Catalyzing Community

If we are lucky in life, we may find ourselves surrounded by a cadre of liked mind souls we call community. Over the course of a lifetime, we may find ourselves in many such communities of differing sizes, compositions, and interests. It can be near impossible to create a community, but it is possible to orchestrate the conditions that catalyze it. For me, the 119 Gallery was a cauldron of such catalytic forces. A dynamic space brought into being by alchemists Mary Ann Kearns and Walter Wright. The 119 Gallery has existed in many forms physical and virtual over its many decades, but it was its 10-year expression at 119 Chelmsford Street in Lowell, MA that was a creative community I was privileged to belong.

Mary Ann and Walter were two of the very first people I met in Massachusetts when I arrived here in 1995. I was then the education director at the now defunct Boston Film/Video Foundation. Walter and Mary Ann were local electronic art promoters/makers/evangelilsts connected to the Boston CyberArts Festival directed by George Fifield. George was then on the board of BFVF and was hosting a pre-festival gathering. It is there that I met Mary Ann and Walter. I did not know it then, but these two creatives at the founding of electronic arts were to spend almost three decades as hosts of an amazing creative community centered in Lowell, MA, but reaching far, far beyond.

Walter and Mary Ann had transplanted themselves and the then 911 Electronic Media Arts, Inc. from Indianapolis to the Merrimack Vallery about the same time I moved to Massachusetts. The 911 was the first to present art on the Internet and had existed virtually and physically. But in the early 2000’s, Mary Ann and Walter sought to move from their Chelmsford home to build out a new physical gallery space to house their expansive vision of the creative community as well as a new home. In 2005, they opened the renamed 119 Gallery to coincide with its new 119 Chelmsford Street address.

From 2005 to 2015, Walter and Mary Ann welcomed a variety of artists, performers, community members, neighbors, and those who didn’t even realize that they too could create and commune. If Lowell was riding the creative economy bandwagon, the 119 Gallery was an innovation hub where young and new creators could test and refine their expressions. With little to no paid staff, the 119 Gallery operated under what might be termed radical inclusion in the spirit of Burning Man. I’ve written on this blog before [post 1post 2post 3] about the organizational form of the 119.

What I haven’t written so clearly about is how Mary Ann and Walter invited others to co-create the 119 Gallery. Their far-reaching networks of artists and performers found a home at the Chelmsford Street 119 Gallery. It was quite common that these creators would be connected to more locally grown ones Walter and Mary Ann’s home above the gallery was often a makeshift hotel, hostel, impromptu workshop, meeting space, and rehearsal hall. They weathered the vagaries of living in an edge neighborhood including theft, bullets, more than one shattered glass door, random inebriates, and several of their cars smashed on the busy Chelmsford Street artery. But the 119 Gallery never ceased to be a vibrant space full of creative voices, sounds, and visions. But it was the people, the connection, and the community that attracted me and so many others.

Mary Ann and Walter have a way of welcoming in and ignoring boundaries. An audience member one day may find themselves performing electronic music another. The visual artist or sculptor may work with a dancer or musician. The neighborhood twenty-something may find their very first paintings in an exhibition when they didn’t even realize their work could be treated so seriously. The impetus is always to create and experience. In the tradition of other collectivist art movements and as descendants of Dada and Fluxus, Walter and Mary Ann brought these sensibilities to new creative digital tools and technologies.

The Chelmsford Street iteration of the 119 Gallery closed its doors in 2015. Ten years is not a bad run for a community arts organization in a culture that doesn’t really value the process or act of creating. While many of the creators still create, the community energy has dissipated. Mary Ann and Walter sold the 119 Chelmsford building in 2021. The old gallery space housed a folk music collective and eventually a number of commercial concerns. It is currently a shop selling fresh seafood.

Now, Walter and Mary Ann are pulling up stakes and moving to Virginia. It is Mary Ann’s home state and where the couple met many years ago. I will join in the celebration of their new adventure and well-wish these earliest of my Massachusetts friends. At the same time, I mourn the loss of the specific creative community they catalyzed. I leave you with a poem by Derek Fenner.

