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MOOCs for the win!

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are getting attention on various blogs and news sites. I’ll try and synthesize the conversation over the last few weeks and describe the role of MOOCs in education.

The Conversation so far…

Clark Quinn kicked of the current conversation in MOOC Reflections where he explores the distinctions between the current generation of Coursera/Standford open online courses and the connectivist model that Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and I have offered. Clark states:

The Stanford model, as I understand it (and I haven’t taken one), features a rigorous curriculum of content and assessments, in technical fields like AI and programming. The goal is to ensure a high quality learning experience to anyone with sufficient technical ability and access to the Internet. Currently, the experience does support a discussion board, but otherwise the experience is, effectively, solo.

The connectivist MOOCs, on the other hand, are highly social. The learning comes from content presented by a lecturer, and then dialog via social media, where the contributions of the participants are shared. Assessment comes from participation and reflection, without explicit contextualized practice.

(note the comments section where Seb Schmoller describes his experience in the Stanford AI open course).

Tony Bates responded to Clark’s post and asks the provocative question: “To what extent do MOOCs really change the nature of the game, and to what extent are they more an extension and development of what has gone before – and hence should aim to incorporate previous best practices? Or will that destroy them?”

Stephen responds to Tony’s question:

I’m generally pretty reluctant to compare MOOCs with what went before, and I’m generally pretty reluctant to suggest how MOOCs improve on the previous model, because what we’re trying to do with MOOCs is really something very different from what was attempted before. The best practices that previously existed, insofar as they were best practices at all, were best practices for doing something else.

MOOCs don’t change the nature of the game; they’re playing a different game entirely.

Sui Fai John Mak, who has been an active consistent participant in our MOOCs since CCK08, comments: “The focus of MOOC would then relate to the creation of environment and the practice of learning and reflection, in a community, rather than the mere “teaching the content” to the participants as typical in a traditional online course.”

In a follow up post, he expands on this idea:

MOOC provides an environment upon which learning with complex learning ecology is experimented and explored, so as to inform learners, technologists, educators and administrators (k-12, HE) and managers, engineers and learners from various businesses on the pros and cons of learning using various platforms or spaces in a complex digital landscape.

I’ve argued something similar to Sui Fai John Mak in the past, namely that MOOCs are platforms on which learners build and construct their learning. They exist to bring people together…and when you have a group of smart, motivated folks in one area, neat things will happen. The “bringing together” may be one of the most important aspects of a MOOC.

Tony then followed up with another post arguing that:

MOOCs and MITx are more a threat to current university continuing education departments than they are to the traditional credit programs. In recent years, most university continuing education departments have been forced to move away from providing a free (or very low cost) public service to adult learners. Instead their mandate is to to provide profit to support the more formal side of the university. MOOCs are a direct challenge to this part of conventional universities.

Dave Cormier jumps into the conversation and throws MOOCs, rhizomatic learning, and the Cynefin framework into a blender and produces:

MOOCs as a structure – and rhizomatic learning as an approach – privilege a certain kind of learning and learner. The MOOC offers an ecosystem in which a person can become familiar with a particular domain…MOOCs offer a complex ecosystem in which you ‘can’ learn, not one where you ‘will learn.’ It doesn’t come with many guarantees.

Getting some mainstream love

NY Times also joins the MOOC discussion in Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls:

Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — a tool for democratizing higher education. While the vast potential of free online courses has excited theoretical interest for decades, in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree. And in what some see as a threat to traditional institutions, several of these courses now come with an informal credential (though that, in most cases, will not be free).

Taking a step back…

It might be helpful to take a quick step back and talk about why Stephen and I started with open online courses. We were both at a Desire2Learn conference in Memphis in 2008. And we were both tired of arguing about connectivism (“is it a theory”). We decided that experiencing networked learning was important to understanding networked learning.

Instead of talking connectivism, we wanted to create an experience that was essentially connectivist: open, distributed, learner-defined, social, and complex.

In designing courses, educators often make important decisions on behalf of learners. The educator forms a “boundary” around the knowledge that will be explored in a particular course. Finding your way through, and making sense of, a chaotic landscape is the learning experience. Traditional learning design tries to reduce complexity. We try to increase awareness of complexity. Duplicating what someone else has decided is important is still a type of learning, but not one that exists outside of classroom settings. Real world learning is messy and chaotic.

We decided that we wanted to do for teaching and learning what MIT had done for content with their OCW initiative.

