My Human Element in the EDCMOOC

Authentic conversation is our human way of thinking together” (Brown, 2005, p. 204).

A few years ago I realized that a common theme in my life is the formation of community. After I had my first child I started a play group that met weekly for several years. I have been part of a women’s spirituality group for over eight years. When my son started a new school for first grade I quickly went about compiling a class roster and helped create a Facebook group so that the parents could connect and support each other. The part of my job that I enjoy the most is fostering community and knowledge sharing within MSLOC’s private online social learning community. Not surprisingly, I quickly found a community within this massive, global E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC course. It was not planned nor do I know where it is headed. But I do know that it has increased my level of engagement and connection. I feel supported and validated. What was initially a bit scary, sharing my learning journey publicly, now feels energizing.

As I work my way through the videos and readings for the Reasserting the human topic (week 3) in the EDCMOOC, I have been reflecting on community and how to support learning with authentic conversation and human connection. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how community forms and is sustained within a complex adaptive system, such as a MOOC. Complex adaptive systems are unpredictable, nonlinear, adaptive, emergent and self-organizing (Pascale, 2000; Tsoukas, 2005; Uhl-Bien et al., 2007). I’d say this #EDCMOOC qualifies! The self-organizing piece is what I find fascinating.

The Kolowich (2010) reading called The Human Element resonated with me on several levels, as a higher education learning professional, as a former graduate student who took classes in various formats and as an EDCMOOC student.

The Human Element in the Blended Learning Environment

Over the past several years, my colleagues and I in the MSLOC program  at Northwestern University have identified that making emotional connections has been a key factor in supporting a healthy, collaborative blended learning community. Some ways that we do this is by sharing webcams in virtual class sessions, by taking time to end virtual sessions with intention and reflection instead of just abruptly hanging up, and by creating instructor welcome videos for our alternative schedule classes that include sharing some personal information. (See more info here.)

make emotional connections Similar to Douglas Hersh, Dean of the School of Media Arts at Santa Barbara City College, who is referenced in the Kolowich article, we have found that incorporating more video and audio into our courses has helped our students feel more connected to their instructors before they ever meet them in person. We coach our faculty to share their authentic selves on camera as much as possible. Our videos are not heavily produced – the focus is on the authentic human connection, not on creating slick videos. You can see an example of one of our instructor videos here: Managing Transitions (notice how Dorie Blesoff shares her personal stories in the video).

Just like Hersh, we have also moved mostly off of Blackboard in favor of a private social learning community powered by Jive Software. In this nonlinear, organic online platform, members of our community are able to make connections, collaborate and share knowledge across and above class instances while still allowing for private class groups. Members of the learning community are able to have social presence in various ways, such as micro-blogging via status updates.

My Human Element Within EDCMOOC

The description of Hersch’s Human Presence Learning Environment  where students can post audio responses to discussion threads sounds like what I’m calling My Human Element within the EDCMOOC course, a Voice Thread discussion started by Felicia Sullivan on February 6, 2013. Basically, we each upload a picture to a Voice Thread profile and then we can make audio or text comments when we are able. The comments get put into one long recording and it is easy to move to a particular location – I typically find the last comment I heard and then start listening there. Visual cues are given to show who is talking.

I drew the image below to represent my EDCMOOC group which has slowly grown each day as new people join in.

voicethread-EDCMOOC Felicia Sullivan (@feliciasullivan) kicked off the Voice Thread by asking fellow MOOCers the following questions:

What is really most present in your mind right now related to EDCMOOC? What is the burning thing you are seeking out or researching or questioning? What really is top of mind?

She has adeptly continued to facilitate the conversation by responding regularly and making us feel that we all own this conversation/convergence. We have been discussing various topics such as e-learning and social media tools, the interesting position of studying something that you are also doing at the same time (going meta on MOOCs), the priviledge afforded to English speakers in this EDCMOOC, the possible inequities of MOOCs (see a recent post about this by Jen Ross – @jar) as well as the Voice Thread tool itself.

banksy - bird singing in a tree - 2

banksy – bird singing in a tree – 2

By sharing our voices, we hear each others accents, share a bit of personal information and make an emotional connection. Simply from hearing the background noises in the audio tracks and picking up on visual images in the pictures students have chosen to share, I have learned the following: Beth D. has a Dachshund (listen), Virginia has birds chirping nearby (listen), Rick seems to like the outdoors, Beth and Virginia both like to drink tea or coffee from mugs. Rick from Fresno, CA reflected on the power of sound in one of his Voice Thread remarks, “Hearing the birds chirping and dogs barking helps to personalize some of these interactions we’ve been having, largely via text.”

