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Signals of Success (preprint), #oldsmooc, #oldsmoop

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Sheila MacNeill
8 February 2014

Resources and links related to a paper submitted by Penny Bentley, Paige Cuff, Helen Crump,Iwona Gniadek,  Briar Jamieson, Sheila MacNeill and Yishay Mor for the European MOOCs Stakeholder Summit (EMOOCs 2014), 10-12 February 2014.

A link to a pre-print version of the paper submission is below and some background information on how this collaboration came about is available in this blog post.

Extra content

“Signals of Success and Self-directed Learning”

Autobiographical records of learner experiences in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are ubiquitous; however, collaborative autoethnographic approaches are less common.  Using group reflection within the same online, open, participatory approach and media as characterises MOOCs, this paper explores the experience of participation, learner views of success and if social interaction, self-efficacy and self-directed strategies supported this.  How social interaction was achieved and experienced in the OLDSMOOC is intertwined with these factors for these learners.  Completion and success are not synonymous terms for these learners and a definition of success is constructed by each participant.  Their view of their participation supports the concept of self-directed learners defining their own achievement and their levels of activity vary.  The creation of this collaborative paper is suggested as an example of another aspect of their definitions of success, which value and include establishing ongoing connection and shared learning between MOOC participants.

Keywords: MOOC, participation, learner success, OLDSMOOC, learner perspectives, e-learning, Twitter, self-directed learners, self-regulated learners, connectivism


The authors all participated in varying ways in the OLDSMOOC run in early 2013.  This MOOC on Learning Design, aimed at post-graduate level study, had a nine-week structured format with each week led by different specialists in Learning Design.  Dubbed a ‘project’ or pMOOC, the design aim was that learners undertake a group-defined and executed project within the MOOC, thus the initial week required learners to introduce themselves, define their project goal and discover others with similar goals with whom to work.  OLDSMOOC was connectivist in style, though it had a clear pathway through the learning of this topic, with badges available for completion of activities in each stage.  Use of a range of online spaces – provided and self-selected - was an intrinsic part of course design and learners were  actively encouraged to contribute to these spaces which included, a course website, Cloudworks, Google discussion forums, a Facebook group, Twitter and Bibsonomy.  Distinctively, each week concluded with a live streamed Google Hangout to which both specialists and a few learners were invited.  Use of the Twitter backchannel for discussion and contributing questions to these hangouts was encouraged and formed a key characteristic of this MOOC.

A single tweet by the leader of the OLDSMOOC design team about the call for papers initiated this collaboration. It included twitter handles and the #oldsmooc hashtag as interaction between various OLDSMOOC learners and some members of the presentation team had persisted.  A Google doc was opened and initial information on personal experiences of the MOOC captured within a few days. Augmented by input from the leader of the course design team, this paper synthesizes the various discussions this group has shared around the various aspects of their experience within the context of current MOOC research themes.

Research questions

Although a formal evaluation of OLDSMOOC has been undertaken by the host institution (Cross, 2013), there are still a number of key issues which merit further exploration including: measuring learning success, motivation, adaptation and community building.  The latter has particular significance as connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) may be defined  as “based on connectivist principles of knowledge creation encouraging collaborative content creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning” (McGill, 2013).

In seeking success measures valid for this environment, Downes (2013) considers two approaches, one based on the elements of the process which he defines as Autonomy, Diversity, Openness and Interactivity and the other focused on the outcomes defined as new emergent knowledge in the network.  That is, he forwards that “MOOC success is not individual success”.  The difficulties with this on a practical as well as philosophic level are explored by Hendricks (2013), and we propose that an alternative view in keeping with her analysis might be to consider the individual learners’ measures of success and perception of the success of their learning.  

