Interleaving, Threads, and the MIXABLE MOOC

The Psych 101 MIXABLE MOOC is coming along. As I’ve moved forward on some of the design elements a general template of a module has developed, somewhat organically: Learning Objectives, Readings, Video Lectures & Mini-quizzes, Interleaf/Interleaves, Community. Here’s a screen shot of the introductory module:


Threads (which I have composed of these “interleaves” — is that a botched metaphor?) are probably the most interesting aspect of the design. This behaviorial genetics thread above, for example, continues through the course, covering the topic of Psychology from a slightly different direction that complements the mainline content of the course. In terms of effective design, I associate the approach with some of the work that Robert Bjork has done on interleaving versus massing content (even though the interleaving here is very minimal). But the really interesting part is how threads encourage a smart modularization that is minimally reductive.

The idea is that many individual classes could share the mainline content and schedule, but that different classes might layer different semester-long threads on top of that content. The thread might be a subject thread, such as Behaviorial Genetics, placed there (ala Bjork) to prevent massing of content and encourage integration. But it might also be a project thread, such as the collection of oral histories from victims of violence, followed by the analysis of them using a given framework.

Threads would not be constrained to individual class sections — if an instructor in Boise builds out a really cool thread where students attempt to measure the effectiveness of multiple study patterns on test and project performance while reading recent educational psychology research, then maybe I just borrow that thread for my class. Or maybe I let my students choose from multiple threads. But the course itself can contain multiple, optional threads for different classes and students to pursue.

I have a whole tortured essay in my drafts queue on hypotactic vs. paratactic modularity and how the “threads” approach splits the difference between these structures, but I’ll save that for another day.

Needless competition is what is killing higher education, Followers of the Apocalyspe edition

From David Kernohan’s excellent Clay Shirky is our MP3:

The problem Higher Education does face is that it is a marketplace when it doesn’t need to be. We spend billions of dollars forcing universities to compete without any evidence whatsoever that this leads to a better or cheaper product. We spend more on HE than at any point in our history whilst departments are closing, services are withering and talented young academics are leaving in droves because they have reached their mid 30s without finding anything other than temporary hourly-paid work.

While I think this avoids the impact of cost disease (which is the main driver of us spending more on education) it’s right in the main. The prestige wars have generated very little of social worth. In the U.S. we’ve spent billions of dollars as an industry, with each institution in a fight to climb a couple notches up on the Carnegie Ladder, an endeavor that provides no net gain to students, learning, or the communities we serve. Everybody wants to be the new Harvard, or whatever the next step up is. Everybody wants their separate brand. And thus, the design of every course is built from scratch, or outsourced to an increasingly predatory textbook industry.

The only way to mitigate cost disease is to start sharing work in ways which allow us to build off the innovations and work of others in higher education. We need to start pooling effort instead of relentlessly pursuing brand and ego.

Open online courses are a perfect way to start doing that, and that is the true innovation — the direct-to-consumer piece of MOOCs is not revolutionary (has Clay never bought a book to learn about a subject before? They exist!). But the open piece can be, if it means our institutions find new ways to collaborate in our joint mission of educating the next generation. That, and only that, is the true revolution.

Openness is still the only superpower

Flurry of anti-MOOC, anti-Cousera columns in the Chronicle recently, many fairly well thought out. Doug Guthrie thinks the real direction should be not cohorts, but customized learning (he doesn’t deal much with the mixed history of programmed instruction, but OK). Cathy Davidson argues (I think rightly) that the real future of this stuff has to be a mashup.

These are two radically different views of where we go from here. In a cruel world we would have to decide which of these we wanted to pursue and dedicate resources to and which one we wanted to starve.

But the world is not that cruel; or at least it doesn’t have to be. Both Cathy’s mashup and Doug’s customized class can be wrought from the same base materials, assuming those materials are open.

And this is where I depart from a lot of people I think. I love a good fight over pedagogical techniques and scalable architecture, but I’m less concerned about that than whether in the course of this argument we are producing open, reusable course elements. As long as the argument produces reusable course elements, our options are multiplied in moving forward. More things become possible.

Without that commitment to openness, less things become possible. Competition becomes reductive, instead of expansive.

At the risk of over-pimping the mixable Psych xMOOC I have been working on with many others I want to show you what openness means. Here’s the introduction module to that xMOOC, which I am co-building with other instructional design people and psychologists in our free time:


The idea here is to create an xMOOC style course, but that is not the extraordinary thing about it. Anyone can cut up a video and put some multiple choice questions into it to increase attention and retention of material.

No, the secret sauce here is that this course is not built from scratch.