Some thoughts on the 119 Gallery
by Derek Fenner — April 10, 2012

119 is Walter and Mary Ann
119 is where art belongs
119 is what YOU make it
119 is a place you break bread and boundaries
119 is NOT a gallery/performance space; it is a community center
119 checks ego at the door
119 glorifies expression and communication
119 is all of us
119 is a place to join in the struggle to survive
119 is a venue of workers united in play
119 is a continuum where time never fails. How can time fail?
119 is people unrestrained
119 is NOT the dominant narrative type
119 is TRANSFORMATIVE through the creation of (a) shared story
119 says, “Don’t save the arts. Save the World with the arts.”

Growing Change Agents

As part of the 2019 SSSP Annual Meeting, I had the pleasure of convening a panel of four scholars exploring the role community-based organizations play in engaging, developing, amplifying, and connecting youth to the larger world as social actors and agents of change.  The four presentations by Lauren Dent (University of North Texas), May Lin (University of Southern California), Jessica Sperling, (Duke University), and Wendall Wallace (University of the West Indies) shared research that included multiple contexts from youth police clubs in Trinidad and Tobago (Wallace) to a national orchestral music program targeted to youth (Sperling) to racial justice youth organizations in Southern California (Lin) to tribal youth engaged in emergency preparedness (Dent).  

With methods from deep participant observation to randomized control trials (RCT), the four scholars side-stepped the traditional take on social change that tends to examine the skills, strategies, and tactics of youth to mobilize and exert political power. Instead, these presentations collectively told a more humanistic and developmental story.  With foci on opportunity provision, social-emotional learning, building of collective identity through culture and safety, and leveraging of youth as leadership assets, these scholars highlighted that social change efforts targeting youth need to dig deeper than simple leadership skill development or issue campaign work.  

The intrapersonal and interpersonal attitudes and dispositions to affect change don’t just materialize. They are developed over time, through multiple experiences and in multiple contexts. Wallace shared how the police clubs create contexts where youth can start to see themselves in a different way — as confident and able to achieve.  Sperling’s work with Kidznotes, an orchestral music program, highlighted the importance of not only measuring traditional markers of success like academic achievement, but capacities such as executive function, prosocial behavior, and dispositions like persistence that allow youth to move into collaborative work with others. Lin’s research further stressed the need to create spaces for active listening, reflection and emotional sharing in youth change work.  This sort of healing culture is especially critical for youth of color whose often traumatic experiences in school and society benefit from being unpacked as sources of strength and collective identity. Finally, Dent’s exploration of youth in disaster preparedness efforts spoke to the real gaps and needs youth can fill in much change work if given the space to lead. In fact, their contributions can transform the work as they bring their skills and perspectives to endeavors. 

Over the last decade and a half, the growing body of work on the sociopolitical development of young people, especially as agents of change, has grown. I thank these four scholars for their contributions to this body of work.

The Act of Responding

As I am reflecting on my dissertation research about youth engagement and my experiences with community-based engagement efforts, it is not lost on me how important it is for individuals and groups to be responded to. The response acknowledges that they exist and have a voice.

But it seems for true engagement and ownership to happen the response needs to one of openness and support. The “that’s a great idea how can I help” or “that’s fantastic, do you know what might make it better” or “You have something there, you might want to consider these challenges or barriers so you don’t get stopped.” What is not helpful or empowering is the “We’ve tried that and it won’t work” or “You can’t do that” or “You are not doing that right” or “Others are already doing that.”

The best response is not only open and supportive but also helps to connect and build — the “That’s a great idea, let’s see who else is one board” or “X,Y, and Z are also working on that — let’s talk to them too.”

So, how responsive is your group, organization, community, or political processes?

Learning for Long-term Success

In November of last year, I shared a list of seven principles that our spaces for learning and development need to address in order to create young people (and ultimately a society) with strong civic capabilities.

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will explore each principle within the context of my work at JFF’s Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative.  My ultimate goal is to integrate my thinking around civic capabilities and student-centered learning. Clearly, this is an effort to rationalize my day to day work more fully.


Organizations and individuals should be able to develop capacities to sustain and grow themselves for long-term success. 

 All good learning environments should “grow” leaners for “long-term success.” But what does long-term success mean and what should one grow? 

One marker of long-term success is meaningful work. This suggests learning environments should allow individuals to develop skills and knowledge that lend themselves to practical application in work-oriented pursuits.  To this end, competency-based learning (one of the four student-centered learning tenants) and by extension, learning that can happen anytime and anywhere (another student-centered learning tenant) are well aligned with building work skill mastery. In other words, learning should be experiential a la John Dewey.  