By considering this viewpoint only in post-completion surveys conducted immediately after the MOOC closes, the opportunity to assess ongoing value of this learning in future situations (Dewey, 1939) is lost.   Similarly, insights into expressions of self-determined learning, where personal experience and context is key and the learner is “the major agent in their own learning” (Hase & Kenyon, 2007, p. 112), and the opportunity to reflect on any self-directed learning strategies employed, are also difficult to fully capture.  Self-directed learning is described by Knowles (1975) as "a process in which individuals take initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating  learning  goals,  identifying  human  and  material  resources  for  learning, choosing  and  implementing  appropriate  learning  strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes" (p. 18). In this paper adaptation of course design and/or resources are also considered as demonstrating learner initiative.  This collective reflective process, conducted six months after participation in the MOOC, offers another lens through which to explore concepts of learner success.

Issues explored include the extent to which participants adapted OLDS MOOC to suit their context and needs, and whether the inquiry/project -based pedagogy allows participants to create their own learning paths.

This study focuses on two research questions:

1)  How do learners define success in a MOOC?

2) To what extent do connection, self-efficacy and self-directed strategies facilitate learning in a MOOC?

Research methodology

In order to explore this new territory and capture a rich view of individual participants’ perspectives, a collaborative autoethnographic approach has been adopted.  Collaborative autoethnographic practice has been described as “ individually writing autoethnographic narratives … sharing these autoethnographic narratives in a public forum … publicly discussing the heuristic commonalities across these autoethnographic narratives … tying those commonalities back to the literature, and revisiting the autoethnographic narratives…” (Geist-Martin et al, 2010).   

Possible limitations inherent in the chosen methods and methodology include that this study is dependent on a small, self-selecting sample of participants who have reflected on their experience on one particular MOOC. Their views are oriented by this; just as their individual reflections may have been oriented by their collective discussion.  However, generalizations are not the aim of this study, rather ‘naturalistic generalization’ is achieved by moving "the focus of generalizability from respondents to readers” (Stake, 1994, p.195) allowing the reader to determine if sufficient within the narratives resonate with their context to permit transfer of the findings.

Data collection and analysis

Approximately six months after participating in OLDSMOOC, the research was initiated by a tweet by the leader of the OLDSMOOC design team about the call for papers for this conference. The tweet included the twitter handles of those learners who had made use of Twitter during the MOOC and continued to connect through Twitter through following the course presentation team as well as the #oldsmooc hashtag.  Of the potential participants so defined, eight initially expressed interest in participating, with six ultimately contributing to discussions.

Through discussion on Twitter it was agreed to set up a Google doc and initial contributions were captured within days (Oldsmoop,2013) It was then agreed that we collectively reflect on individual and shared experiences via a series of Google hangouts, which were recorded.  These discussions were under-pinned by a number of shared documents in which more detailed evidence and reflection, both individual and collective, was gathered (Oldsmoop 2013).  In addition, a Twitter hashtag, #oldsmoop, sufficed for brief sharing in the reflective process.  Moreover, the data generated by the authors at the time of the MOOC (e.g. blogs, tweets, forum posts, Google Hangout sessions, personal notes) was re-visited to provide some triangulation. Analysis of data in this study was by way of broad thematic analysis.

Personal Reflections

Penny’s reflection on Confidence

(Penny Bentley works with adults in the Australian Further Education and Training Sector on digital literacy, and is a PhD candidate at The Australian Digital Futures Institute, University of Southern Queensland)

I’ve thought long and hard about the definition of “confidence” and my reasons for feeling this way during a connectivist MOOC. Where did this belief in my own ability to persist with OLDS MOOC come from? Upon reflection it seems that familiarity with the online environment and my personality traits are the two most significant factors.

Prior to signing up for OLDS MOOC I’d spent almost 2 years networking online and developing a Personal Learning Environment, my home on the web.  I was comfortable finding my way around, communicating via social media, curating resources, blogging and learning in a virtual classroom. This familiarity with the online environment enabled me to jump into OLDS MOOC and enjoy the journey, rather than struggling to build my learning environment first. I also had my online identity/personality well established, not worrying all the time about my privacy being compromised. What I realise now is that I had sufficient digital literacy skills to cope.

