Of bow ties and MOOCs: a personal reflection (#change11)

This reflection is a strange bricolage of two non-related issues: learning to tie a bow tie (as a 53-year old) and reflecting on my experience of a Massive Open Online Course, MOOC).

I did not grow up with bow ties. My family background was middle-class, conservative, Protestant and frugal. I grew up in a small mining village and the only pictures of men wearing bow ties were occasional pictures in the daily press of some celebrities in far-off places. Somehow it signified “being different”, being artistic, and somewhat eccentric  – especially when worn during the day. None of my family members ever wore a bow tie. No one in my community was ever seen with a bow tie – dead or alive. Even then there was the implied (and often explicit suggestion) that men wearing bow ties were either professors, literati , artistic, eccentric or gay – of a combination of these labels. [For an interesting overview of the history of bow ties, click on this link].

And yet the fascination was there from the start.

I can’t remember when I bought my first bow tie – one of those “ready-made” bow ties that did not require you to tie it yourself. But somehow wearing these “ready-made” bow ties was not the “real” thing – I always felt like a fake… Therefore ever since that first “fake” bow tie, I had the intention to, one day, buy a “real” one that I could tie myself. And every time I had the opportunity to buy a “real” one – I did not – because of the fear of not knowing how to tie one.

About a month ago I was in Oxford and bought three wonderful, colourful “real” bow ties. My first attempt to download instructions on “how to tie a bow tie” from the web ended up in giving up and putting the bow ties away. Somehow I just could not get the knack of it. I sulked.

Last Thursday I however decided to bite the bullet (or tie the knot). I revisited the downloaded guidelines (with the same frustration) and then it dawned on me that I should try YouTube. Voila. And yet, four videos later I still could not tie a bow tie. It is then that I discovered a video clip that somehow “broke the code”. There I was in front of my computer with a mirror alongside trying to follow the instructions as a 53-year old male learning to do something quite simple. I must confess that even though the video clip was really helping me “see” what I have missed in the previous attempts; it still was not easy.

But I did it. And last Friday I wore it to work with pride. Suddenly I was not only wearing a “real” bow tie, but I was also a “real” professor, different and I “probably gay” (a label that I wear with peace, courage and pride).

My experience in this MOOC was my first. Somehow you are not a “real” educator in the 21st century if you have not experienced a MOOC (most probably as you were not a “real” professor if you did not wear a “real” bow tie J).

When I looked at the programme of the 36 weeks of the current MOOC there were enough that intrigued me. Some of the persons in the field of education that I really respect were presenting and I really wanted to engage with their thoughts. Somehow I trusted that they were on to something and I was curious to discover it for myself (most probably like the first images of men with bow ties I saw as a child). I also realised that although my time was fairly limited, I wanted to engage and read as much as possible.

And somehow I did and do find time to read and engage. And after 11 weeks I have a fairly good sense what is in it for me.

In my opinion, MOOCs  have potential to empower and to expose participants to a relatively low structure, high volume of content and individualised learning experience. But, like bow ties – it may not be for everyone. Its potential most probably depend on the way it is structured, how that structure “fits” with the expectations of participants, the expertise of those facilitating the courses, the efficiency of technologies and links as well as whether the course theme is relevant to those who registered.

If you do not have an interest in how to tie a bow tie, you will definitely not download “how to” instructions, watch a video and spend a Thursday evening in front of a computer and a mirror trying to apply what you are learning. It is only when you have a burning desire to tie a “real” bow tie, that you will search for your answer – and wear it with pride.

But while every male professor may not like wearing bow ties (for whatever reason) I suspect that all educators in the 21st century should explore and experience MOOCs.

[Image of the bow tie from http://www.scavengeinc.com/p-329-clown-bow-tie.aspx, accessed 29 November 2011)


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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14 Responses to Of bow ties and MOOCs: a personal reflection (#change11)

  1. Hi Paul, thanks for the post and for the glimpse into what interests you. I am wondering what you are gaining from the MOOC that makes you think that it is a must for 21st century educators. Is it changing the way you think about teaching and learning? Is it the MOOC format or the topics we are exploring? I wonder if you were in a MOOC focused on culture and communication such as this one http://www.cdlprojects.com/cmc11blog/ if your thoughts would be different. I’m wondering the same thing for my self and haven’t quite sorted it out.

    • Hi Tai – thanks for the comments, engagement and more importantly the questions.

      As an educator in a mega open distance learning institution with close to 400,000 students – I am constantly confronted and inspired by the challenges of teaching courses (modules) with huge enrolments. For example, in our introductory economics or accounting courses, we have close to 24,000 students per 16-week semester. While our students have increasing access to networked environments, their levels of computer and information literacy are suspect. They also have different expectations e.g. wanting to be taught and to some extent “spoon-fed” or learning just to pass the examination.

      This past 11 weeks gave me some taste of the potential of MOOCs but also emphasised the impact of context in determining the appropriateness of a MOOC for students in our context.

      I am very excited about the potential for MOOCs for our postgraduate courses (with relatively higher levels of computer and information literacy). I also sense huge potential for MOOCs to break down the ivory tower with higher education institutions creating networks of informal learning which can be credited by institutions under certain conditions.

      I became aware of the CDL MOOC only late (to which you refer) and by that time I had to choose :-(. I just did not have enough time to engage in both with my current programme and commitments.

      So I suspect my comments are not specifically focused on the topic of this MOOC but are more general. Getting back to my reflection on “bow ties” – I suspect that the MOOCs may not be appropriate for all contexts, all disciplines, all student profiles, all educators – like wearing bow ties may not be to everyone’s liking. I do however believe that all educators should at least experience one MOOC to decide for themselves whether a MOOC is for them. Hope it makes (more) sense?

