Ponderances of Steve

September 27, 2010

Why MOOC Engagement is So Hard

Filed under: Coaching — Steve LeBlanc @ 12:45 am


A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. It offers a social media framework to support open, informal, social learning on a topic. The MOOC I joined was called #PLENK2010 (Personal Learning Environment, Network, Knowledge). #PLENK2010 started in September 2010 and runs for 10 weeks. It was created to support several research projects on the subjects of PLE and emergent learning. Topics included learning theory, social learning, LMS (Learning Management Systems), PLE’s, PLN’s and Connectivism & Constructivism. I registered late, with no bad consequences.

Within the forums and Elluminate sessions, there was some discussion about why a MOOC is so frustrating. One reason is the way in which we think about classes. A traditional class has requirements, goals, tests and clear limits to what will be covered. The teacher’s job is to walk you through the material and insure that you learn it in the prescribed way. We are comforted by the milestones and limits of the class. We celebrate our completion. And our grades tell us how we did. When it’s over, it’s over. A traditional class is a good example of formal learning.

So it’s no surprise that when we drop these students into a MOOC, they are going to get frazzled. Such frustrations, we are told, is the norm and to be expected. I had to wonder if that was just a cop out for poor design. Even the navigation was challenging. But maybe the design was not so bad after all.

A MOOC has almost none of the safety features of a traditional class. Sure, it has a time, a topic and a location online. By that I mean a place to discuss the material under the loosest supervision of some moderators. It has no objective to achieve, no goals beyond that which you bring to it. It has no tests to tell you how you’re doing. There are no milestones beyond the abstractions of statistics. There is not even a glossary, unless of course, you decide to work on one for the group, which we did. There are no assignments or attendance requirements. There are suggested readings sent out in the Daily newsletter to offer a starting point. But you are not expected to read them all. Indeed, you are told it would be impossible to read all the suggested readings and forum posts. I concur.

In a MOOC, you are encouraged to take a whole new approach to learning. You are asked to step up and create your own flight path, your own adventure. To where you ask? Well, that’s part of the challenge. You are invited (dare I say begged) to make the class into what you want, to change the system at will. If you need a feature not currently available, such as a private chat room to discuss sensitive things, one can be set up for you. If you want to open up a new discussion in the forum, just do it. If there are parts of the system that could work better, tell someone who can fix it.

You are asked to bring order to this massive pile of information. To all of it? No. Remember that in this ever growing field of data, you can never wrap your head around all of it. Be selective. Skim the headlines in the Daily newsletter. Don’t feel like you have to read them all. Just pick the ones that interest you. If you don’t like the writing style or the discussion, then move on. There is too much good stuff to get stuck in parts you don’t like.

In this new approach to learning in a MOOC no real thoroughness is possible. So you need to release the fantasy of doing it all right. That fantasy is at the root of suffering on a MOOC.

Be the explorer. Chart out a plan to learn all you can about some small slice of the puzzle. Find the best articles and resources in this area and curate them. By that I mean arrange them in an order that makes more sense and is easier to digest. Be like a museum curator and decide what is important and how it should be displayed. Produce a field guide to the area and make it freely available to others. That’s the “Open” aspect of a MOOC. Summarize key points of long threads to save others the arduous work of having to plod through 90 comments.

Blog to Engage & Learn

One of the best ways to engage in a MOOC is to create posts on your own blog to report what you are learning. Don’t have a blog? Get one. They’re free and easy. You might be wondering, what if no one sees my post? What if no one comments on my blog or finds it useful in any way? Then what? Am I just wasting my time?

As it turns out, every new blogger shares this concern. Just know this. It always takes longer to develop followers and comments than you think it should. Do it anyway. Keep posting. And when you comment on blogs and forums, go ahead and make appropriate references back to your blog posts. Eventually, if you stay with it, you will find your audience and develop your network, a circle of people who care very much about what you have to say and what questions you have.

Beyond the service you provide others in your blog, there is another compelling reason for writing posts about what you are learning. Your blog can serve as a public repository for notes to yourself. Those notes will document the insights and conclusions of all your travels through the field, and perhaps even your frustrations. A year from now you might want to review your notes, for surely you will have forgotten much of what made your learnings so powerful at the time.