Being confident doesn’t mean believing you’re the best, that you know and can do everything, will finish first and create the best artefacts. (One of my concerns was being perceived as overly confident. Building into Learning Design an official role/task for mentoring would alleviate this feeling and potential for pulling back). OLDS MOOC wasn’t a competitive course to “finish” and get the best mark for. I couldn’t “fail” the MOOC nor were people there “judging” my ability to succeed. There was feedback offered by various means, one of which was badges, fun to collect and useful as evidence of professional development. I was comfortable, enjoying the ride and happy to help others.

As an introvert, participating in an intellectually challenging, online learning experience was liberating. I'm often reluctant to express my opinions in busy, face to face learning environments as my thinking is slow, considered and easily discouraged. My confidence as an OLDS MOOC participant was enabled by the very nature of MOOCS, being online. I observed and contemplated before making contributions and worked at my own pace in a non-competitive yet productive way. I had control over when to participate and how much to contribute. (Bentley, 2013). Adapting to the connectivist pedagogy of open learning in OLDS MOOC had its challenges which I overcame with perseverance, support and the luxury of sufficient time.

So, did my confidence as an OLDS MOOC participant fulfil my measure of success? Yes, I have a richer Personal Learning Network (PLN) with connections made, have been extended and pushed in my thinking, learnt how to describe my professional practice in an explicit way, helped others, received positive feedback, gained and created new knowledge. Above all, I have found my voice as an online learner and educator.

Briar and Iwona’s Reflection on Context and Success

(Briar Jamieson (@mbjamieson) is the Executive Director and Iwona Gniadek (@yvetteinmb) the Lead of Learner Services at English Online Inc. in Canada.)

Success comes in many shapes, forms and sizes - 140 characters to be exact.  It was OLDS MOOC trending on Twitter that brought the MOOC to our attention (@mbjamieson. January 7, 2013). Partnering with a colleague was one of the highlights of participation in OLDS MOOC. Although we did not engage the same way with the course activities, we complemented each other, one delving into theory and the other working out the activities.

The weekly Google Hangouts drew us in to see experts discuss the content of the week. Every week we waited for the rapid fire chats and tested our understanding of the weekly content. Serendipity was being noticed amongst the hundreds of learners: “I tweeted: “#oldsmooc is a learning space where participants can create their own social learning gardens. (@yvetteinmb. January 22, 2013).”  My tweet got mentioned live! I was out of my chair fisting the air. (I. Gniadek, personal reflection, February, 2013).  The draw of the OLDS MOOC Twitter community exemplified how this tool could be used more effectively to build a learner community. 

Our organisation’s summer course was inspired by OLDS MOOC (English Online Inc, 2013). The course incorporated elements of OLDS MOOC that resonated with us as learners.  Modelled after the OLDS MOOC converge hangouts we incorporated a synchronous weekly Language Rendezvous and accompanying weekly blog encapsulating learning highlights. We curated OERs for the content of the course on an open wiki, incorporated a persona activity for learners, and included a Twitter hashtag for stakeholders to continue the conversation. It was exciting when learners shared their learning plans, videos, summer photos and blog posts.

Ongoing participation in OLDS MOOC resulted in our successful integration of a number of the learning design processes and resources into our workplace context. The activities that were incorporated into our work environment include: force maps (Jamieson, 2013), personas (Gniadek, 2013), and OULDI cards (@mbjamieson. September 23, 2013). The OULDI cards helped us to zoom out on our practice and learner support mechanisms. After using the cards with staff, we saw ways that the cards could be adapted to fit our language learning context.  As a result of our experience in OLDS MOOC we will share our adaptation of the OULDI cards.

As informal learners outside of academia it is often difficult to find useful resources to support our practice.  We have a small library of popular books on e-Learning, links to resources shared by colleagues, but ineffective Google searches and paid-only access to research form a significant barrier to adding to our knowledge on learning design.  OLDS MOOC provided us with a plethora of activities and open access materials. A huge benefit was discovering open access journals, online tools, and adding more trusted sources to follow.  The personal significance of having access to peer reviewed research is captured in this tweet: “@roughbounds Immersion in readings feels decadent, doesn’t it? Some like chocolate...I crave...bibsonomy :) #oldsmooc” (@mbjamieson. January 30, 2013). The learning provided in OLDS MOOC initiated our application for further formal higher education.

