Sunday, January 12, 2014

Learning From a MOOC

Growing Insights is now being offered as a online learning course for professional development by the Alberta Professional Planners Institute

Growing Insights is our first experiment in doing a MOOC (a Massive Open Online Course). The Alberta Land-use Knowledge Network launched its course on urban agriculture and local food the beginning of November, 2013. The course ran for 4 weeks with four streams, one offered each week. Over 300 people registered for the course during the 4 weeks. We had a week and half of publicity for the course before it opened.

Here is what I learned about MOOCs. There are different versions of these large online courses. The universities have used tools like Coursera and other versions of MOOCs (Here is what Wikipedia says about MOOCs). However, we were trying to do something that matches what George Siemens, Athabasca University, and Dave Cormier, University of PEI, envisioned when they pioneered the term MOOC (What is a MOOC, Dave Cormier).

The idea of MOOCs is a Canadian invention using the Internet to get people together to learn and discuss in a structured but open process.

First, the Alberta Land-use Knowledge Network had two reasons for doing the MOOC. We wanted to try out this new form of active learning. Our job is to deliver good emergent information and research on land-use practices and policy to Albertan land-use planners, agrologists and land reclamation specialists and watershed plan managers. Doing a MOOC seemed to be something we needed to do. Our second reason was that we knew urban agriculture was an emergent issue. Solid Alberta based information was hard to come by even though we knew that emergent expertise and practices were available in Alberta. For example, the City of Calgary has seen its community gardens expand from 11 in 2008 to 140 in 2013. Doing a MOOC was a robust way to develop good information on urban agriculture. 

So here is what we learned:
  • Getting new content isn't the problem. Figuring out the course structure and format appropriate to the audience takes time. From the genesis of the idea to the delivery of the course took us over a year. Interviewing experts, assembling and posting content, videos and organizing publicity probably was a concentrated 2.5 month effort by 6 staff.
  • Short videos are a great tool to capture expert knowledge and stories. People will view 5 four minute videos in a row. They will not watch a 20 minute video. 
  • After doing the video interviews with experts, we had a list of curated links to important content on the Internet. The experts pointed out key enablers for urban agriculture that are not readily apparent even on municipal websites in cities where urban agriculture is emerging. 
  • We used Ning for our website. It had the advantage of ease of posting and participant registration. The discussion forum was pretty basic and confusing to follow during and after an online discussion.
  • We were not intent on providing a "course". We were intent on providing good information and connection to an emergent community. We achieved the objective of providing good information. The website tool didn't support the community conversation component and as survey respondents pointed out, they were only moderately interested in discussions. But that aspect, always difficult in a new community that hasn't met face-to-face to build the all important community component of trust, is something we didn't achieve.
  • The real place for MOOCs to move is to professional development and professional learning. It is not happenstance that the Alberta Professional Planners Institute asked us to retool the GrowingInsights course so that professional planners can earn structured learning credits for their continuous professional learning.
Things that worked (and shouldn't have):
  • 300 plus registrations. 300 was my measure for success. A national conference on food security in Edmonton had approximately 200-250 attendees the previous year. But with only a week and half of publicity, I was surprised that we had those numbers by the end of the first week of the course. And the majority of registrants were Albertan, another surprise.
  • A survey of participants (only 19 responded) showed that the majority heard about the course by word of mouth. Email was second. 
  • Videos worked (if we kept the intro short and the commentary short).
  • Most survey respondents thought the course was the right length and quite useful. 
  • I was surprised that people checked the daily emails and viewed videos regularly. Most people checked the website a couple of time a week. The importance of "push" rather than "pull" by putting information directly in front of them is a key learning because we initially questioned whether people would get tired (spammed out) by daily emails.
  • Our audience had a pretty broad range with 20-29 years being in the majority. We had posited that urban agriculture is important because the Millennials are driving it. The course reflected that.
 So in spite of the demise of MOOCs being broadly broadcast in the latter half of 2013, we have found a niche. We are now working on more MOOC topics (LiDAR anybody?)

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