Blog because you learn better with it. By reporting your struggles to learn the material, you learn better. By summarizing, reviewing and debating the ideas of the course, you learn better. By writing for an audience, you write better and thereby learn better. By making your journey open through the use of blogs and forum comments, you not only serve others, but you also do the extra work of sense making that leads to deeper integration of the materials.

As you give the material away in a form that works for others, you make it more your own. We teach best what we most need to learn. — Fritz Perls. And we we learn best that which we teach others.

So why is a MOOC so hard? Because it breaks all of our expectations about what is supposed to happen in a class. We are asked to transform from the passive role of student to the more active role of self-directed learner. Our new role makes us ever more responsible for our own learning, in a way that might just expose us and make us appear silly. That is a daunting undertaking, even for the most web-savvy students. The good news is that you can’t really fail, unless you apply the old rules to the new situation. Survive a MOOC and you’ll come out of it a better person. Thrive in it and you’ll come out a better leader.

NOTE: Much of this was culled from forum posts and Elluminate sessions of #PLENK.


http://ple.elg.ca/plenk2010/ PLENK 2010 Blog
http://connect.downes.ca/ Welcome to the Course PLENK2010
http://ple.elg.ca/course/moodle/mod/wiki/view.php?id=60&page=Recordings PLENK2010 Recordings on Elluminate
http://wthashtag.com/Plenk2010 Transcript of #PLENK2010 Tweets



  1. […] Posted on September 27, 2010 by suifaijohnmak| Leave a comment I read Steve’s post on “Why engagement in MOOC (PLENK2010) is so hard” with great interests. Many thanks […]

    Pingback by #PLENK2010 Research into the Design and Delivery of MOOC (I) | Suifaijohnmak's Weblog — September 27, 2010 @ 2:59 am | Reply

  2. That pretty well sums up my outlook on this, my first MOOC. I’d add to that, the frustration of never having enough time to look into anything thoroughly.

    Comment by Jim Stauffer — September 27, 2010 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

    • @Jim Stauffer

      Yes, it’s my first MOOC too. And I share your frustrations. A few things I did look into sort of deeply. Tons of info.

      Comment by Steve LeBlanc — September 27, 2010 @ 11:28 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Steve – great post; I really enjoyed it. Particularly the stuff about exposing ourselves and feeling silly – I think that’s pretty important for learning 🙂


    Comment by Lindsay — September 28, 2010 @ 1:56 am | Reply

  4. Thanks Steve, your post has made me feel a whole lot less guilty about missing week 2 of PLENK in its entirety, and about feeling swamped by week 3 already 🙂

    Comment by Nicky Hockly — September 28, 2010 @ 10:34 am | Reply

  5. @Lindsay

    I’m delighted you liked it. I agree that feeling silly is important to learning. When we move out of our comfort range, we open up new neural pathways in the brain. I loved your ReTweet of this post, “Reading Steve LeBlanc – The value of exposing yourself and risking looking silly” Wish I’d said that. I also enjoyed your blog. It’s insightful, warm and on target for my learning journey. http://www.lindsayjordan.edublogs.org “Life through a Linz” Very cleaver. “Linz” is how an American would hear the word “lense” spoken by a Brit.

    @Nicky Hockly

    Wonderful. Less guilt is always good. I often say that you can’t learn in the presence of guilt, at least not well. Anything we can do to lower guilt is good. Guilt creates barriers in relationships and is a cheap substitute for real accountability. To account for is to admit what you did without fanfare. Feeling bad is optional, and usually gets in the way. I feel swamped too. And I keep forgiving myself for my “poor organization”. Ya know … it sort of makes sense to feel swamped … when you’re actually in a swamp. Yep, I propose a MOOC is a swamp, a messy wet landfill of information. Thanks for the RT.

    @all I’m delighted to get this quality of people commenting on my blog. Feeling blessed. Thank you.

    Comment by Steve LeBlanc — September 28, 2010 @ 11:47 am | Reply

  6. Just read a fascinating paper about e-resonance, Steve, and I’m sure I connected to your blog post socially, conceptually, and neurally. Prior to reading the paper, I’d have just thought that your post resonated so much because I was touched by how sensitively you wrote about the value of blogging for your own learning and per chance to curate and contribute to that of others.

