Two Worlds Colliding

by Bonnie Stewart, Inside Higher Education, with thanks to University of Venus for permission to publish here:

So, I’m having the learning experience of a lifetime. I’m in doctoral student heaven.

With the context of my course structure this fall, there’s lots to read and lots to do. I interact and grapple with ideas from multiple perspectives. I mentor and teach; I am mentored and taught in return. I work through my ideas in writing and in casual conversation, and in video or podcast or any other modality I choose. I publish. I get critical feedback. On a variety of platforms, my fellow learners and I talk about theory and educational applications. We speak across disciplinary boundaries.

It’s heady, and challenging. It’s also not a course in my program. Or my university. There is no recognized channel by which to represent its value on my academic CV.

It’s a MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course: specifically, it’s #change11, a 36 week exploration of the theme of Change: Learning, Education, and Technology, worldwide.

There are 36 facilitators. I’m one, though my week of leadership comes near the tail-end of the course. I’m also a participant, with over 2000 other registered people. It’s free and unregulated: a chance to engage in coordinated conversations about learning and connect with folks whose interests intersect with and enhance my own.

It’s the largest and most ambitious in a series of MOOC-style courses offered over the last three or four years at the intersections of education and technology. And it’s a model that’s catching on: Stanford is running a muchhyped massive open online course on Artificial Intelligence this fall, with tens of thousands of reputed registrants.

It’s likely that only a few participants – in either the Stanford course or #change11 – will complete all the assignments set out by instructors. That isn’t the point of this kind of radically open learning experience. There are weekly topics, some with suggested activities, but the majority of engagement is what Axel Bruns calls produsage: a networked system in which participants both create and consume content.

Learners in #change11 essentially do what people have been doing on social media for years, within a loosely-organized structure: they write blog posts, create video, and expound on discussion questions, and then comment on the posts and videos and contributions of others, amplifying what they find most engaging. Conversations erupt, ideas are debated, and ties are formed between participants, all at once. With hundreds of posts coming through the #change11 course feed every week, taking it all in isn’t possible: I choose and contextualize, focusing on applications to my own practices and research. I’ve been involved with MOOCs for awhile, as both a participant and a researcher, and the repeated lesson for me has been that it’s what I do focus on that matters: the questioning, the exploring, the connecting with others.

Now, #change11 is not my only learning environment. I am also a conventional grad student, researching social media and identity in an Education faculty at a small university with a fledgling Ph.D. program. Three of us completed our residency last June. Two more are immersed in the coursework this fall. Obviously, for sheer numbers, the face-to-face experience can’t compete: the overlap of interests in my tiny cohort is minimal, especially when compared with an experience like the MOOC. But I like my faculty, and my colleagues. And I value the learning experiences I’ve been offered in this traditional environment.

Nonetheless, in an emergent and participatory field like social media, it goes without saying that I need to do some of my learning outside traditional academic structures. The publishing cycle is too slow to account for social media’s changes. My advisors’ expertise in theory and pedagogy and research doesn’t necessarily extend to Twitter practices. Luckily, the MOOC fills in. It’s perhaps closest to a regular, ongoing conference experience, in academic terms. Except, of course, it has no formal status in academic terms.

Thus I stand with feet in two worlds, trying to make use of each to enhance the other. This series, Postcards from the Participatory, will explore the benefits and challenges of both sides of the experience as I go.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada

Bonnie Stewart is a Ph.D. student at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. In higher ed since 1997, Bonnie has lived and taught on all three coasts of Canada and in Eastern Europe and Asia. Her research explores social media identity and its implications for higher education. Published at and winner of the 2011 PEI Literary Award for creative non-fiction, Bonnie blogs ideas at and identity and parenthood at Find her on Twitter at @bonstewart