Learning Spaces: Small, Large, and Massive (#moocmooc)

I’m participating this week in MOOC MOOC, a massive open online course (a MOOC) on MOOCs. Yesterday, participants were split into “small” groups (numbering about 75 each, I think) to collaboratively write introductory essays using Google Docs. The essay to which I contributed was published on the Hybrid Pedagogy group blog this morning.  It was a blast to use Google Docs with that many collaborators, particularly during the last 30 minutes of the assignment when the editing came fast and furious. And it was very helpful to have a community (via the #moocmooc hashtag on Twitter) with which to share, discuss, and analyze this particular form of collaboration.

Today’s assignment was to create a video exploring the topic of learning spaces, in response to this video and essay by MOOC MOOC facilitator Pete Rorabaugh. Here’s my contribution, “Learning Spaces: Small, Large, and Massive.”

Here’s a link to the Prezi I used in the video, which includes links to information about the examples I mention. And below you’ll find my script for the video, in case that’s helpful. I welcome your comments on the video, either here or over on its YouTube page.


Hi, I’m Derek Bruff, and I’d like to share a few thoughts on learning spaces.  Here’s a rather traditional learning space: the college lecture hall.  Note how the furniture directs attention to the teacher at the front of the room.

Here’s another learning space, smaller than the lecture hall, but with the chairs still pointing toward the front of the room. The chairs are moveable, sure, but the default orientation is toward the teacher.

Here’s a smaller—and much older—learning space, a replica of a one-room schoolhouse in South Carolina, circa 1910.  See anything familiar?

All three of these learning spaces are designed to support what we might call teacher-centered instruction.  The teacher decides what the students should learn, and the teacher is seen as the source of knowledge and expertise.  This makes a lot of sense, because teachers are usually context experts and have useful things to say about what students should learn.  But it’s worth contrasting teacher-centered instruction with…

Learner-centered instruction.  In these learning spaces, the learners get to decide what they should learn, and the learners themselves are seen as sources of knowledge and expertise.  This makes sense, too, because learners are pretty significant stakeholders in the learning process and because everyone brings prior knowledge and experience to the learning communities they join.

We’re used to learner-centered instruction.  Take a look inside any small seminar class, like this one taught by David Silver, and you’ll see students directing and contributing to the conversation.

A couple of years ago, I hosted a monthly game night for friends of mine.  We played Settlers of Catan almost exclusively.  We learned a lot about the game by playing the game and by investigating the game individually between game sessions.  As learners, we were entirely self-directed.

Learner-centered instruction can happen in larger settings, too.  Eric Mazur teaches introductory physics.  Although he has a strong role in determining the physics content addressed in the course, he uses peer instruction to help his students teach each other the course content, using clickers and other technologies to facilitate peer-to-peer interactions.

Sidneyeve Matrix teaches a 300-student course called Digital Media Theory and Trends entirely online.  Students influence the direction of the course and contribute to the shared learning experience through blogging, social bookmarking, and other online discussion tools.

Zooming out, we see teacher-centered instruction happening on both small and large scales.  And we see learner-centered instruction happening on both large and small scales.  But what happens when we move from large…

To massive?  This is new territory for education, but we’re already seeing both teacher-centered and learner-centered models.

Want to see a great college lecture?  There have been companies around for decades that will provide that, for a cost.  This is a strongly teacher-centered model, with really no role for learners to shape content or contribute to each other’s learning.

The courses I’ve seen from Coursera have been fairly teacher-centered.  Teachers decide what content will be taught, and the intention is that students will learn that content, for the most part, from those teachers.  Peer-to-peer learning is encouraged through online and in-person study groups, but these are pretty loose interactions, not like the intentionally designed activities that Mazur and Matrix employ.

The edX courses seem to be similarly teacher-centered, although there have been some interesting learner-centered developments here.

Last spring, a high school engineering class in Mongolia participated in MIT’s electronics and circuits MOOC.  This local learning community was fairly learner-centered, with students developing their own projects and learning from each other.

Also, a group of students in that same course wanted to take the following course before it was ready for the edX platform.  So they’ve started up their own MOOC using already-available materials from MIT’s OpenCourseWare Initiative.

And, of course, when you look at the connectivist MOOCs, you see highly learner-centered spaces.  The teachers decide the course topics and design course activities, but students have a strong role in shaping the direction of course discussions and in contributing to those discussions.  The structure of the MOOC is designed to help students learn from each other.

What can we learn from these examples about the spaces where learning occurs?  We see teacher-centeredness in both online and in-person spaces.  We also see learner-centeredness in both online and in-person spaces.  In today’s MOOC MOOC reading, Pete Rorabaugh contrasts “connectivist pedagogies” with “institutional pedagogies,” but I don’t think that contrast makes sense.  We see connectivist, or learner-centered, pedagogies happening both within and outside institutions.  We also see teacher-centered pedagogies both within and outside institutions.  From my perspective, the critical question in the design of learning spaces, whether online or face-to-face, whether within an institution or not, is striking the right balance of teacher-centeredness and learner-centeredness.  What I see on the right side of this map, from Mazur on up, is increasing experimentation in striking that balance, and, for someone like me, who enjoys the “What ifs” of teaching, that’s exciting.

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