    Thanks for an inspiring message!

    Comment by criscrissman — September 28, 2010 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  7. Hey @Cris

    Very cool, this e-resonance stuff. And thank you. This may be the post you read: The Riddle of Online Resonance by Matthias Melcher and Jenny Mackness http://bit.ly/9ndjnl #PLENK2010 Deep stuff: “What is it in an online environment that causes/enables one person to recognise another, in that first instance of ‘meeting’, as a potential learning partner, colleague or friend and to make the connection?”

    I’ve been fortunate to have had that connection in a big way when I first connected with someone writing a book. She’d posted some questions to her 2000 Twitter followers and I alone came back with 3 pages of suggestions, followed by 6 more pages. We had a blast collaborating, even if it did get emotional at times. But I had felt it the moment I read her Twitter Landing page, months before the book. We later collaborated on an article I wrote and that too was great. I’ve felt that connection with a few others online, but I’ve done little by way of follow up. I hope to come out of my shell in the way you have in your comment. It is arguably the whole reason I have studied PLN for a year and joined this MOOC. Just don’t quite have it yet. Thanks again.

    Comment by Steve LeBlanc — September 29, 2010 @ 12:16 am | Reply

  8. If you create the knowledge yourself and the MOOC is whatever you want to make of it. Why bother with a MOOC? If you want to create your own learning. You don’t need a MOOC or any other type of course.
    I would see a course as a guided trip through content and skills development by someone who knows the way.
    An explorer can either cross the mountains making his/her own decisions and guessing or they can follow the aboriginal guides who know the way. This is faster to achieve the objective. On the other hand, you could try your own route and perhaps discover something better. This is good but why follow a guide and then go your own way??
    All the best.

    Comment by Rory McGreal — October 9, 2010 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

    • @Rory
      “Why bother with a MOOC if you make it what you want?” You raise an excellent question, one that most who join a MOOC ask themselves. For many, the frustration is too much. When you know where you want to go, the guidance of a traditional class saves time. When you don’t know, then you can’t measure efficiency in quite the same way.

      A MOOC is ideally suited to provide a space to explore new issues, ones where there are few obvious answers. You might think of a MOOC as a map-making workshop for a new terrain, where you are encouraged to pick an area and create a map to share. The MOOC I am in, #PLENK2010 is focused on the discussion of PLE’s, PLN’s and PKM. Among other things, we want to see how the work of early adopters of these technologies and ideas might serve students in traditional schools. But the terms themselves are so fluid, that we spent the first week just trying to define them.

      One benefit of a MOOC is having lots of seriously smart and passionate people all discussing something I am trying to wrap my head around. That way I don’t feel so alone or so dumb, when I see how others are also struggling with the ideas. Where else can I be in the same room with these people? The MOOC supplies a framework in which to hold the discussion, such as forums and blogs and Elluminate sessions. It allows us the opportunity to build maps for each other and also to cluster into groups of shared interests. By requiring us to build the kind of network we are studying (a PLN), we begin to understand the deeper challenges that others may face in building their own. We are the map makers, the early explorers, the instructional designers who may someday turn this information into plain old courses.

      Comment by Steve LeBlanc — October 9, 2010 @ 2:22 pm | Reply

  9. […] another post comes along. This time from Steve LeBlanc, a MOOC participant. Steve reflects on the MOOC he has […]

    Pingback by A MOOC from the Outside « Learning in the workplace — October 11, 2010 @ 4:36 am | Reply

  10. […] Steve LeBlanc has a new post discussing issues behind participation in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC). From the post: In a MOOC, you are encouraged to take a whole new approach to learning. You are asked to step up and create your own flight path, your own adventure. To where you ask? Well, that’s part of the challenge. […]

    Pingback by MOOC Engagement | — October 12, 2010 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  11. Thank you very much, Steve. I liked your post a lot and it shows exactly how I feel when I join to a MOOC, such as PLENK10. Although I have studied, read, researched and discussed things about classes being less traditional, formal and prescritive , when dealing with this situation in practice it is not easy to adopt all of these concepts of being opened to the world, having connectivism, sharing experinces, being autonomous and also participative.