Experiential learning is well suited for the skills needed for successful work, what are often referred to as deeper learning competencies, soft skills or 21st century skills.  So what does growth for long-term success in the work life have to do with civic capabilities?  It is not hard to draw links between the skills developed for work-oriented pursuits (e.g. communication, collaboration, creative and critical thinking) and their applicability to civic-oriented realms such as grassroots organizing, volunteering, or issue advocacy.  Civic work is work.  It is a type of social production with different sorts of goods resulting, civic goods (e.g. collective action to improve the environment, increased understanding of important issues, stronger bonds between neighbors).

At the same time the idea of learners sustaining and growing “themselves” suggests that there is an individual value to learning.  This leads easily into the idea that learning is lifelong and never ending.  Therefore, long-term success could be found in any learning endeavor that is personally fulfilling.  Here, personalization and ownership of learning, or learner agency, are key student-centered learning ideas at play. Personalized in that every person will have a unique set of learning motivations and goals they will want to pursue.  Owned, because the motivation to engage comes from the individual who is driven in pursuit of their learning own goals and objectives.

With this frame, one would want to “grow” the ability of individuals to understand what interests them and how to choose the correct action to take to maximize that interest.  A constant assessment of whether or not one is actually achieved one’s end goals in their learning pursuit would be critical.  So here, skills like critical thinking, reflection, metacognition, problem-solving, decision-making, and host of other executive order skills are demanded.

What does this framing of long-term success have to do with civic capabilities?  To know one’s self and to act on one’s own interests is agentic.  To have agency or to act in an agentic manner, is core to civic action. But what is really important about the idea of learners sustaining and growing “themselves” is the idea that learners “should be able to develop” themselves.  It is the idea of having the ability that enforces the concept that learners have agency.  It is not that “individuals must develop” (which is prescriptive) or we “must develop individuals” (which is paternalistic). Rather, individuals “should be able to develop”, if they so choose. They are not being forced to sustain and grow, they are simply being afforded the opportunity to do so. And assumed in this principle is that ALL learners should be afforded this opportunity.

Connecting “ME” to “WE”

Image result for self-organizing teams

A few years ago, my former teammates at CIRCLE worked on a set of civic capabilities that every person should be afforded.  Adapting Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s  human development and capabilities framework, we came up with a pretty great list of 10 civic capabilities.  I share this background, because out of that work myself and the other CIRCLE team members thought through our own extensions and modifications that we would add.  I came across my list of 7 principles that connect the individual (me) to a larger collective world (we).  I share them here as I start to contemplate what it means to connect student-centered learning to the development of civic capabilities:

  1. Organizations and individuals should be able to develop capacities to sustain and grow themselves for long-term success.  (Related values:  knowledge, education, investing)
  2. Opportunities for involvement in civic and political life should be equitable and accessible. (Related values:  justice, fairness)
  3. We should strive to create compassionate and tolerant environments that support a diversity of views, opinions, skills and talents. (Related values:  empathy, love, openness, generosity)
  4. Our civic and public spaces should allow for the development of respect, trust and connection. (Related values:  belonging, community)
  5. Those who hold power should be accountable to all members of society, especially those who are most marginalized. (Related values: justice, fairness, trust)
  6. We should work in solidarity with others to promote fairness and work always towards positive change.  (Related values:  community, cooperation, belonging, hopefulness, impact)
  7. Fearlessness and courage are needed when confronting those who curtail the freedom, happiness, and lives of others. (Related values:  liberty, integrity, duty,  ethics)

Being Represented

The global is local. I may not be able to change things at the federal level, but change at the local level is possible and doable.


The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president and the near domination of the GOP at almost every level of government has me thinking a lot about what it means to be in a representative democracy. As I see the President-Elect assemble his cabinet, I do not see any person or persons who represent my vision or me for a future. While I can’t speak for the majority of voters who voted for someone else other than Mr. Trump, I doubt they see themselves or their interests represented there.

At this moment, North Carolina’s elected representatives in the state house are stripping the powers of the incoming Governor, a Democrat, who after an extremely competitive race ousted the GOP incumbent responsible for supporting regressive bills that resulted in concrete hardship, both economic and social, for the state. These very same legislators are also the ones who worked to curtail the voting rights of African Americans and young people. They did not succeed.

This anti-democratic move, so like the recent election of Mr. Trump, is a fight to see who will be represented in our government. This has me thinking a lot about my very own local elected bodies. And how like the election of Mr. Trump, I do not feel represented by those who sit on either the City Council, nor the School Committee. I do not see myself, my values, nor my Lowell represented there. There have been a few glimmers in the last twenty years, but they are fleeting.

I’ve lived and worked in Lowell for almost two decades. From the moment I first came to Lowell, I have loved its diversity. The mix of history, culture and perspectives from across the globe are like no other in the Commonwealth. I have thought this is the closest I will get to a mini-NYC in New England. Lowell is big enough to contain many lives and many stories, but small enough to belong and be known, even if one is constantly referred to as a “blow-in” or “outsider” by some. Lowell is fortunate to have committed civic actors who care, love and strive to make the city a better place. Lowell’s nonprofit sector is amazing and I don’t think we fully understand how rare it is the collaboration and partnership that happens here. But most of all, Lowell’s people sustain me. They are the reason I continue to remain invested.

Despite my love of Lowell, every local election cycle I am disappointed. I don’t doubt the fact that those who run and are elected to local bodies love and care for Lowell as much or more than I do. I don’t doubt that they are driven and aspire for what they see as best for the city. Yet, every new Council and School Committee draws its winners from a very small and limited group of the City’s populace. While they are committed public servants, their perspectives are narrow. I do not see all of Lowell represented there. The vibrant ethnic and immigrant communities, the young, the artists, the newcomers or blow-ins, the neighborhoods and so many more perspectives are missing. They are not represented. And because a diversity of backgrounds and experiences are not on our elected bodies, our local public institutions and policies suffer. Lowell suffers. We may be amazing in so many ways, but we could be even better if more of us were represented.

So while I feel despondent about the federal government representing me and I see limitations in so many places, I feel confident that Lowell’s politics could and can be better. We are about to enter into a new local election cycle and there is an opportunity to expand who represents us. There are multiple pathways to make this happen and I urge us all push to make our politics more representative. It might not be easy, or without conflict, but I believe it will benefit us in the long term. I am thinking through what I will do to make this vision a reality, and if you are in a place like Lowell, or even Lowell, what will you do?

The Open Dinner — A Modest Step towards an Engaged Community

Community Dinner

I have a wonderful friend, Y Sok.  She is a bold Cambodian woman who is by far one of the most amazing hosts.  In another time and place, she would be the mistress of a sparkling Salon.  Y has recently moved to Manchester, England to join her newly wed husband Jonathan.  Prior to her departure from Lowell, Massachusetts (whose blueprint came from Manchester), Y ran weekly Tuesday night dinners.  They were open invitation to her broad network.  You could bring along any guest and there was always room and food.  It was a standing thing and the best part of the whole evening would be the eclectic mix of people and the conversation.  The food was always fantastic, but the conversation and connection even more so.

Now Y is hosting weekly Friday night dinners in her small abode in Manchester to anyone who signs up to her club.  It is a free club organized through MeetUp.  She cooks the mains and the guests bring the sides.  That is the contract.  Here’s her report out on the dinner last night:

It went great. Best one so far. I have close to a hundred members now, and all dinners booked months in advance. Meeting really interesting people, from all walks of life. My next one is Polish food. Last night we had a newly separated rich guy, a mechanic, a Venezuelan ex pat widow, a retired teacher, a curtain maker, and a pub owner. I usually do the main dish, and they bring everything else. They love the idea that they have to research the country, and recipes. Jonathan helps serve Drinks, and cleans up.

What would happen if we each did something as simple as invite a bunch of strangers to dinner?  Not even once a week, not even once a month, but just ONCE.  Who would show up?  What sort of new connections, ideas and relationships would be formed?  It is a bit scary to open one’s home to the unknown.  It takes some courage.  I’m not sure if I have such courage.  But what if I did? What if you did?

Note:  image courtesy of –

When a Course becomes a Community

image courtesy of PeachPit Press

Dave Cormier, the mind behind Rhizomatic Learning 2014 (#rhizo14), just posted thoughts on his blog about creating a wonderful learning experience that went from a 6-week course to a self-propelled learning community.  The challenge as Cormier articulates it is how to bring in new learners into this community. His original plan – create a new course, but what about the energy of the existing learning community?  Connect the new course to the first course or simply bring the new learners into the existing community?

If the new paradigm is to move towards learning as a continual process in which individual learners build and find communities where they can explore and connect their interests and knowledge, it seems is just screaming to emerge.  Cormier, himself, is inclined to move this way and has put the question to the existing community.

So what happens when we break even further from the traditional configurations of a course?  Participants in Rhizo14 took the call to be agents of learning seriously. They continued to meet and discuss beyond the stated time frame and framework of the “course”.  So what does it take for a course to become a community?

I’ve thought about open and self-organizing spaces, both real and virtual, for some time. The Rhizomatic Learning community / course / space — has created a container and bounded the space.  Folks are there to explore a specific knowledge domain and they bring a wealth of energy and enthusiasm. Intersections are welcome, but the focus and boundaries need to hold to some degree or else the space becomes an unfocussed mess.

The space has an ‘open invitation” to act, engage, and be an agent.  The host, Cormier, is critical in ensuring that happens and was particularly excellent at looking for the wall flowers and overlooked voices, using his status as organizer to highlight these individuals. The spaces I’ve explored all have these “hosts.”  Sometimes they may not initially be visible, but they invite, connect, and focus the activity and when need be redirect or quell disrupters.  They also provide the platform and maintain the space. It is sometimes thankless, invisible and frustrating work — but good hosts who are open enough can make amazing new ideas and creations emerge.

It seems that with new comers into any community space they need the sort of supports that Cormier has laid out in exceptionally helpful Success in a MOOC animation — orient, network, cluster, focus.  I’ve been part of many MOOCs where folks are coming and going at all phases of the MOOC.  There are often new people coming in well after the “course” has started.  So Rhizomatic Learning isn’t really experiencing a new phenomena, but rather Cormier is consciously articulating it as such and working to be thoughtful about it.  In the real-world spaces I’ve been part of — new comers seem to need a few things:

  1. an initial designated place to go or structure to plug into to help ground them in the community and get comfortable with its norms
  2. a recognition or welcome as a means to acknowledge that they have entered and exist
  3. introductions or the ability to connect and “know” others
  4. a place to ask questions, express concerns, vent and openness and transparency in the community to these processes
  5. multiple ways to engage and the opportunity to exit and return

I for one would love to see how this course becomes a community. I am also thinking that looking to the best practices in open source software communities or other communities of practice may hold answers and insights as well.

Success in a MOOC: An Extension of Dave Cormier’s Recommendations

Dave Cormier has done excellent thinking on network-enabled learning and knowledge building and he has created really useful tools and sign posts to help others engaged in such learning endeavors. One of these is a brief video that helps new participants in a MOOC get the lay of the land for this new learning format. When I found “Success in a MOOC”  during my first cMOOC experience, I felt like I’d found that secret guide to the new foreign land I’d just travelled to.

Dave nicely details 5-key steps to MOOC participation that provide some sense of how the journey can be embarked upon.  One must orient, declare, network, cluster, and focus. I encourage you to watch the video to get the full details on these steps. I now have a number of network-enabled learning experiences under my belt and these steps certainly have replicated themselves to some degree in each environment..

During a recent Collaborative Exploration on Running deep learning communities hosted by the Critical & Creative Thinking Program at UMass Boston, a discussion emerged about how to support learners in MOOCs and other self-motivated learning spaces find their sense of purpose and agency. A version of this conversation was also part of Dave Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning MOOC. Add to this that a few months earlier, an online seminar on Personal Learning Networks run by the MSLOC program at Northwestern engaged participants in an exercise that asked them to define personal learning goals for the seminar.

These discussions had me considering a couple of additional step that might expand upon Dave’s fine core. Specifically, a pre-step (prepare) and a post-step (reflect).  PREPARE helps participants start to think about their reasons and goals for participating in any new learning endeavor. The PREPARE step might include questions like these:

  • What type of learning experience are you looking for?
  • What are your learning goals?
  • How confident are you that you will meet these goals?
  • What barriers or challenges do you think you will encounter?
  • What could you put in place to minimize the barriers or challenges?
  • What additional supports or resources do you think you will need?

Just as one needs some time to think and get ready for a learning journey, one should take some time at the end to REFLECT and understand what the journey was about. This not only helps solidify the learning experience, but creates a foundation for future leanring.  The REFLECT step questions might include:

  • Did you meet your learning goals?
  • Did your goals change? If so, how?
  • What supports did you find or use during this process?
  • What challenges did you find during this process?
  • Do you have new learning goals as a result of this experience? If so, what are they?
  • How will act on meeting these new goals?

My colleagues in the Critical & Creative Thinking Program will be testing out the full 7-step process with the upcoming Learning Creative Learning MOOC offered for by the Media Lab at MIT. We will see how it goes.

Engaging in MOOCs: Exploring motivating factors and goals of diverse learners

NOTE:  this piece was update on 4/28 at 6:11pm EDT.

A good chunk of my adult life has been involved in community-based and group level endeavors that sought change, both large and small.  These efforts have included a band of college students searching for a more fulfilling learning experience, a cooperative house dedicated to egalitarian decision making, neighborhood groups fighting to maintain cultural and physical assets, women banding together to move themselves out of poverty through job skill training, and organizations working to protect free speech, increase community capacity, build creative connections or support newcomers or youth in gaining power.  To some degree or another, these efforts have involved individuals who were motivated by some level of self-interest with a belief that action with others was an effective and necessary strategy.  However, often these self-interests melded and expanded a larger set of collective concerns.

Throughout these experiences, I have always been intrigued by why individuals engage in anything?  What prompts a person to volunteer, vote, act, create or even learn?  How do we create environments that welcome engagement?  Can these environments be crafted to meet the needs of heterogeneous publics? What is needed to ensure that those environments are nimble enough to adapt to the changing needs, skills, interests and capacities of its various members?

Over the last year, I’ve been engaged in a half dozen MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  The topics have including the technical (e.g. Social Network Analysis, Learning Analytics) to the cultural (e.g. e-Learning and Digital Cultures, Learning Creative Learning).  They have been offered in a variety of platforms (e.g. Coursera, Canvas, P2PU).  They have employed instructivist and connectivist pedagogical theories.   As a result of these experiences, I have connected with others who are interested in technology, learning, and engagement processes.  We have tried to make sense of our own learning experience in MOOCs and think through what these environments mean for new individual and collective inquiry.  I have also tried to understand how this learning environment relates to my own interests in engaging environments.  Through these learning experiences, conversations, and reflections, I have come to think of MOOCs, especially those informed by connectivist ideals (cMOOCs), as something different than a course.  Rather, like many other spaces where I have found engaged individuals (i.e. neighborhood parks, city streets, a community art gallery, social media), I have come to understand MOOCs as a public learning commons.  Spaces individual learning and inquiry connects with that of others towards a larger set of social learning .

M.K.Stewart in a post on the U.C. Davis blog The Wheel, talks about the experiences of engaging in the e-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC as a participatory community of learners.  Linking that experience to a MacArthur Foundation report by scholar Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture, Stewart writes:

Because MOOCs are voluntary and are taught online, the features that traditionally dictate the make-up of a classroom are irrelevant—quite literally, anyone with internet access and a few available hours a week can participate. In eLearning and Digital Cultures, the one thing we had in common was an interest in the topic, and the only reason we were compelled to complete the MOOC was sustained interest in the community.

It is this idea of “sustained interest in the community,” that has been the focus of my most recent inquiry. This inquiry has explored how and why individuals engage or participate in MOOCs generally, and cMOOCs specifically.

A recent working paper out of Stanford University using data from three computer science course designed for those with a high school, undergraduate and graduate level education.  The courses were primarily of the instructivist, or xMOOC, variety with course video lectures and graded assessments.   Through a cluster analysis of standard learning analytic data drawn from these courses, the authors described four “prototypical trajectories of engagement:”

  • Completers – most video lectured watched, assessments completed and course credit received
  • Auditors – video lectured watched, sparse engagement with assessments, and not course credit received
  • Disengagers – videos watched and assessments completed at beginning of class and then decreased or stopped engagement
  • Samplers – watched a few video lectures, usually at the beginning of the course and occasionally after the course was under way

source: M.K. Stewart, e-Literate

On the blog e-Literate, Phil Hill shared an emerging typology of student engagement gleaned from course analytics of Coursera-style offerings and engaged conversation with colleagues.  The typologies share much in common with the Stanford working paper above.  Hill articulates five levels:

  • Active Participants – These are the students who fully intend to participate in the MOOC and take part in discussion forums, the majority of assignments and all quizzes & assessments
  • Passive Participants – These are students who view a course as content to consume. They may watch videos, take quizzes, read discuss forums, but generally do not engage with the assignments.
  • Drop-Ins – These are students who perform some activity (watch videos, browse or participate in discussion forum) for a select topic within the course, but do not attempt to complete the entire course. Some of these students are focused participants who use MOOCs informally to find content that help them meet course goals elsewhere.
  • Observers – These students login and may read content or browse discussions, but do not take any form of assessment beyond pop-up quizzes embedded in videos.
  • No-Shows – These students appear to be the largest group of those registering for an Coursera-style MOOC, where people register but never login to the course while it is active

source: M.K. Stewart, e-Literate

Hill’s typology has more nuance than the Stanford paper, although I probably would still keep the category of a “disengager.” However, I’d probably rename it to something more like “drop-outs.”