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  4. gbl55 says:

    An enjoyable read! – “MOOCs have potential to empower and to expose participants to a relatively low structure, high volume of content and individualised learning experience.” I think you have it about right there – unfortunately many people seem to understand what is meant by a ‘course’ as something else and can get a rude awakening when confronted with the MOOC animal! Maybe this accounts for some of the current misplaced expectations and will be less of a problem when the connectivist MOOC becomes a more familiar part of the educational scene taking its place among other Online Learning Events of different varieties and types.

    Now you’ve inspired me to try baking scones again!
    Gordon Lockhart

    • Gordon – I think you hit the nail on the head (or put the cream on the scone) by pointing to the general understanding of a “course”. I suspect that when people “take a course” it implies a highly structured and educator-led (who also determines the outcomes, assessment criteria and accreditation) environment with some form of formal recognition afterwards. Sadly, the formal recognition does not necessarily mean that you have become competent in the outcomes of the course – but that you have answered the posed questions correctly.

      In my institution in a 16-week semester, most courses (modules) have only two assignments and a formal summative examination of two hours for all undergraduate courses. So students just try to pass the examination in order to continue to the next level. Taking and passing a course has often very little to do with an increase in understanding and capability to not only function in the 21st century but to engage with, critique, disrupt and rephrase the dominant discourses of the time.

      So although one “registers” for a MOOC most of us are not sufficiently prepared for a learning experience where participants themselves determine what they want to get out of it. I know there are some MOOCs (e.g. at Stanford) which are credit-bearing with predetermined outcomes and that most probably changes the level of participation and expectations.

      Interestingly, getting back to my reference to “How to tie a bow tie 101” (:-)), the proof of the pudding is found in my ability to tie a bow tie on my own (and wear it with pride). When I joined this current MOOC my personal outcomes were:
      * to gain first-hand experience of a MOOC
      * reflect on the possible applications of MOOCs in my own context
      * share my own understanding of issues with a wider community
      * expose myself to some of the dominant discourses in the field of technology and education and to critique and learn from others

      So my participation in this course is therefore (so far) an unqualified success. So far so good.

      Let me know how the baking of the scones went!

  5. gbl55 says:

    Very interesting – years ago a forward-looking university colleague replaced the usual end of semester exam by ‘continuous assessment’ where students submitted a series of fairly open-ended design assignments (circuit design in an electronics course). Final assessment was returned as the average mark a student gained for the series. But ‘soft is hard’ and the extra loading on the individual doing all the marking was significant in comparison with a ‘one-off’ exam. Also, although I’m pretty sure student understanding was improved for that course, the students complained about the extra work needed in comparison with the other courses (they couldn’t just leave everything until before the exams!) and so did some colleagues who were teaching the other courses! After running for a few years continuous assessment was quietly dropped. It’s very difficult to reform an entrenched system without upsetting the whole apple cart.

    As for connectivist MOOCs, I enjoyed CCK11 and now Change11 but have my doubts about effectiveness for deep learning – it will be interestng to see how the Stanford AI course pans out although IMHO this is not a connectivist MOOC.

    • Gordon – you can imagine what continuous assessment means for a module(course) with 26,000 students while still depending on a postal system in a developing country. Should all these students however have access to the the Internet, and if you plan your assessment carefully and have enough “facilitators” or “tutors” to grade and engage – then I really believe continuous assessment is good educational practice. The capacity and systems that need to be in place when you roll out continuous assessment to 400,000 students taking 3,200 degrees (awards or programmes), in 3,200 different courses(modules) are mind-boggling.

      But as more and more students have access to the Internet, continuous assessment may become a reality. We have recently seen un unprecedented rise in students using our LMS to submit their assignments with the resulting crash of the servers on the last day of submission…

      There is another initiative at Unisa, namely to roll-out “signature courses” in each of our six colleges in 2013. What makes these “signature courses” so interesting is not only their specific curriculum content but embracing heutagogy as pedagogy. Students will be required to have access to the Internet, work in online groups of 20, contribute once a week (and be graded) over a 16-week period without a final examination. We expect an enrollment of 10-15,000 students and are in the process of appointing E-tutors to facilitate the learning. Although there is talk that this will become the pedagogical model for all courses (…) I have difficulty in seeing the appriopriateness of the model for some courses (modules) such as Chemistry, Physics, Accounting, etc. This model of teaching will also dramatically alter our ratio of permanent academics to adjunt faculty who will do the facilitation of learning. Talking about apple carts capsizing…

      That is why MOOCs with a relatively low (and differently structured) level of engagement by “experts”, short structured synchronous engagements and self-organising by participants have huge potential – depending on the course focus, student profile and issues relating to accreditation.

      Thanks for the engagement.

  6. jupidu says:

    Hi Paul, I really enjoyed the nice picture of the bow tie and your comparison of tying a bow tie with participating in the MOOC 🙂
    PS: And, Gordon, I’m mostly doing ‘continuous assessment’ as I want my students to engage during the semester 🙂

  7. Great storytelling, Paul. I’m so glad I made time for this post (three days after it first caught my eye in The Daily). Congrats on using different media and lots of hands-on practice to finally tie your real bow tie. I believe your courage to risk and fail repeatedly, to seek out alternatives and to ultimately succeed on your own terms makes you an excellent educator and learning designer. Keep up the bow ties! I’ll think of your example whenever I see one now! 🙂

    • Thanks Brainysmurff! The possibility of failing at learning seemingly innocent practices (like MOOCs and bowties) seems to get more daunting the older one gets. I think we often forget this in distance education where we deal with more mature learners.

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