    Comment by Cristina — October 13, 2010 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

    • Cristina,

      You are so welcome. Glad to help. This stuff is still hard for me to wrap my head around. I get it and lose it and get it again, which may be the natural path of learning. Let me know if I can do more.

      Comment by Steve LeBlanc — October 13, 2010 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

  12. @Stephen Downes says on A MOOC from the Outside « Learning in the workplace:

    “What’s interesting to me (Stephen Downes) is that this post follows his own advice – he has taken a small part of the course (various threads of complaints), curated them, brought order to them, and passed them along.” http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=53890

    Way cool. Thanks for noticing.

    Comment by Steve LeBlanc — October 13, 2010 @ 4:33 pm | Reply

  13. You’ve hit the nail on the head! Hope you’re enjoying the experience though!

    Comment by Rita Kop — October 13, 2010 @ 6:21 pm | Reply

    • @Rita,

      Thank you so much. First Stephen, and now Rita. I feel like a MOOC celebrity.

      Comment by Steve LeBlanc — October 13, 2010 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

  14. Thank you Steve. I’m 3 weeks behind the program with PLENK2010, trying to work out where I’m going with this and this post was a breath of fresh air. The whole project is seriously daunting, especially when faced with normal job requirements as well. Luckily I’ve taken an extra weeks holiday before heading back to school for our last term of the year.

    I really appreciate the advice concerning the MOOC but especially that about using a blog as a professional reflection tool. It is easy to lose track of chains of thought and I think myself flighty at the best of times. I come across bits of paper on my desk of something I wrote down months ago that I didn’t follow up. It seems the beauty of blogging is the occasional nudge you receive from a peer who has read an old entry and given their little piece of wisdom which spurs you on. This brings to mind Steve Johnson’s TED talk “Where good ideas come from” http://tiny.cc/purlsd9vsr.

    Anyway thank you very much. I feel invigorated and ready to begin PLENKing anew!

    Comment by Ian Woods — October 14, 2010 @ 6:13 am | Reply

    • @Ian,

      I’m delighted this helped so much. It was good for me as well to summarize and document what I was learning. I still struggle with some of the points, such as using my blog for professional reflection. I only post to my blog one article for every 5 or 10 that I write. The others are in various stages of formation, some messy, some ugly, some too long. I am trying to post more frequently while in this MOOC. Thank you for being my nudge to post more and better stuff. As for that TED video, I had recently seen it and it’s one of my favorites. I just viewed it again. I love how he finishes by saying, “Chance favors the connected mind.”

      Comment by Steve LeBlanc — October 14, 2010 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  15. […] I don’t think I could say it any better than Steve did. See https://sleve.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/why-mooc-engagement-is-so-hard/ […]

    Pingback by MOOC Difficulties? « For the Love of Teaching — October 14, 2010 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

  16. Great post. Educationalists are often criticised for not preparing their students for life.

    I’m going to quote from your description of a MOOC, and replace the first TWO words, and then just chop a few sentences out. Instead of “A MOOC”, I’m going to write “Life.” Now read that paragraph again; it sounds as if a this is exactly what we need.

    “Life has almost none of the safety features of a traditional class. Sure, it has a time, a topic and a location …It has no objective to achieve, no goals beyond that which you bring to it. It has no tests to tell you how you’re doing. There are no milestones beyond the abstractions of statistics. There is not even a glossary, unless of course, you decide to work on one for the group, which we did. There are no assignments or attendance requirements. There are suggested readings…But you are not expected to read them all. Indeed, you are told it would be impossible to read all the suggested readings and forum posts. I concur.”

    Sounds as if this is a lesson that should be given to every child when entering school. And maybe, a MOOC might do that. 🙂

    Comment by Ken — October 18, 2010 @ 6:48 am | Reply

  17. […]  Some participants found it ok in managing their time in the course whilst others often found it hard, due to personal reasons and often feelings of overwhelming amount of information to be covered, […]

    Pingback by #PLENK2010 Research on MOOC & PLENK | Suifaijohnmak's Weblog — October 23, 2010 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

  18. […] post is part of my participation in the #PLENK2010 MOOC […]

    Pingback by PLN Competencies « Ponderances of Steve — October 25, 2010 @ 1:28 am | Reply

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