Still, these typologies are primarily descriptive of the individuals involved in these MOOCs.  They don’t capture that next level of understanding, which is related to the motivations or goals driving the engagement.  They also don’t fully measure engagement that goes beyond consuming course content and completing assignments.  How do you capture conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and blogs?  What about intereactions of subgroups within the larger MOOC community?  How might we measure shares, retweets, and likes?  How are people connecting outside of the formal forum or discussion board of a class?  How are individual students helping each other? What do these MOOC-based  social networks look like?

Understanding the motivations and breadth of engagement activities would help better inform the design and teaching strategies used to keep “sustained interest in the community.”  They also seem to lack a conception of engagement as an activity or entity in itself.

Hill does talk about learner goals a bit in a post that preceded the one above which is worth noting.   Ethan Zuckerman, in a recent keynote address to the Digital Media and Learning Conference, explores more fully the concept of engagement.  Zuckerman posits two vectors  (thick / thin and symbolic / impactful) that define engagement practices and work to form four quadrants of engagement:

  • Thin and symbolic – acting is online only in things like online petitions or liking a cause
  • Thin and Impactful – a simple action which itself might be thin, but whose impact is meaningful, such as voting
  • Thick but Symbolic – lots of activity and work in a manner that may result in primarily symbolic change or attention such as the actions of the Occupy movement.
  • Thick and Impactful – full participation, but often works best in small groups such as neighborhood change.

I took these ideas of “thick and thin” and applied them my experience and thinking about MOOCs and engagement.  At the same time, I was thinking about how individuals in MOOCs seemed to prefer working independently or with others (interdependently).  This may align with a third vector that Zuckerman adds related to scale (individual, small group, and social activities).  These ideas also resonate in Peter Taylor’s thinking about learning in microworlds, messyworlds and the real world.

So MOOCs present themselves as learning environments where individuals have varying capacity and interest in engaging (thick /thin).  They also have varying modes or preferences for engaging (independent / interdependent).  These interactions may serve varying levels of meaning for the individual and the community of learners (symbolic / impactful).  And while the MOOC is a large-scale endeavor, its ability to accommodate learning at a variety of scales is possible.

Thus, I’ve come to a mental model or metaphor of MOOCs being like the green quadrangle in the center of the quintessential college campus.  It is open to all in the learning community.  On a nice spring day, a formal philosophy class has pulled its chairs outside for a class session.  A study group for a Calculus class is swapping notes for an upcoming exam and another group of students are working on a presentation for a class on global markets.  Multiple individuals are reading, studying, and taking notes for a range of learning goals while occasionally stopping to share casual social interactions with passing classmates or peers nearby.  Another group of students are playing Frisbee as several groups are promoting a range of activities from end of semester events to political causes.  An acoustic guitarist has a small audience listening to her songs as professors and students pass through on their way to other spaces – classrooms, dorm rooms, offices, labs, coffee shops, community service activities, athletic practices.  Some of them may return later to the quad to engage in any range of activities form the educational to the social.

My interest now is how to design MOOCs and other open online learning environments in a way that can accommodate and respond to the varied demands that learners may have of them.  And how can such design facilitate the smooth transition back and forth between activities, as learners are able to understand what they need and aspire to.  And can such environments support and recognize these varied needs.

Here I am starting to explore the role that instructional designers, teachers, leaders, mentors and peers play in engaging and motiving leaders.  How do they encourage sharing? How do they create models of peer support?  How do they orient learners to the processes of engaging in such a learning environment?  How do they help learners connect to and “know” each other?  How do they encourage feedback and response from peers as a motivating factor?

Thus, rather than pure sets of technologies and structures, how do we ensure that MOOCs are able to create and re-create a set of social and cultural practices that unleash the learning potential and agency of us all?