Home page for Jason Thompson's Blog

Jason Thompson's Blog


This is part of a series of posts I'll be doing related to Designing a New Learning Environment, an online course I'm taking through Stanford University's Venture Lab. You can find all the posts in this series here.

One issue I’ve had with Designing a New Learning Environment (DNLE) is with the platform it runs on called Venture Labs. While the site is visually appealing, its interaction design has not been well thought out. For example, it takes about three or four page jumps to get from the login screen to the classroom interface for a particular class. For an online educational platform, this isn’t good enough. Assuming a student is taking more than one class, it should only take two jumps to get there:

  1. A page listing classes after login
  2. With each class link leading directly to the classroom interface.

The platform is full of little issues like this and, to their credit, the stanford Student team who developed it is asking for our input.

I bring this up, not to launch into an analysis of the Venture Lab platform, but as a way of introducing an educational philosophy that takes a completely different approach: edupunk, is a DIY approach to teaching and learning inspired by the DIY ethos of the punk movement. The term was first used by instructional technologist, Jim Groom in a blog post that railed against the commodification of education technology. And you can see the edupunk philosophy in action at ds106, an education program to teach digital storytelling:

Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington... but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferrably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster.

The interesting thing about ds106 as an educational platform is that it is the hub of a network of learners and nothing more. Students use existing online tools such as Flickr, Soundcloud and their own blogs to:

design and build an online identity (if you don't have one already) and narrate your process throughout the fifteen week semester. Given this, you will be expected to openly frame this process and interact with one another throughout the course as well as engage and interact with the world beyond as a necessary part of such a development.

The ds106 website serves as a hub to aggregate class materials, class assignments and students’ online activities related to the class. As the site puts it, “it ain’t no silly MOOC”.

I’m aware that this approach to online education is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the Venture Lab model of educational environment, but if your goal is to create a MOOC, it’s worth your time to consider the ds106 model. It made me realise that perhaps the Venture Lab platform is over-engineered. For example, I find it frustratingly difficult to discover and follow what the other students in DNLE have to say. Sure, the folks behind Venture Labs could improve their journal and forum interfaces, but these problems have been solved a number of times already. There are already great blogging platforms and it’s trivial to aggregate tweets and blog posts by subject and author.

The ds106 model embraces the nature of a worldwide web composed of “small pieces loosely joined” (David Weinberger). And it’s arguably more open then the MOOC model.

That said, it’s not perfect. For many types of online courses, a MOOC would be better. Not everyone has the skills or inclination to create and maintain their own online identities. But for a course on digital storytelling or designing new learning environments I would argue that these skills are essential to the course content.

In any case, a close examination of a MOOC-free educational environment is an important step in designing a better MOOC because it forces us to face fundamental questions about what we are doing and why when we design educational environments.