In our first open course – CCK08 – we emphasized learner’s control in orienting themselves to complex information. Many learners found this very confusing. But, when in an environment of abundant information, they began to adopt new approaches for interacting with information and with each other. Social networks became critical to making sense of readings. Creating and sharing artifacts helped learners to communicate how they had come to understand a topic or concept. Language games – negotiating meanings, naming things – also became an important learner-controlled activity. We provided readings each week to start the conversation, but learners largely defined the domain of knowledge exploration by providing resources and shaping the discussion.

We weren’t the first to offer open courses. We had played around with open online conferences in 2007 (these conferences contributed significantly to the initial design of CCK08). Alec Couros and David Wiley had both offered open courses in 2007. And, if you look at the literature around open universities, open learning, and distance education, you’ll find over 40 years of discussions of similar learning approaches.

What is unique about MOOCs?

In a previous post and presentation, I detailed how MOOCs (CCK08, ds106, EC&i831) differ from the courses now offered by startups like Coursera. Our MOOCs value ontology first and epistemology second. We have an ideology of developing learners who create and share artifacts of their learning, control their own learning, and own their own spaces of learning. In the process, we emphasize social networked learning (connectivism). We make sense of complex knowledge by connecting to others, creating and making “stuff”, and engaging in discourse and interacting with the ideas of others.

The Stanford MOOCs are more traditional as they emphasize knowledge development not ontological development. The primary innovation of these MOOCs relates to scale and economics: the numbers of learners that can take a course (currently for no fee, but I think that will be short-lived).

Tony is correct in his assessment that MOOCs challenge traditional continuing education departments in universities. However, this is only true because that is to date the primary approach of MOOCs. We haven’t experimented with MOOCs that challenge traditional undergraduate education models.

While MOOCs currently track the work of Freire, Illich, and Knowles, I think it would be a shame to relegate them as only being an innovative alternative to existing education models.

We interact with information differently today than we have in the past. Digital technologies have changed power and control relationships in many sectors of society. Mediating agents are less critical than they used to be. Information moves with less friction than it did in the past. It is malleable, easily mashed-up. It changes quickly. It’s impossible to keep up. (I addressed these themes and others in my book Knowing Knowledge – download here if you’re bored).

When control of information creation and dissemination changes, those fields that are information dependant also change: business, government, journalism, education. As goes information so goes education. What we lack in education today is the ability to envision a new future based on what technology allows us to do today. Jim Groom is right in stating that “And while I know it is far fro[m] perfect, I feel like the last two or three years have witnessed pretty amazing strides towards seeing some real possibilities for a technical and conceptual shift that can and will happen in institutions.”

Where does that leave us with MOOCs?

It is important to realize that MOOCs are not (yet) an answer to any particular problem. They are an open and ongoing experiment. They are an attempt to play with models of teaching and learning that are in synch with the spirit of the internet. As with any research project, it is unlikely that they will be adopted wholesale in traditional universities. Most likely, bits and pieces will be adopted into different teaching models. Some systems will offer open online courses as a means of drawing attention to their university. Others will offer MOOCs because it’s an effective way of getting out an important message or to raise awareness about certain topics.

Any or all of those adoptions of MOOCs are not really a concern for me. I’m more interested in experimentation and exploring new modes of interaction online. I’m not concerned about whether or not existing university systems adopt MOOCs for undergraduate education or whether they serve to improve continuing education. That kind of discourse appropriates MOOC concepts to support the narrative of the existing education system. Which is fine.

But that is only one way to look at MOOCs.

We are still learning other possible perspectives and trying to shape vision of what education could be. For now, MOOCs are a ripple in the education system that causes people to question “hmm…I wonder what would happen if…” or “I wonder how I could teach with…” or “I wonder what learners will do when I…”. For some, that ripple will produce an entirely new conception of higher education. For others, it will result in iterative small-scale improvements in their teaching. I favour the former, and certainly appreciate the work of those who adopt the latter.


  1. David Wees wrote:

    It seems to me that one could view the entire Internet as one unmediated MOOC. So therefore, I see your work as being one that will help us untangle and use the Internet itself as a more productive learning environment.

    How critical, for example, is the mediation that happens in a MOOC? How important is that the people form a community? Have things like MOOCs formed spontaneously in Internet forums, and blogging communities?

    Monday, March 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  2. Thank you for clarifying of what the initial idea of a MOOC was. The different contributions to this topic just show the potential and the dynamics located in the web, as already expected in your theory – so we are on the right way – thanks again.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  3. Frances Bell wrote:

    How does the learner interaction on Change11 (and CCK12) compare with CCK08? I get the Change11 daily and it looks pretty thin to me.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  4. Thank you for highlighting the value of ontology in MOOCs. It makes sense that an individual has some properties and share relations (i.e. I’m taller than you are), but since learning is mental and represented in language we have to rely on our perception (i.e. Like a performance in a domain of knowledge).

    Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink