MOOCs vs. University Online Courses

I’m in the process of taking my second online MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) with Coursera.  I’ve been teaching online classes for UMass Boston over the last 6 years.  These UMass courses have taken the traditional semester long courses and in many ways their structures and moved them into a online environment.   These online courses have had the typical 10-25 students foll lowing along with material that would be somewhat similar to what is delivered in an face-to-face class.

The similarities of the MOOC with the UMass online offerings are the following:

  • Instruction is by a university or institutionally validated inidivudal
  • Classes have a defined start and end date
  • Course materials are released in a sequential nature
  • There are assignments and assessments
  • Students may be very geographically dispersed
  • Lectures via PowerPoint and instructor audio or video are present

Yet there are concrete differences between the two. In the MOOC,

  • There are thousands of students.
  • One on one Interactions with professor and teaching assistants are limited.
  • The role of the study group and peer learning community becomes much more important for parsing out confusion
  • The two courses I have taken were free
  • Individual motivation and agency in learning becomes much more important
  • External validation via a degree is not present, but I can get “certifications”
  • Not sure how more subjective work such as essays would be assessed and validated — guess I should take a literature course
So here are the questions that come to mind:
  • How can you leverage peer support and learning present in the MOOC in an online university course?
  • What sort of validation would learning done completely in MOOC have in replacement of a traditional college degree?
  • How can you enliven intrinsic motivation and independent inquiry present in a MOOC for a university course?
  • What would happen is an online University course could accommodate 1000 student each pay $10 or $15 rather than 10 paying $1500 each?
  • What content is not very appropriate for a MOOC?

Seeking “Truth”: My Process for Critically Assessing Information

OK, so I recently started working for CIRCLE ( and one of my first tasks was to share data and analysis on a recent poll on young Americans 18 to 29 and their attitudes towards the upcoming  election , leading policy issues, their involvement with civic organizations, methods that influence their voting behavior and a range of other questions.  The data and initial post about this poll can be found here —

Continue reading “Seeking “Truth”: My Process for Critically Assessing Information”

Empowering Community Settings

I am doing some additional literature review for my dissertation and came across this table on an article about empowering community settings.  I wonder how many people can say they work at or are connected to a group or organization meets these criteria.  How can we move more of our organizations to practice and include these characteristics?  What would it take for our local governments to embrace these types of organizational practices?

[NOTE:  click on image to enlarge]

SOURCE: Maton, Kenneth J. (2008) ” Empowering Community Settings: Agents of Individual Development, Community Betterment, and Positive Social Change” Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41. p. 8.

The Bargainmaker is Always It

The 119 Gallery annual retreat was held on Sunday, May 6th.  During a discussion about the collection of facility usage or event fees, one of the participants, I think Andrea Pensado, asked how does this type of decision get made and enforced.  In essence she was working for a traditional understanding of organizational priorities where the board defines some set of objectives and these are then executive by staff or on-the-ground workers.  Yet within the context of the 119 this is not how decisions are enacted.  Basically, decisions are more participatory or decentralized in nature where the individual involved in the transaction or exchange decides.  Not that the person decides in a vacuum or in a context of no cultural or organizational values and goals, but basically individuals are agents in the process rather than avatars for the decisions of others.   Within this context as well, those who decide also have responsibility to follow through with the decisions they enact.  Board chair Jim Jeffers dubbed this style of decision-making — “The Bargainmaker is Always It” model.  He was borrowing it from decision-making within his household context, but it was highly apt within the context of the 119.

The Making of a Place

Just returned from the Urban Affairs Association conference in Pittsburgh where there were a number of papers delivered about the role of media, art, and culture in the life of the city.  Placemaking and the role of authentic experiences were front and center and the ways in which liveable and sustainable cities provide opportunities for their residents to interact in meaningful ways with each other and the space around them.

Reminded me of this piece in the Boston Globe a week and half ago written by local artist Donna Dodson – as well as the piece in Slate a couple of days ago about walkability  –  Lowell is highlighted in both.

Making me wonder what are the other experiences and interactions that make Lowell a place?  Also, I have had the feeling over the last couple of months that there is a swelling of engagement and activity happening especially with a group of younger leaders being visible — it is as though we are on the verge of a tipping point.

Quick & Dirty Qualitative Analysis

So I’ve been thinking on ways in which nonprofit organizations might be able to take lots of text from reflections, surveys, testimonials, and other such word heavy data and quickly code the data for analysis.  Over the last six months, the 119 Gallery ( has been conducting a survey ( on impacts members of its creative community have experienced from the gallery.

I took all of the text from the 44 responses and pasted that text into Wordle ( which is a free tool to create word clouds.  The only word I deleted from the text was “gallery” since it is used often in reference to the name of the space.  Here is the resulting Wordle:

So initially, I would say that this display of text data is a good first step to assessing raw word count content.  In reading the responses it was clear that the sense of community was clearly present and given that the organization is an arts organization it is therefore not surprising that the 119 emerges as a “community art” space.

