Facilitating the #FLwebsci MOOC

Chris Phethean

Speeches had been prepared, videos had been filmed and articles written and edited, when on the morning of the 11th November my alarm rang. Today there was no more preparation or planning; today it was time to facilitate. An email was already in my inbox: “Web science: how the web is changing the world – Week 1 has just started!” The first week was always going to induce a rather high bout of anxiety – both in an excited way (that’s all our work going out there to thousands of people at once!), and a slightly more apprehensive manner (I’m facilitating the very first day of a brand new course on an essentially brand new platform… what if it all goes wrong?!). Thankfully, it was the former that ultimately came out on top.

Facilitating – and tutoring (my content appeared as a part of Week 5) – on the MOOC turned in to a daily experience of checking the FutureLearn platform to see what comments and discussions were appearing on the activities in the course. The immediate interpretation of these was that the insights and experiences being spoken about in these conversations were almost as fascinating as the content of the course itself. The ideas of Web Science were mainstream. People all over the world were discussing and sharing stories on how their lives, work and leisure related to Web Science. Odd and rare technical mishap aside (for example Internet Explorer not allowing browser history to be copied in to a visualisation tool that had been created), the course kicked in to gear and before long it felt like a mature, living and breathing Web Science environment. Facilitation turned more in to a process of watching, reading and waiting to see if any issues arose, allowing the discussions that were happening to develop and progress naturally. I think this was a vitally important aspect of the course: from my own experience on ‘traditional’ University courses, many conversations about the content will occur outside of the teaching environment, with no input from the lecturer or academic, so it made sense to ensure that on the MOOC, these equivalent conversations were allowed the same room to grow and explore.

As the weeks went on, the topics of the content changed and some of my fellow facilitators stepped in to monitor specific discussions around their own content, meaning that there was always a good feeling that the best responses and feedback possible to the discussions for each activity were coming from the facilitation team. I found facilitating for the entire 6 weeks however provided a more holistic experience of the first venture into a MOOC – it was great to become familiar with particular learners on the course, recognise their names when they posted in discussions, and begin to build up an image of how people’s perspectives were changing throughout.

Week 5 was particularly interesting, as it featured some of my own content. It was a strange and slightly intimidating experience at first, taking what I’ve been working on for over 2 years now and extracting what are the core elements relevant to any Web Scientist, and then explaining them in a way that was accessible to all. Despite a few initial queries over one part of activity, a few replies to gently ‘push’ learners towards the sorts of things they needed to consider seemed to help a great deal and there was something incredibly rewarding to see people start to ‘get’ something that had initially thrown them.

Then, before I knew it, Week 6 was drawing to end and things were drawing to a close. The rewarding feeling grew as people said thank you and described how they had found the course, leaving the next-run of the MOOC in February as a bright spot to look forward to in the near future, with the hope that it can produce the same kind of reaction.

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