 20 people and now they’re around 30 but it’s meant to be small). It’s actually not completely “O” as in “Open” (thought it’s not really closed) but it’s definitely online and course-like.

To be fair, Mike is calling it a “happening” and not really a MOOC, just MOOC-like… it’s become so that any online professional development thing that we do via social media gets called a MOOC, when really, it’s just a… a… a… “thing” πŸ˜‰

Anyway, so it’s gotten me thinking about the beauty of small things, and how intimate, relatively small learning experiences have a beauty of their own. I only teach small classes myself (never taught more than 40 students in one go; and my current undergrad classes are around 20 and grad classes around 5-15). How is it that I’m so comfortable with MOOCs, in all their massiveness? It’s a bit of a trick, really.

Paul Signorelli is the one who alerted me to this. He pointed me to Dunbar’s number. Apparently the total number of stable human relationships people can maintain at any one time is around 150, give or take. I’m assuming this includes our f2f contacts? I’m a little baffled by that number, actually, because I’m pretty sure that some people have large families and their extended family alone (consider someone with 5 siblings, each of them with 4 children; married to a spouse who has 5 siblings each of them with 4 children and you’ve got 40 people right there) and who work in large offices maintain at least that number of stable relationships?

But I’m reflecting this onto MOOCs and I know you can end up interacting briefly with a large number of people in a MOOC, but I personally don’t really get deeply involved with ALL of them. Is that even possible? In MOOCs I’ve been deeply involved in like #rhizo14 and #ccourses, I’ve probably gotten really close to about 10 people, some of whom I’d known before, then got a bit close to like 10 more and then met and interacted fleetingly with maybe 30 people but that’s about all the ones I could probably remember tomorrow. I sense some people have larger capacities at breadth than I do (Howard Rheingold and Alan Levine, for example, look like at some point they’d commented on every single person’s blog… then again, I realize those are all the people whose blogs I had looked at, too, so…)

But I digress. My point is that there is no reason to expect or even desire every learning experience to be MASSIVE for it to be beneficial. Duh. Actually, in a MOOC, we probably each have our own little sub-community thing going anyway* or else we’d never be able to manage (something Peter Taylor wanted to formalize but I like it kept fluid and loose). And then what a coincidence that Kris Shaffer wrote an article for EML entitled Sustainable Pedagogy where he argues for the pedagogical benefit of small classes. Since that article is paywalled for the time being, let me quote some parts of it relevant to what I think Mike is trying to do. Kris asks (not with reference to online experiences, but I’ll keep taking it out of context in this blogpost):

“But what if educators started thinking small again? Doing something important, doing it well, doing it sustainably, and helping others replicate the success?”

In Mike’s case, he’s trying an experiment and he wants to be able to help people through it, probably also wants to be able to see how they do with it, and I think he’s picked people whom he believes will commit and be enthusiastic about the project. In a MOOC (even a cMOOC) you’ll have many signups, some peripheral participation, and some deep engagement. I’m expecting with this small, invitation-type thing with many of the participants knowing each other knowing Mike, etc., it might be more like a credit-bearing course in terms of commitment. It’s also brief enough to warrant that kind of focus, I think. Just two weeks.

Now Kris Shaffer is a genius at giving examples specific to the context of Music (which he teaches) and making analogies with a wider educational point he is making. So he compares the orchestra where there are many people involved, following a conductor (expensive, needs lots of resources), to a large lecture hall, with many students and a teacher-centered pedagogy. And then he contrasts this with what are called “small ensembles” where students gather in small groups, and have more freedom to experiment away from the instructors. He points out the sustainability of these smaller arrangements (low cost, can take place anywhere) but also the pedagogical benefit of enhancing student agency. Kris points out that:

“Because these kinds of endeavors are small, when a new experiment fails, the impact is minimal. But because these kinds of endeavors are sustainable, when a new experiment succeeds, they can be replicated. And that means we can β€œgo big.””

He also makes the following interesting points “education-at-scale limits the intellectual, pedagogical, and cultural diversity of our classes. One-size-fits-all education rarely fits anyone well”. He is also quick to notice that

“Going small doesn’t always mean more student freedom…. but education-at-scale almost always means increased rigidity, simply to keep the machine moving. That rigidity often runs counter to student freedom, and therefore their intellectual growth.”

I’ve seen many small classes taught in a didactic teacher-centric manner. What a shame. However, I have also seen large classes taught in student-centered ways – if the teacher is willing to let go of control and allow students to do their own thing. I imagine that if I ever had to teach a large class, I’d teach it in a similar way … but I can’t know this for sure until I’ve tried it and experienced the challenges it poses. I’d go crazy not knowing every individual student’s name, so maybe if there are more than 100 students I’d never feel comfortable. Heck, I can’t imagine more than 60.

So… ummm back to the Mike thing. He’s calling it a “happening”. He’s been tweeting about how worried he is about “teaching” it and being prepared, etc. Several of us have been trying to reassure him that it’ll turn out OK. I get how he doesn’t want the tech to get in the way and wants to be able to support people with diff tech abilities, etc. But my thinking is this:

1. Having a small enough group of (hopefully committed) people working on the same thing around the same time, with some intensity, *should* in itself create a dynamic of automatic community tech support. Sort of. Kind of like when I was an undergrad student and we’d all be working on an assignment in the same lab and helping each other out. Whoever finishes looks over their shoulder to help the other. The group of people lined up for the happening are all that kind of person – helpful, open, engaged, connected. That in itself bodes well, I think. The fact that we’re all educators into #edtech, or techies into education (the 2/3 of the group I know, anyway) also bodes well.

2. Mike’s trying to think of how to make things into small, manageable tasks but still keeping people engaged. I’m thinking… you’re not really going to know what’s going to engage whom (even though most of us actually know each other) until you ask them… and they’re not all going to know what they want to do with FedWiki until they can see the big picture (not the small tasks). Now I’m sure many of us have read about FedWiki on Mike’s blog or seen some of Ward’s videos (it seems few of the people involved have actually played with it properly, which is interesting in itself). So I may be different from other people, but I like to see the big picture before getting into the small tasks. I already know a little of what FedWiki does but I think it’s a lot more than that… and I’d like to have a big project in mind coming in, and see how it fits. That might make me lose sight of some of the features, which is why doing it in a group with other people doing other stuff will be eye-opening. By the way, if you’re wondering the “project” I have in mind is the #rhizo14 collaborative autoethnography. Keith, Sarah and I are definitely interested in trying FedWiki for that – and we were talking about it for a while before this “happening” started. My idea for the CAE being a FedWiki is that a FedWiki would allow both the “opening of parallel pages” aspect, and also the “forking” where each one of us could create a “perspective” or “vision” of the autoethnog different from the others, and then others could pull it back up to theirs… so it would be kind of like… the process of interpreting the autoethnog (so each could work on their own fork) but also the output of the autoethnog, so readers can wade thru different versions. Or some such crazy thing like that.

3. So I mean, it’s fine for Mike to want to “design” it and everything πŸ˜‰ I just think it will emerge well because of the people involved and that they’ll make it what they make it and I am really optimistic about what will come out of this.

Now this post has been vague enough – I’ll be blogging more properly about this whole thing once I get my head around it and dig deeper… πŸ™‚

*Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, Dave Cormier’s inviting people to fork #rhizo15 – take a look here – noooo idea how that’s going to turn out, but I love the idea behind it just the same πŸ˜‰

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