Dialogue in a MOOCocracy: Examining participants’ posts in a social democratic online collaborative about food insecurity

Concurrent Session 2

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Brief Abstract

What if we facilitated dialogue in MOOCs in a whole new, more learner-centered, and engaging way? The MOOCocracy project is trying to do just that. Presenters will demonstrate a new attitude-focused discussion board and highlight participant experiences and posts from a recent pilot about food insecurity.


Dr. Jamie Loizzo is an Assistant Professor of Agricultural Communication at the University of Florida. Her Ph.D. and M.S.Ed are in Learning Design and Technology from Purdue University. Jamie also has a B.A. in Radio-Television (News) from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She has professional experience as a journalist and video producer and worked in television newsrooms in Illinois, Kentucky, and Florida. Jamie’s dissertation examined a Human Trafficking MOOC. She has since examined social science and humanities MOOCs and developed the MOOCocracy concept. Jamie also founded Streaming Science, a project-based learning program for 21st Century science communication education.

Extended Abstract


Some critics are quick to call Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) a failed experiment due to a number of reasons such as low completion rates and unclear business models (Jordan, 2014; Peters, 2018). Yet, some innovators and researchers are moving forward to examine how MOOC design, pedagogy, and tools could be re-imagined for increasing the effectiveness of global online education and engagement (Ahmad and Oakley, 2017). The MOOCocracy project (http://www.moococracy.org) has focused on improving MOOCs for deliberate social democratic learning and dialogue for informed decision-making. MOOCocracy has included the development and pilot implementation of a new discussion board tool built upon connectivism learning, Community of Inquiry (CoI) design principles (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2010), and public engagement theories (Taylor and Kent, 2014).

Predominantly adult learners with higher education degrees are taking MOOCs for a variety of reasons such as professional development, personal enjoyment, and lifelong learning (De Barba, Kennedy, and Ainley, 2016; Shapiro et al., 2017). This is in contrast to how MOOCs were initially romanticized to open up education to the masses who typically do not have access to higher education (Kelly, 2014). An adult learning MOOCocracy culture has emerged and includes many adult learners who value education and dialogue about critical global issues (Loizzo and Ertmer, 2016). MOOC adult learners are self-directed and have the ability to set their own learning goals, which do not always include earning a certificate (Loizzo, Ertmer, Watson, and Watson, 2017).  Additionally, research proved that MOOCs are not only learning environments, but also engagement spaces for impacting and changing attitudes via instruction and dialogue about social issues such as human trafficking and animal welfare (Watson et al., 2016a; Watson, Kim, and Watson, 2016c). Past research also examined c-MOOCs (built on connectivism learning theory) focused on fundamentally utilizing the massive environments for establishing relationships and connected, social learning (Bali, Crawford, Jessen, Signorelli, and Zamora, 2015). The MOOCocracy project builds on the notion of MOOCs for social learning and expands it by applying a perspective and LTIs intended for relationship building.

From Traditional to Attitude-Focused Discussion Boards

MOOCs typically include discussion boards within modules for the thousands of participating adult learners to type posts about various questions and prompts from the instructor. Traditional threaded discussion boards can quickly become overwhelming in a MOOC, with posts upon posts piling up and becoming unwieldy to navigate and track. A university administrator once took a MOOC and wrote that, “In a MOOC, nobody can hear you scream” (Kirschner, 2012). Further research echoed Kirschner’s claim and described the challenges of observing, filtering, and participating in massive discussion boards (Mustafaraj and Bu, 2015). Some MOOCs have attempted to organize participants into groups for smaller, more controlled interactions (MacKinnon and Bacon, 2016).  While participants in other MOOCs have moved out of the course spaces and into social media environments for richer and more meaningful engagement (Velestianos, Collier, and Schneider, 2015).

The MOOCocracy team created an attitude-focused discussion board learning technology integration (LTI) that can be embedded into learning management systems (LMS) such as Canvas. The tool is called the IDEA discussion board - 'Informed Dialogue for Effective Action.'  Instead of posting paragraphs of threaded posts, learners instead (1) respond to a statement from the facilitator, (2) use a new sliding mechanism to declare their attitude and confidence level on a spectrum of agreement and disagreement and then, (3) post their thoughts and supporting resources.  Each learner thus makes their attitude explicitly clear and how their posts relate to the overall discussion context, reducing readers’ cognitive load in discerning the meanings of their posts, for example.  The discussion board is also interactive and dynamic in that it visualizes where all learners’ attitudes appear about an issue, as well as allows for searching through the various attitudes and sorting posts based on attitudes.  In a way, one could imagine that the posts are indexed, organized, and searchable by attitudes. In the near future, the discussion board will also connect to an interactive map that will work much like a weather climate map and provide an overview learners’ attitudes based on geographical location. 

MOOCocracy Discussion Board Testbed and Pilot

Along with the development of the new discussion board, our team concurrently developed a testbed of MOOCocracy content modules about food insecurity (https://moococracy.org/idea-1/) and piloted them in March-April 2019. We selected this topic because it embodies a critical social issue ideal for MOOCocracy learning, attitude change, engagement, and potentially mobilization.

Food insecurity is defined as a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members (USDA, 2018). Food insecurity has health consequences that can last a lifetime, and they not only strain individual families, but on whole communities. The Food Insecurity MOOCocracy was facilitated by science communicators engaging with experts in the areas of nutrition, community development and public engagement, as well as community members who work with low-income families. The modules were organized by different aspects of food insecurity, including an overview, nutrition, poverty, and sustainability. A case-based instructional design approach was used (Jonassen & Hernandez-Serrano, 2002) with studio expert interview videos and on-location videos to demonstrate the impact of food insecurity.

Discussion prompts were crafted to encourage participants to delve deeper into their own attitudes and perceptions of those who are food insecure and how we should go about addressing this problem. Examples of discussion prompts include: 1) Free and reduced lunch programs should be expanded to provide support to a greater number of food insecure children, 2) Most people could afford a lot more and healthier food with less money, if they were willing to put in some effort to learn about healthy choices, and spend time cooking, and 3) County governments, schools, and food pantries should work together to support Community Gardens and grow free or very low-cost produce for food insecure families. Preliminary results show pilot participants (n = 57) were able to successfully post approximately 280 times, replied 170 times, and adjusted their self-identified attitudes 293 times.

Session Presentation and Interaction

The structure of this session will include an overview of the MOOCocracy mission, a description of the testbed, an inside look at the food insecurity pilot and modules design, a demonstration of the attitude-focused discussion board LTI, an analysis pilot participants’ discussion LTI usage, and resulting themes from pilot participants’ attitude placement and post hermeneutics. The session presenters will then guide attendees through a series of questions and answers about the LTI, including specific attention to attendee feedback and input for improving MOOCocracy tools, module development, and facilitation.



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