Successful learning in OLDS MOOC is measured by our integration of various tools into our professional development practices and work context. We expanded our personal learning networks, were able to frame our work practices academically and enhance them by implementing some of the suggested tools and processes.  Finally, we saw how our newly acquired learning positively affected our end-user.

Helen’s Reflection on Connecting for learning success

(Helen Crump (@crumphelen) is a literacies practitioner working in community education in the North West of Ireland.)

I consider my participation in OLDSMOOC to have been successful, adhering largely to the descriptor of an active participant of Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan (2013) by maintaining an active blog and Twitter account for the duration of the course, and afterwards by maintaining an enduring network of connections.

I embarked upon OLDS MOOC with the clear intention that participation would help me develop knowledge and skills pertinent to learning design, and compliment an existing project that I had already been blogging about. Having a clear aim for my participation was an important factor in my success, as was the confidence that I had already started to gain. This combination of purpose and confidence gained through prior experience was crucial in enabling me to participate actively and successfully. It enabled me to persist and overcome challenges that for others might have proved to be a barrier. As Cross (2013) recognises, within OLDS MOOC "the use of unfamiliar technologies such as Cloudworks presented an additional challenge to many participants in the first week”. It was here that I invested considerable time and effort overcoming not only the challenges posed by the platform but the project grouping process as well.

“It was just impossible to figure out the platform and track down all the people that you wanted to talk to, so after considerable effort and not getting very far, I decided to park myself  under the cloud entitled “Digital Identity and Social Media” […] and likewise with the Digilit study circle cloud[…] I then pasted the links to these clouds into my Evernote account and proceeded to access Cloudworks from there” (Crump, 2013).

This was a telling stage as I not only developed a work-around solution, but I also formed the tenacious mind-set that, in the short term, would help me continue with the course. As I noted at the time, I hung on.

If hanging on was key to success in the short term, making connections was key to success in the long term. In making introductions at the start of the course, I deliberately mentioned that I was originally from Nottingham because I supposed a number of MOOC participants were likely to be UK-based. Indeed, this conversation trigger proved fruitful as it drew the attention of another participant who was based in Nottingham and from which point we were able to establish that we had similar learning goals. Locating this individual and realising that we had corresponding aims was as an important support for learning in the complex environment of OLDSMOOC, as was our ability to learn together. A large part of the success I experienced in OLDS MOOC can be attributed to the formation of this partnership and to cooperatively engaging in a learning design project.

Sheila’s Reflection on Adaptation and Control

(At the time of writing Sheila MacNeill was Assistant Director for a nationally funded educational technology Innovation Support Centre in the UK (

Unlike many MOOCs, OLDS MOOC didn't use a centralised platform or VLE for user engagement. Instead it utilised and encouraged the use of a number of different services including a dedicated website, google+, twitter, youtube, bibsonomy and Cloudworks. This gave a range of spaces for learners to interact with, however it also overwhelmed some users in terms of where and how to interact online.

The use of Cloudworks was actively encouraged for collaboration, sharing and reflection. Cloudworks is a social networking site developed by the Open University specifically to support “participatory practices (peer critiquing, sharing, user-generated content, aggregation and personalisation) within an educational context, and promote reflective professional practice and development." (Galley & Mor, 2013)

However the user interface and navigation of Cloudworks is not particularly intuitive, and can lead to confusion for users. This was particularly apparent at the start of OLDSMOOC when many learners started to use it for the first time. I was in a fortunate position in that I had used the system before, however from the first week I did become increasingly interested in the potential extension and development of Cloudworks to show more explicitly network connections for and between learners, content and their activities. Stuart (2013) describes the various affordances of network participation in MOOCs. From previous experiments with the Cloudworks API I knew it was possible to create a mind map view of a user’s personal space or Cloudscape. I felt that there was potential for this to be taken a stage further to create further visualisations of a users followers and content and their inter-relationships in a more visually explicit way.  