So I’d like to thank the students who have shared their voices on this Voice Thread: Felicia (Boston, MA), Rick (Fresno, CA), Miguel, Beth S. (Yorkshire, UK), Beth D. (Wisconsin), Virginia (USA), Sherene (USA), Fran (Australia), Luis Rafael (Venezuela), Marianne (Gainesville, FL). You have inserted a bit of predictability and safety into an otherwise nonlinear, sometimes overwhelming experience. This Voice Thread is the place I go before starting my EDCMOOC reading/viewing or checking my various streams. It is what I’ve been listening to as I start and end my day. I look forward to hearing more voices as the course continues! I have a feeling others have been listening and wonder what will compel (or prevent) people to join in.

What have been your experiences with self-organization in this MOOC or other similar environments?

What is the story of your own small group if you have one?

What does community mean to you within this context?

Related Content

EDCMOOC Voice Thread by Felicia Sullivan

Blog Posts

Online Content from members of the Voice Thread

Felicia’s Blog:
Rick’s Blog:
Beth D.’s Blog:
Fran’s Blog:

Reasserting the Human – Week 3 Readings / Viewing

Humanity 2.0: defining humanity – Steve Fuller’s TEDx Warwick talk (24:08)

Badmington, Neil (2000) Introduction: approaching posthumanism. Posthumanism. Houndmills; New York: Palgrave

Kolowich, S (2010) The Human Element. Inside Higher Ed

Monke, L (2004) The Human Touch, EducationNext


Photo Credits

Photo Credit: Make Emotional Connnections by sorokti cc
Photo Credit: My Human Element by sorokti cc
Photo Credit for bansky bird: Eva Blue via Compfight cc


Brown, J. (2005). The World Café: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Kolowich, S (2010) The Human Element. Inside Higher Ed

Pascale, R. (2000). Surfing the edge of chaos : The laws of nature and the new laws of business (1st ed.). New York: Crown Publishers.

Tsoukas, H. (2005). Chaos, complexity, and organization theory. In Complex knowledge: Studies in organizational epistemology (pp. 210-229). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298-318.


21 thoughts on “My Human Element in the EDCMOOC

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  6. blogging4education

    Hi everyone

    So much to take in here that my skimming and scanning does not do it justice. I reckon I have 2 more hours or enjoyable rummaging here. What I find strange is how this small community convened in the first place. For me it was serendipity – in the right place at the right time, seeing that initial tweet that aroused my curiousity and made me click on it. However, a CoP does need its protoganists and we know who you are 🙂 Constantly prompting, adding new content and insights which engage us and motivate us to respond (like all these comments).
    In March I am preparing to start and hopefully nurture a community of practice with colleagues to explore, and reflect on, the adoption of emerging technologies for learning and teaching. I hope it will be as vibrant as this one.
    I am also interested in the personalisation and sociality of online communities. Paul Gee, talks about a “semiotic domain” and the importance of the affective benefits of a community. I need to explore the references posted here to delve much deeper about this “human element”. I wonder if being a part of this MOOC has played a part in influencing me to make a podcast to welcome new learners into my community next week at I will ask for their feedback on this. In the meantime, everyone keep up the good work. See some of you tomorrow in the google hangout!

    1. Sorokti Post author

      I’m just now getting around to listening to your audioboo introduction that introduces new learners into the community. This is a great alternative to a standard text-based welcome message. In the MSLOC program, many of our faculty create short welcome videos to serve the same purpose. I think adding a webcam to this makes it even more personal. Jing is a great tool to use for this.

      I haven’t looked at Paul Gee’s work so will add that to my list of future reading (growing long at this point!). I think I need a year of post-MOOC study/reflection to fully absorb all of the knowledge and content that has been shared.

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  8. travelerglobal

    Keely, I tried to leave a voice comment on VT, but I was prompted to pay a subscription. I left a typed message. This is a wonderful community you created. I like your ideas and openness.

    1. Sorokti Post author

      Ligia – I would get in touch with their support. I did not have to pay anything to create an account. They have a free option. Would love to have you join us!

