On interactions and scalability in online learning


Expert CC by Pete Prodoehl

I’m not attending ASCILITE 2013 but I am following the Twitter stream closely and occasionally comment into the stream. This can be dangerous because sometimes the tweets don’t really represent the full intent of the speaker meaning that my comments are then out of context. This happened this morning when I read the tweets about Gregor Kennedy’s keynote presentation in which he talked about interactions between students and teachers in online courses. The tweets seemed to be suggesting that Kennedy was saying that we had gone too far with a student centred approach and that more emphasis should be placed on teacher to student interaction. I took this as a call to return to the sage on the stage model of teacher knows best and tweeted my disappointment. But Kennedy wasn’t really saying this. He was saying that the balance between teacher centred interactions and student centred interactions needed to be redressed. I agree with this idea that students can and should interact with experts during their learning.

A big question is how this can be scaled to large numbers of students in a learning environment. No doubt much of Kennedy’s thinking is informed by the University of Melbourne’s Coursera MOOCs that have very large numbers of students and, consequently, very little teacher to student interaction. This is, obviously, a common trait of all large scale xMOOCS.

What I’ll try and do now is present one possible model for a learning environment that promotes appropriate interactivity over a large scale. Now let’s  say we have a course with 10,000 students enrolled in it (it can be any number really); how can a teacher or even a team of teachers get the necessary interactions occurring between them and the students. The problem occurs with the definition of teachers and students. I believe that every participant in the course is a participant learner, even those that created the course. These learners have varying degrees of subject matter expertise ranging from none to a master of the subject. What we need to do is to enable interactions between learners with high subject matter expertise with those with none or low expertise. Ideally there will be enough high level subject matter expert (SME) learners in the cohort (not just the teaching group) to facilitate those interactions. Now that’s easy to say but how do you make it happen? How do you get SMEs to stay in the learning environment.

Here are some possible steps:

Create a learning environment for the course that is open and continuous.

That is to say that anyone can join the course space at any time or leave at any time, the content is open to registered and unregistered alike. Learning material is surrounded by interactions and there are general interaction spaces through discussion areas. The idea is to build up an open community of learning. There is no ‘course offering’ as such.  When the learner feels ready they can request summative assessment from the University.

Learners self proclaim their level of expertise.

Everybody can see what level another user things they are at in the subject. They can see when they are interacting with an SME or a novice. This helps them judge the value of that interaction accordingly.

Allow for voting on the value of a piece of interaction.

Valuable contributions from SMEs will be voted up. All users will be able to see the total votes for a learner. Subject matter experts that contribute and interact will get large numbers of votes. Even novice learners will be encouraged to contribute by the transparency of the record of interactions.

Retain and grow the number subject matter experts.

How do you get subject matter experts to stay in the learning space?

  • They’ll stay if they feel as though they are still learning.
  • Many SME’s enjoy the intrinsic nature of passing on their expertise.
  • Subject matter experts can clearly demonstrate to employers, colleagues and others, their level of expertise and the recognition that it has gathered in the learning space. This is a powerful motivator in the age of sharing.
  • Maybe even reward them with micropayments. If the course is running at a profit then why not?

Does any of this sound familiar? It should because it’s pretty much how Reddit works. Over 70 million registered monthly users and many more regular visitors go to a site that, allows users to contribute, share and interact with others over pieces of content.

What I’m saying is that by rethinking how a course runs as a periodic set of activities that is repeated regularly to, instead, have a permanent space that builds up a large audience and by attracting and retaining SMEs to contribute to that subject you can scale to very large numbers without relying on a small teaching team for all of the interactions.

This model has huge implications for delivery of higher education. It certainly will be viewed by many as unworkable. I disagree and I suspect that if higher education institutions don’t start thinking about models such as this then someone else will and by then SMEs will have voted with their feet and gone somewhere where they feel loved and rewarded.

What do you think? Is such a radical change possible? Would it work?


4 Comments On “On interactions and scalability in online learning”

  1. Hi Mark. For a slightly more extreme version of Kennedy’s point of view try Judy Lattas’s 2009 “Dear learner: shame and the dialectics of enquiry”. It make a very strong case for learner to learner emphasis corresponding with a managerial elimination of the teacher.


  2. I think it is possible and it can work.

    At first I baulked at your claim that “very little teacher to student interaction” is a common trait of all large scale xMOOCS. Not prima facie, but in that there is very little teacher to student interaction in cMOOCs too – by definition.

    UNLESS the learners are considered teachers too. I love your idea of the participants self proclaiming their level of expertise in order to support the learning of their fellow participants.

    I’ve actually predicted (privately) that MOOCs will become continuous, with the official teachers participating only in specific periods during the year. The idea of using SMEs to support the “teaching” – both during these specific periods and in-between times – can sustain this model.


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