"I’m also now wondering if a network diagram of cloudscape  . . . would be helpful? . . . . . in starting to make more explicit links between people, activities and networks. Maybe the mindmap view is too linear” (MacNeill, 2013)

From my initial blog post outlining this idea, Hirst (2013) developed a number of proof of concept visualisations based on the openly available data from Cloudworks. These networked views also illustrate some of the concepts behind notions of rhizomatic learning (Cormier, 2011).

In terms of context of learning, which was the theme of week 2, I felt that these visualisations provided greater contextualisation of the collaborative space, providing a powerful way to allow greater engagement for learners by providing a number of different views of, the at times chaotic, developing networks and connections in Cloudworks.  Koulocheri and Xenos (2013) have also demonstrated the potential positive impact on learning social network visualisation techniques within learning environments can achieve.   The potential for transforming Cloudworks into a more user-friendly and more powerful learning tool dominated my engagement with the course and provided the basis for my activities. These moved from producing a learning design to producing a prototype of Cloudworks as an enhanced learning environment.

The flexible nature of the course, and the encouragement and engagement in these ideas from fellow learners on the course, the course tutors and those outside the course gave me a huge amount of inspiration and motivation. Being able to adapt the course curriculum to my needs also provided a level of personal empowerment that I had never experienced within a formal course setting before.

Figure 1.  Followers of cloudscapes containing a user’s clouds.  (Hirst, 2013)


Defining success for/in a cMOOC

The authors variably define success as they both intended to learn different things and differently adapted the experience to meet their context and their needs.  Measurement against personally created metrics such as the number of activities undertaken proved a useful self-regulating tool for some (Oldsmoop, 2013) but does not form the basis of their view of success. Penny particularly notes the sense of being free to define her own success that ‘failure’ is not part of her view of the MOOC paradigm and though expresses pride in her badges earned, refers to the growth of her PLN, and learning and discovery of a language to describe her existing practice in order to define her success. Helen achieved the growth in her PLN desired, developed an online presence, increased proficiency with a number of tools, undertook the project design she had planned on and enjoyed greater academic confidence.  Briar similarly notes introduction to new tools together with the discovery of new sources to follow, and a variety of sources of open educational resources as marks of success. Iwona demonstrates her learning through application of learning to her practice and together with Briar develops a new style of course within their organization, based on open practice and re-versioning of OLDS MOOC design materials.  Sheila expresses success in being able, for the first time, to adapt the curriculum to her needs and demonstrates this in her forwarding proposals to re-design the user interface for Cloudworks.   All the authors noted in group reflection that they view maintaining contact via Twitter post-MOOC, sharing ongoing learning, undertaking this independent project, and initiating various collaborative paper(s) to capture participant views as evidence of the achievement of connection that is central to connectivist MOOCs.

The role of connection in achieving learning

Within this group, strategies to achieve connection are deployed by Helen and Penny and Sheila’s proposed user interface changes are designed to facilitate it.  Iwona and Briar rely on their offline connection through a shared work environment and all note the value of various channels of connection.  For Helen the close working relationship with a learner met on the MOOC supported her completion of her project.  For all participants, the experience of the synchronous Twitter chats during Google Hangouts led by course facilitators and including learners’, and inclusion of these tweets in live discussion within the Hangout, is noted as a motivator and focus of weekly activity.  It was in this situation in particular that the shared connection of the authors was developed.

Self-efficacy as a function of experience

This group of learners has a key commonality, that at the time they commenced the MOOC they were all educators either working within online learning environments and/or experienced at online learning, and connecting using Web 2.0 tools and/or undertaking MOOCs.  This is not the only source of confidence, however, as Iwona notes the value of undertaking the course with a colleague and the affective experience of achieving connection and interaction and Helen achieves a sense of self-efficacy partly from her prior MOOC experience and partly through reflecting on her own activity in the MOOC with respect to published literature on what defines successful MOOC participants.

