The Answer to Project-based Work in MOOCs is Federation

Matt Crosslin, who’s a pretty smart guy, has an article in the EduGeek Journal about dual-layer MOOCs. This is an idea I’ve been pursuing for quite some time, and studied for a bit but never quite was able to pull together.

What even readers of this blog may not realize is that its been this chain of failure  and partial success that’s got me to the idea of federation as a model for coursework instead of syndication. It seemed zig-zaggy at the time, but in hindsight there’s been a pretty clear trajectory in my thought from the idea of the “xMOOC as the chewy center of the cMOOC” through the “Feed-Forward” Psych MOOC we launched at Keene State College to the research on non-communication in blended xMOOCs, to the ultimately aborted Water106 project (a failed project which strangely seems to be inspiring more people than projects of mine that have launched successfully — weird what a mockup can do).

Anyway, Matt identifies the right problem around authentic PBL work in MOOCs and comes up with a good analogy, but I think selects the wrong implementation model. First, let me restate his analogy, because I think it’s worthwhile:

In order to do this, we would have to stop thinking about group work in the typical ways we usually do: instructor assigns groups, forces all people in groups, and groups never change the whole course. We need to think of these groups in a different paradigm. If you are familiar with river tubing, think of how groups form in that activity. For those who are not familiar, here is a visual:


As individual tubers float down the river, they drift in and out of groupings as needed. Maybe they stick with people they knew the whole time. Maybe they make new friends as they go and the group grows. Maybe one group wants to go look at something that the others don’t. But the groupings of tubes are constantly changing, growing, and morphing. Some stay solo, some stay in the same group. But as the river (the course) flows, the structure is flexible enough to change over time. (I wish I could find an animated gif of river tubers to better illustrate).

But then Matt veers toward a Reddit-style solution:

So, layer this flexible grouping system on top of a Reddit system that allows learners to create and up-vote learner content (that can then be used as the problems in PBL), and allow the groups to form around these ideas. It would kind of be like tubers that discuss what drinks to bring, then putting the ones that won the vote into coolers, and those various coolers end up being what draws in the groups of tubers (which would of course change and morph as they float down the river).

I haven’t tubed much, so maybe I’m mis-reading the metaphor. But it seems to me the hard part of the problem is not the initial organization of groups here, but that behavior in the last parenthetical clause:

 (which would of course change and morph as they float down the river).

Solve that, and work backwards. And what you need for that to happen is not a centralized voting and sorting mechanism, but a way that people can easily be exposed to second and third order nodes, and move easily through those networks.

How does federated content solve this? In the case of federated wiki it’s simple — when I pull someone else’s work into my own space, I become connected to the people who have worked on that document. They enter my “neighborhood”.  Now search, link resolution, recent changes and other features include products from them — writing, data, visualizations, problem sets, whatever. As good and useful products travel through the network they create connections which can be further explored. Move off that content, and on to different content and my neighborhood morphs, automatically.

Note the difference — people don’t vote on content around which to create groups — rather they *use* the content, and for each person that use connects them to the creators of that content in specific ways.

Let me show you how this might work — check out the five minute screencast below.

If you haven’t watched the screencast and you are interested in technology to support self-organizing groups, I can’t emphasize enough that you really need to watch the screencast now.

Federation is hard to get in theory, but relatively easy to get in practice. But getting it is essential. Just as syndication formed the basis for the explosion of creativity in online pedagogy over the past ten years, federation is likely to provide the basis for the next decade of experimentation if we’re willing to spend the time to wrap our head around it.



13 thoughts on “The Answer to Project-based Work in MOOCs is Federation

  1. Sorry about that – I had to condense a lot of thought in there. Some got muddled in the condensing. My initial thought was that the groups would mostly form separately from the content coming up through the reddit-like system. A few might form around really popular stuff, but most would pre-exist. That formation process is still a big fuzzy, so I need to look at the screencast when I get a chance. That reddit-ish system would be a way to give groups ideas of what to do, problems to solve, etc. As well as possibly give designers an idea of what is missing or needs to be clarified or added to the content. So the idea I was considering was that the “coolers end up being what draws in the *pre-existing* groups of tubers.” Some groups would have their own coolers, others would need to use others because they don’t have a problem to solve.

  2. Hey – I absolutely am guilty of the same compression. But check out the screencast — it only scratches the surface, but I’m convinced that federation has a large role to play in this.

    Oh also since I created feel free to “claim” it and use it.

    • Wondering this too – if git was used as a backend support for something like this without the Wiki engine. I can see there’s more complexity built into this model but I wonder if it could be simplified to a flat-file and folder based system with git.

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