Take the first couple of readings, textbook style things written by a professor from University of Redlands named T. L. Brink. Who is T. L. Brink? He’s a guy who showed up a while back on open education message boards saying things like this:

T. L. Brink

The stuff he uploaded looked like this, and was in PDFs:


But it was well presented — he’s got a very direct style, and a nice manner of presentation that feels half-textbook, half lecture.

We are taking these PDFs, reformatting them, and uploading them as Canvas Wiki pages like so:


Then, in typical xMOOC style, we are writing fairly simple questions that follow these textbook segments, quizzes which test whether students are doing the readings and help the students rehearse and retain the chapter content:


These are first pass questions — placeholders until our subject matter experts review the material. But in a very short amount of time we are able to piece together a course.

It’s CC-BY-NC-SA, so we can do this sort of thing. And since we license by the same terms, if Brink wants to take advantage of our work at some point and use our framework to deliver his class, then karma comes full circle.

So that’s the main text. What about the videos? The videos are old 2007 Yale Open Courses videos that used to be about an hour long apiece. They are lectures by prominent researcher Paul Bloom — twenty hours in all. In their original format they are one hour long videos, a whole class in one sitting, soup to nuts. Classic OpenCourseWare circa mid-aughts.

In a proprietary world, those videos would be locked in that format until Yale itself decided to do something else with them. Luckily, we don’t live in that world. Here in our office our wonderful new media specialist made quick work of those videos, using cue times provided by Yale bookmarks to cut them into meaningful 10 minute YouTube segments that we could then drop into Canvas:


After we chopped it up and embedded it, we took each of those shorter segments, and threw some quick and simple content rehearsal and light application questions, written by a variety of instructional designers working at various institutions, in between each 10 minute video. What’s more, the questions are pulled out of a quiz bank set up for that video — so we can expand the questions available easily:


To add some depth to the course, we periodically add in readings from a free (and excellent) textbook the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put out on behavioral genetics:


And of course we add assessments and activities around those readings as well. (h/t to, reuse experts extraordinaire, who turned me on to both the AAAS book and the Brink text).

I could go on — we’ve got some peer assessments built in as well (yes, you can do randomly assigned peer assessment without signing a contract with a MOOC company — check out the “more options” section in Canvas assignments). And there are some reading response assignments that accommodate posting on blogs or other outside entities.

I’m pretty proud of how far we’ve come with this in a short time here (and thank you Maria, Ivy, Amy, Larry, Brian, Chris, and others for your help on this).

Is it the world’s flashiest Psych xMOOC? Probably not. But that’s not its superpower. Just as the superpower of the Yale lectures wasn’t that they were the best lectures ever, and the superpower of the Brink textbook wasn’t that Brink was the next William James.

All the authors and lecturers were excellent. And the quality of all the inputs was good, even exceptional. But their superpower was that they were open. And because of that, they can support Doug’s programmed learning vision, or form the content skeleton of Cathy’s mashup vision. Because of that, as we roll forward arguing over the future of learning, each one of those futures becomes more possible, not less. We multiply our opportunities rather than zero-summing them.

That’s the killer feature that is so lacking in these thin corporate offerings, and that’s what we need to bring this discussion back to. Without openness, MOOCs are just another piece of software.

You can see the mixable Psych xMOOC here.  If you want to help out by formatting a section, writing questions, or wrapping awesomeness around it, email me at

Threads and the Wrappable MOOC

Some notes on where I am with MOOC-wrapping right now (with thanks to Amy, Sue, Melinda and everyone else I’ve been bouncing ideas off of).

Right-sizing the wrappable MOOC

My first thought was that a MOOC designed to be wrapped would be best specified at something under the target credits of the course as a whole. So in a simple scenario, you have a course that is an online course spec’d out at 2.5 credits, or an estimated 112 hours of student effort. To that you add 23 or so hours of additional effort/instructor contact in the “wrapper” to get a three credit equivalent course. Voila – you have a DoE-approved 3 credit course, with 135 hours of student time + instruction time, run for only half a credit-hour’s worth of institutional time.

For those that want to try something more ambitious, the wrapped MOOC could be a four credit experience, splitting the first three credits much like above, but leaving 45 hours of room for students to apply their knowledge in an authentic project or community-based experience.

Talking in these credit-hour numbers might seem unromantic, especially if you always grew up knowing you’d have access to face-to-face education. But for those students who have not had access, or have to take on ungodly amounts of debt to get a degree, this formula is pretty extraordinary — even assuming a small cost  to maintain and run the xMOOC core, it puts things like a fifteen to twenty thousand dollar four-year campus-based degree within the grasp of millions.