Self-efficacy and experience are thus interlinked but separately important for these learners in achievement of learning and connection.  All note a growing sense of self-efficacy with increased interaction in this MOOC and in continuing connection.

Self-direction and adaptation

Whilst both were concerned with the transferability and applicability of learning to their own teaching context, Briar revelled in the exposure to open academic sources and Iwona focused on the activities.  Choice in what to engage with characterized Sheila’s complete re-versioning of the user interface of the discussion website itself. Penny felt free to choose without pressure of judgement and of notions of ‘failure’ and Helen embarked on the MOOC with a project to be developed and a clear desire to use the experience to develop her networking skills.  Interestingly, none of these learners would describe participation as ‘active’ in all weeks or all spheres.  That is, self-directed adaptation of the course pathway and/or content characterizes the strategies of all these learners who maintained activity for some of the time, at some level, during this MOOC.

Discussion and Conclusions

Central to this reflective exercise was the nature of this particular MOOC, which was designed to lead the learner through stages of learning though still with a cMOOC ethos.  To ameliorate the effect of tension between a structured course and connectivist design (Mackness, Mak & Williams,2010), the designers “sought to avoid … compulsion and subsequent guilt at missing out steps” (McAndrew, 2013) and offered guidance on high and low-level activity paths.  The experience of the authors of this approach, suggests that even the notion of adhering to activities on a pathway does not particularly support their learning, describe the pattern of their participation nor indicate their ultimate success.   Clow (2013) suggests that complete withdrawal of learners from MOOCs may reflect self-directed learners choice to ‘climb-out’ (rather than drop-out) and this mirrors these learners’ variable levels of activity over the MOOC duration.

MOOC designers within an institutional context may – understandably - seek metrics that define success, however, this limits what can be included in the evaluation of success.  Currently discussions within the published and informal literature (Clark, 2013; Hill, 2013; Jordan, 2013; Kizilcec, Piech & Schneider, 2013; Milligan et al, 2013) are characterised by discussion of learner activity patterns and the arising typologies of learners are closely tied to measurable progress in and engagement with the defined pathway of the MOOCs.  Whilst this may seem reasonable when examining instructivist-style MOOCs (Kizilcec et al, 2013), the validity of such approaches for cMOOCs can be juxtaposed with the position of some founders of the cMOOC approach such as Downes (2013) who states that  “you (as a student) define what counts as success … That's why we see many different levels of activity”.  This is the emerging view of the learners in this study, who all share the view that adaptation of the course is both a key indicator of success and supported their engagement with the MOOC. 

Further, growing their level of connection with other educators, then later developing their cooperative learning with these new members of their PLN to the point of undertaking research work together, was a commonly shared marker and support of successful participation and learning in this MOOC.  This too cannot be assessed at the time of MOOC completion.  Additional personal measures of success may include use of this learning in their professional context and discovery of, or increased proficiency with new tools, sources and resources.  The extent of this, similarly, emerges over time. 

Like Kop, Fournier & Mak (2011) who found “It was clear that experience with this type of learning increases chances of success” and Milligan et al (2013) whose work supports this, these learners consider that achieving the level of self-direction necessary for successful learning in a MOOC is partially due to prior experience, in terms of using Web 2.0 tools and because of the sense of self-efficacy prior experience afforded.  Further, self-efficacy not only supports their self-direction and ability to interact with others, it appears to be dynamic, as it grows further with interaction in the MOOC.

Given the methodology gives a rich but necessarily tightly focussed view of these issues, exploration of these themes with a broader range of OLDSMOOC learners, including those who have not maintained participation to the end of the MOOC, will elucidate if these views are unique to this group of learners.  Comparison with learners on other cohorts of similar courses will further help establish the key factors for supporting their learning.  In particular, the role of prior experience for enabling successful participation may inform learning design to prepare novice MOOC learners.  The possible role of the online environment, particularly for novices, in successful participation, needs further exploration amongst groups of learners who show low participation, as this may inform course design that enables more new learners to participate to the extent they determine


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


Helen Crump
21:25 on 8 February 2014

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