People, artists and Walter (one of the founders) emerge as other prominent words.   The what of the space — work, shows, events, music are not surprising.  The ideas of support, appreciation, welcoming are joined by open, creative, opportunity and unique which are in my opinion essential qualities of the organization.  Other interesting words that emerge are things like sense, felt, believe, feel and experience.

What the quick and dirty doesn’t provide is more nuance and context to the words.  Thus a traditional coding process can get at deeper meaning.  But this initial test seems promising.

Creating Ownership, Engagement, Buy-in

In thinking through the mechanics and design principles for self-organizing spaces, it seems a key element to ownership, engagement and / or buy-in is the extend to which an individual’s contribution are found value or useful to the group.  Or perhaps it is that for some, it is this element that is most critical, while others find the ability to express or be heard is paramount and still others find the connections to others having the most meaning.  There are standard theories in volunteer management / motivation that look at affiliation, achievement and power as the key factor propelling engagement in an organization (

Peter shared with me some thinking he had done on the SICW endeavor to come to some collective and growing community of researchers, activities, educators in this realm.  It was gratifying to know that some of the thinking I had shared with him on self-organizing groups was taken up.  That my ideas had some value.  So then the question is how do we creating meaning and value within the context of self-organizing groups?  How do we make accommodations for varieties of motivations?  How do we meet varied needs for connection and engagement?

Part of me things that it is critical then to provide many levels of intensity for engaging and opportunities for coming in and out of a space.  I will need to think on this a bit more.

Thin Places

Walter, on of the founders of the 119 Gallery just shared this NYT article on thin places.  As quoted:

thin places are much deeper than that. They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.

In many ways the 119 Gallery at times, not always, is one of these thin places.  A place where new configuration and new interactions and transformations come into being.

Creating a new space at the intersection of artists and audience

presentation by Steven Wheeler (Plymouth University) on self-organization and learning included a diagram that brought individual reflection via blogs into collaborative community via wikis.  This intersection between the individual and collective was pointed out again during a recent dialogue hour hosted by the Opens Space Workshops for Scientific and Social change.  This jumpstarted some thinking on my part about the 119 Gallery as a space that creates a similar intersection between individual creative visions and practices and a larger audience of community members.

While many may view galleries and performance spaces as a location of exchange between artists / producers and their audiences / consumers, the 119 Gallery actually exists as a space where creators and patrons come into communion with one another. Rather than exchange (which is the dominent concept of a “creative economy”) a new set of social and creative processes are formed within the context of this ever evolving creative space.  Producers and consumers may enter, but through participation the roles and boundaries between these entities begin to blur.

It is not uncommon for an individual within this space to find themselves moving and revolving between multiples roles and responsibilities.  The audience member becomes creator, the creator becomes audience and all have the opportunity to become architects / convenors / curators and producers of new formulations and articulations of the space.  They also are invited to craft the supports for its operation.

Eric S. Raymond’s seminal book The Cathedral and the Bazaar explored the value of open source software development (the Bazaar) when compared to the centrally controlled processes of proprietary projects (the Cathedral).  While much of the thinking done by Raymond and others resonates with a space like the 119 Gallery, the still dominant language of the market and exchange don’t quite capture what a creative space like the 119 is all about.  And there are aspects of a “church” or a coming together or “communing” that are more exact.

The 119 Gallery space and the creative community it births make possible new visions and expressions that would not be possible for the individual creator or the audience alone.  Co-construction and reconfiguration of creative impulses (including those in the realm of organizational management and development), are an essential feature of the 119 Gallery.  It is these new formulations and the energy they create that also appear to motivate the continued engagement of members of this creative community.

Action Research

I’m assisting with Peter Taylor’s class “Action Research for Educational, Professional and Personal Change”.  In considering the “Cycles and Epicycles” framework, it occurs to me I have been most familiar with the concept of participatory action research which I see now is a type of action research (no duh).  I had thought of action research being linked to working with those in the field or with those who normally would be seen as “objects” of research.  I can see in this definition that the “process” focus of focusing on a concrete problem or situation that is then constantly evaluated.  I can also see where this links to other forms of qualitative research where the researcher is part of the process of defining the question and iteratively feeding back into.  This seems to be a more natural way of coming to knowledge to me.  The idea of exploring something, finding something out, testing it, going back, modifying, and slowly “tweaking” the research as new knowledge comes to the table.  I see the value of more “experimental” type research designs, but these sorts of methods seem more “true” to me.

Also, more than a circle, I can tend to think of these processes as spiral in shape.  There is movement forward / back or up/ down, but at the same time a backtracking and revisiting throughout.  This too I think is more attuned to how the “human”mind works.  I can easily see where an orderly progression of the steps may not happen as well as there is movement back and forth around the various elements.  It would seem that being aware of these steps, however, is critical.

I would say from my own experience that the steps of reflection and dialogue may short-changed just as coming to plans and actions come the easiest.  Evaluation and feedback also seem to get pushed aside when there is a crunch on time.  It would seem we can find outselves then working in ways that may be inefficient and counterproductive and or stagnate or stall as a result of inability to move beyond barriers or blocks.