  9. Dave Young

    I found this while blundering about in cyberspace making strenuous efforts to ‘engage’ with all who I can of like mind on my EDCMOOC programme within the limits of my available time and outdated internet speeds. I have not taken part in any voicethread experiences. They must be very satisfying for maintaining the learning experience and the human touch. I recently posted something on my blogiste relating to Kolowich. See

  10. Felicia M. Sullivan

    Keeley, thanks for sharing this experience and the really excellent thinking on this. At some point I’d like to share thoughts on self-organization and complex adaptive systems which is another area I share with you.

    But I’d like to take up the point of “human connection.” I know when I first started using VoiceThread it was to create that sense of presence that was missing in the online, virtual learning space. The varied times zones made real-time interactions difficult to schedule. VoiceThread was the answer.

    Since those first efforts, I have also come to realize that in addition to the technology, process can really deepen these connections as well. For the last three years, I have been involved in a yearly workshop series ( run by Peter Taylor at UMass Boston ( I have been amazed that at these gatherings, a group of relative strangers could find amazingly deep connection after a relatively short period of time. When I first encountered this, Peter was quick to say that it was the more in-depth introductions, autobiographical introductions, that were key. I have since used these in my classes and have come to agree.

    So the essence of an autobiographical introduction is to allow individuals in a group to go into greater depth about their engagement with a group or a particular setting. Giving and insisting that individuals use 10-15 minutes to connect their past to the current encounter allows participants to reveal more of themselves. They contextualize themselves, and as others share the connections between participants begin to emerge. You can even take reflective breaks after 3 or 4 introductions to ask the group to map the connections between the previous introductions.

    While this sort of process can can take a substantial amount of time, it is worth the investment and it works in an asynchronous VoiceThreaded configuration as well. So as your post explores, how do we continue to support and built the processes that allow individuals to recognized one another and connect in such massive learning environments? How do we ensure that the tools support those processes rather than overshadow them? Thanks for prompting me to think on this more. Looking forward to your continued writing.

    1. Sorokti Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply Felicia! It doesn’t surprise me that you are interested in complex adaptive systems as well. Do you know about Nancy Dixon’s blog, conversation matters ( You might find this blog post interesting: Are On-line Discussion Forums Conversations? (

      Her blog is one of my favorites and she addresses complexity as it relates to knowledge sharing as well as going deep on the power of conversation to help with sensemaking and building collective knowledge. But yes, that is another topic.

      I look forward to learning more about Peter Taylor’s work.

      I am interested in learning more about the autobiographical introduction technique. I’ve experienced something similar to this in my women’s group (when we bring in a new member). It is powerful. One of the things that we share with the students in the MSLOC program, who work on mostly virtual teams almost every quarter, is the importance of taking time when the team is forming and all along the way to share their lives with each other. In the very task-oriented world we live in it is often difficult to create this kind of space for connection.

      Here is a quote from one of the students in the MSLOC program giving tips to new students about some good practices for working on teams:

      “Spend a couple minutes at the beginning of each meeting “being social” – we used to call it “Five Friendly Minutes.” In the beginning we would ask fun questions just to break the ice, like “if you were going to dress up for Halloween, what/who would you be?” It helped us to get to know each other as people and start the call in a friendly manner. Over time and as we got to know each other, we’d talk about work, family, the readings or anything we wanted to share – seeing each other as real people helped us to become a more cohesive team”. – MSLOC Student

      More to follow…

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  12. Jeff Merrell

    Happy that others now get to benefit from the kind of thinking and insight I enjoy every day (Keeley and I are colleagues).

    I am obviously also very intrigued by connections, how and why they occur and what affordances make them go. What kinds of things inspire the “clustering” that becomes (my bias) an important (and unique) part of the MOOC experience? Voices…seems like such an obvious thing. But what Felicia and you and the others are doing with Voicethread really opened my eyes again to the unique ways that digital connections can deepen on a more human level. Awesome.

    1. Sorokti Post author

      Thanks Jeff for supporting my learning goals! I read a post somewhere this week that I wanted to reference where you were having an online discussion about clustering in an informal way vs. a formal way (putting people into groups vs. having it happen naturally). I tried to find it last night and couldn’t. Too much to dig through. Any idea about where that was?

      P.S. I’m listening to birds chirping outside my window right now. Spring is coming!


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