Rethinking wrapping: Introducing threads

While I still think the two and a half credit MOOC is a perfect size for wrapping, after digging into the Psychology xMOOC it became clear that the institutions wrapping an xMOOC might require more flexibility.

The solution we’ve come up with is threads. Imagine for example, a three credit course consisting of the following elements, along with approximate student time, including studying:

  • 22 Video Lectures, Lecture Review & Video Quizzes: 40 hours
  • 12 Weeks of textbook readings, study, and quizzes: 34 hours
  • 12 Topical Readings, Reading Responses & Peer Evaluations: 12 hours
  • 12 Small Group Online Peer Instruction Sessions: 12 hours
  • Midterm, Multiple Choice (including studying): 12 hours
  • Midterm, Written Portion (open book, untimed): 4 hours
  • Final, Multiple Choice (including studying): 12 hours
  • Final, Written Portion (open book, untimed): 4 hours

So there you go — a 135-hour course. We could strip out some stuff to get down to the 2.5 credits.

But a better plan might be to think of these as “threads” and  allow MOOC participants to participate in any subset they want. So, for instance, let’s suppose that I am a professor that likes the Psych xMOOC, but at my institution we tend to emphasize cognitive psychology more than the xMOOC does. So I tell my students to participate in the xMOOC, but to ignore exercises in the Reading/Reading Response thread. Instead we’ll do a local track of CogSci focused readings, and do the peer evals in our wrapped portion. Or perhaps we’re using a different textbook or set of primary texts, so the students in my class ignore the textbook thread but use the other threads.

On the backend, the MOOC-runner gives the professors doing the wrapping access to scores and completion records for their section. In a system like Canvas, the section’s total grade will be off because on non-completion of some threads, but the percentages on the threads attempted should be good.

Some problems remain, of course. For instance, if the threads are separable, is a unified final assessment even possible? And how do we assess time commitments of students coming from widely different backgrounds anyway? But by modularizing course content longitudinally, threads provide a way to customize the MOOC experience locally while protecting the course from the sort of fragmentation a more lateral modularization might produce.

Anyway, that’s where we are now —

MOOCs after the MOOC is done

I got this email today:

MOOCs after the MOOC


I’m not sure what opinion I have about it, but it’s yet another interesting difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. If you wanted to go to CCK09, an early cMOOC, it’s still there, open to everybody, both in Wikiversity and a Moodle site, and, of course, distributed across the web.

Now, nothing’s perfect, and there is a lot of linkrot with some of the older MOOCs. But it’s definitely a different orientation.

Does this sort of behavior matter to things like MOOC-wrapping? Maybe. We are asking students to make more explicit connections between their courses in things like portfolios and the like. At Keene State part of this new focus is reflected in our commitment to keep old courses accessible to the student as much as possible. So some subcategory of stuff they do in the LMS freshman year will be available to them when taking their senior capstone, and the presence of this older stuff will hopefully help them both understand their progress and see connections they may not otherwise have seen.

So, if we’re wrapping a MOOC that doesn’t save student work and course material for later review, it’s a step back. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s definitely suboptimal. Does anyone know what the policies look like?

Our Mission in a Time of “Disruption”

My old Provost, who is now Chancellor at Washington State University at Vancouver, gave a speech yesterday which contained a paragraph that should be, I think, in every state university leader’s speeches this year. Talking about MOOC-proliferation, he says:

“And it’s not just that we will compete with alternative delivery methods. As an institution that was built to serve its community and that is committed to social justice, fear we run the risk of creating haves and have-nots with regard to students seeking a higher education. Those who can afford the traditional face-to-face experience will get it, and many many will be forced to rely on online-only experiences. I believe our mission as an institution of public higher education calls for more than that.

This is very much the issue. If we don’t find ways to mesh these worlds together we are going to to end up with a world less democratic than what we have now, where online education is the “right”, and face-to-face experience is the luxury good.

I don’t believe access to face-to-face education is luxury any more than face-to-face friendships are a luxury or face-to-face coworkers and colleagues are an extravagance. A balanced life requires all these things, arrayed in synergistic relation; yet reading the education press one can’t help but feel the main unbundling the press is in love with is the separation of our students into those worth the campus experience and those not quite. We will solve the educational access problem by defining access down!

That’s not equitable,  but it’s a solution with a ton of money and momentum behind it. And so one of the highest priorities of any state education system at this point must be to articulate the synergistic vision (yes, the “bundled” vision) and aggressively pursue it. It means, ultimately, taking these technologies into the heart of the academy and using them to stabilize or reduce cost so that type of education we value can be preserved for future generations. I’m glad Mel’s leading the charge on that, and I hope more leaders join him soon.