I think it is important to talk about why DS 106 is successful as a class. In some online conversations, the question has come up over whether or not the course can be reproduced elsewhere or not. As an instructional designer, I disagree with the idea that success of DS 106 is driven by Jim Groom‘s personality. I disagree with that idea as much as I disagree with the notion that courses succeed through indefinables like “magic” or “secret sauce.” I believe that courses succeed for a set of reasons and that they fail for another set of reasons. Now I happen to love Chairman Groom and a lot of what he has done in education, and his personality is obviously part of that. And that his how it should be. Instructors who are engaged in their courses, for good or ill, will stamp the course with their personality. But I have seen great people teach badly and faculty who were very not known for their sparkly personalities shine online. If students can actually describe their teacher in an online class, that teacher is doing something right, something interesting, something engaging. I was a quasi-lurker/student in one iteration of DS 106 where Jim was very present. And I am in a current iteration with another faculty member who is as deeply engaged, leading to a similar success – but definitely a different kind of personality – both classes are successful. But I would argue that there are three things built into DS 106 that significantly contribute to its success that can be separated from personality: instructor presence, student support, and student engagement.
It is not the personality that creates the success; it is the engagement of the instructor. I know that some personalities are more “engaging” than others. But instructors who make regular videos, podcasts, send weekly emails, and comment frequently on student blogs are experienced by the students as an instructor who is present in the course. That is not “personality cult” that is “instructor presence” and there is a lot of research out there that shows that instructor presence is essential for student success in online learning. Instructor presence occurs not only when an instructor responds to an assignment, but when an instructor utilizes a wide-variety of social media to connect with the students who may be using a wide-variety of devices and social networking platforms to connect with one another. In other words, many students are already using this media – one can be present by showing up where the students are already at. An instructor can connect their networks together (upload once, send out to many), and create an effective level of presence. Some of this can be automated; RSS feeds can be gathered to a page, a posting in WordPress might go out as a Twitter as well, but the automation is purposeful – it is always done with connecting others in mind. DS 106 encourages this through the Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting intitiatives: students and instructors are using WordPress and other tools in their own domains to connect with one another.
Student support is critical to online success, and this support should be built into the course. DS106 provides a detailed, extensively annotated syllabus as well as a “DS106 Handbook” that tells students not only about policies and assignments, but also the kinds of tools they will need, links to information about how to use the tools, and where to go to get help. In fact, getting help is the first item. Other so-called innovative xMOOCs just figured out that student support is essential to online student success and are slowly backing away from the table. Student support is built into this course in many ways. If a student has questions about an assignment, there are multiple social networks (e.g. Twitter) where a student has immediate access to students who have either finished that assignment or one quite like it. Good documentation is critical to student support. The documentation for ds106 works so well that the course could be run by the students based on it. It is a different course, but it is definitely ds106. Good documentation or a well-thought out syllabus can be just as useful as any textbook. When I think of good documentation for leaderless organizations, I like to think of the AA big book or even the Little Red Book of Mao. People have used these successfully as organizational guides (see “The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.”)
The third thing that ensures the success of DS 106 is student engagement. Student engagement does not mean “attention grabbing” or “entertaining” as you might suppose from the way xMOOCs are written about. Student engagement is the interactions between the student and the teacher, the students with one another, and with the content of the course. Student engagement is one of the leading factors in online student success. Other MOOCs are basically places where one watches a video of a certified master and then takes a test. There is little to no student-student engagement. DS 106 defaults to open and is highly collaborative. The assignments are meant not only to be shared but they invite the participation of others. The assignments are written with collaboration and engagement in mind. The course only works if you share what you are doing with your fellow students. And because many of the assignments are written by the students, they speak to the students. The students have a great sense of ownership to their work because it is not just another disposable paper. I love Wiley’s term “disposable assignments” – assignments where the students are all doing to the same thing, the teacher is the only one that reads them, and then they go in the trash. This is not that class.
I will grant that it was Jim Groom’s anarchic, edu punk, DYI spirit that encourages students to roll their own. But there were others attached to University of Mary Washington and beyond that shaped DS 106 in significant ways. The kind of synergy that the students experience is not an accident – it is the by product of a truly open course. The course could conceivably be run by students, with assignments generated by students, and assessed by students (and something like this happened with one iteration of the course). A course with an open pedagogy benefits from everything that the students bring to the table (which includes their networks apart from the class). The course becomes unique to those students in some very profound ways.
I have been looking at cMOOCs for a while now with the idea that there must be a Connectivist model of instructional design. I think I am almost there and DS 106 is certainly a model of that along with CCKo8-12, and Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning. I have written elsewhere here on Connectivist instructional design – principles that I think are reflected in DS 106. The questions I asked there are answered by DS 106:
So given these experiences, what should Connectivist instructional design look like? Based on the principles of Connectivism, learning should:
- Provide for a diversity of opinions
- Allow students to create connections between specialized nodes and learning sources
- Foster their capacity to learn (teach metacognitive learning skills)
- Increase their ability see connections between fields, concepts, and ideas
- Teach students to build networks that will allow students to keep current in their field
- Allow students to choose what to learn and how
All of these principles are attended to in DS 106 and because of that, this course and courses like it, will be going long after the personalities fade. I think the point that participants are trying to make when they say that “it can’t be reproduced” is their sense of connection and their relationships that the course facilitated, but what can be reproduced through a Connectivist instructional design, is just that: the facilitation of instructor presence, student support, and engagement.
NB: This posting grew out of conversations online about whether or not DS 106 could be reproduced, a few of those participants, interestingly enough, wrote a paper “A DS 106 Thing Happened on the Way to the 3M Tech Forum” that talks about utilizing a DS 106 experience to promote an open corporation. This is a very interesting read with a great bibliography.