If you’re even casually aware of what is happening in higher education, you’ve likely heard of massive open online courses (MOOCs). They have been covered by NY Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, TV programs, newspapers, and a mess or blogs. While MOOCs have been around since at least 2008, the landscape has changed dramatically over the past 10 months. In this timeframe, close to $100 million has been invested in corporate (Udacity) and university (EDx and Coursera) MOOCs . And hundreds of thousands of students have signed up and taken these online course offerings.
Personally, I’m very pleased to see the development of Coursera and EDx. The learning potential for society (globally) are wonderful. All of the critiques that I’ve read so far ring hollow compared with the tremendous learning opportunities that these MOOCs provide. This hit home for me when I was in India a few months ago. I met with numerous university students and the message was clear: we simply can’t get the quality of instruction from some of our colleges that we get from Coursera. While we debate pedagogical models and the ideologies informing different MOOCs and the corporate interests of open courses, the lives of students in different parts of the world are being changed with these projects. And that should be our real focus.
A secondary focus, for me (and far lower on the scale than the primary one mentioned above), is around the learning theory and pedagogical models that influence different types of MOOCs.
In 2008, Stephen Downes and I offered an open online course, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08). As our registration numbers increased to about 2300 students, Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander dubbed the course offering a “massive open online course” or MOOC. The term has stuck and both Dave and Bryan will eventually be inducted into the edtech hall of fame for great word inventage. Since that first course, Stephen, Dave, and I have offered a whack of different courses: CCK09, CCK11, CCK12, Future of Education, PLENK, LAK11, LAK12, Change11, Critical Literacies, and so on. All told, we are likely approaching about 20,000 registrants for our MOOCs (there is overlap from different courses, so the unique registrants would be less). 20,000 is an impressive number, but it’s hardly a blip on the Coursera scale (where student numbers in excess of 100,000 seems to be the norm). If Thrun, Page, Koller, and Ng are A-listers, we are “adding new letters to the back of the alphabetsters”.
The MOOCs that we’ve done – and the ones that Jim Groom and Alan Levine run (DS106) and Alec Couros runs (EC&i831) – are defined by a participative pedagogical model. They are unique and different from the emerging elite university MOOC model. There are many points of overlap, obviously, as both our MOOCs and the Coursera/EDx MOOCs taken advantage of distributed networks to reflect changing educational practice. In the presentation below, I detail some of the distinctions between the different open course formats:
What is the theory that underpins our MOOCs?
Aside from the surface level distinctions between our MOOCs and the Coursera/EDx model (yes, I’m “othering” them), some important differences exist in the underlying views of knowledge and learning that inform the different MOOC models. Here’s an 8-pack of MOOCy distinctions and what makes our approach distinct.
1. Connectivist. Our MOOCs are informed by connectivist views of learning, namely, that knowledge is distributed and learning is the process of navigating, growing, and pruning connections. Some theories of learning, notably the many shades of constructivism, have some similarities with this view. However, as the world becomes more digital and networked individualism becomes more prominent, the distinctions between connectivism and constructivism are becoming more clear. Eventually, even the constructivist will describe learning and knowledge through the lens of connectedness. This post needs to be updated, but it captures some of the unique attributes of connectivism: What the unique idea in connectivism?
2. Knowledge is generative. The Coursera/EDx MOOCs adopt a traditional view of knowledge and learning. Instead of distributed knowledge networks, their MOOCs are based on a hub and spoke model: the faculty/knowledge at the centre and the learners are replicators or duplicators of knowledge. That statement is a bit unfair (if you took the course with Scott E. Page at Coursera, you’ll recognize that the content is not always about duplication). Nor do our MOOCs rely only on generative knowledge. In all of the MOOCs I’ve run, readings and resources have been used that reflect the current understanding of experts in the field. We ask learners, however, to go beyond the declarations of knowledge and to reflect on how different contexts impact the structure (even relevance) of that knowledge. Broadly, however, generative vs. declarative knowledge captures the epistemological distinctions between our MOOCs and the Coursera/EDx MOOCs. Learners need to create and share stuff – blogs, articles, images, videos, artifacts, etc. The maker movement embodies the “create stuff” attitude. Wendy Drexler’s video, produced during CCK08, is a great illustration of creation and generation in open courses:
3. Coherence is learner formed & instructor guided. This attribute is closely related to the point above. In a traditional course, the instructor creates knowledge coherence by bounding the domain of knowledge that the learners will explore: i.e. this is the course text, here are the readings, quizzes will validate that you’ve learned what I think is important, etc. In our MOOCs, we have a sloppier relationship with coherence. I communicate my views of how different elements are related, but then ask learners to explore, deepen, and extend the ideas I/we express with additional narratives/opinions/views. Coherence then is something that the learner forms as she makes sense of and finds her way through the messy knowledge elements that comprise the many dimensions of a field.
4. Interactions are distributed, multi-spaced. Our first MOOC – CCK08 – started by being primarily centered in a Moodle discussion forum. As the course progressed, interactions were scattered over many tools and technologies. We ended up with many spaces of interactions: Second Life, PageFlakes, Google Groups, Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, blogs, wikis, YouTube, among dozens of others. Coursera/xED learning is heavily centered in their platform. DS106 is a similar multi-spaced course: blogs and personally owned spaces define much of the interaction and learning.
5. Synchronization. This is an important idea that I’ve long struggled to communicate. I still can’t get it quite right. However, this video partly gets at synchronization in learning: we act and react to those around us in ways that creates some structure or part uniformity of understanding. However, we are not robots (unlike the agents in the video), so our interactions don’t harmonize to the same level. Still, synchronization is an important element in our learning activities in MOOCs. We don’t online align ourselves to the course content and the instructor; we align ourselves to other learners and their knowledge.
6. Resonance. Like synchronization, resonance is a term that feels like it’s important but one that I can’t quite clearly articulate. The notion of “idea collision as innovation” is an example of resonance – two partial ideas combine to create something new This video reflects this concept. In a MOOC, learners possess different levels of knowledge. We fill each others knowledge gaps in MOOCs. Another aspect of resonance is concerned with why certain ideas have uptake in a network in contrast with others. In order for me to be able to interact with an idea, I need to have developed a suitably broad knowledge structure within which to situate new ideas. Certain concepts are inaccessible until I have formed a base network of knowledge. Resonance is concerned with why some concepts readily integrate with what I already know while others float by and are only “integratable” later on.
7. Innovation & impact focused. It is now a cliche to state that the world is complex and that knowledge is continually evolving (It was a cliche when I wrote Knowing Knowledge but less so than today). However, just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean that it’s not true. We face complex challenges as a society. The solutions will be found in distributed/networked approaches. The challenges are too big to be addressed in traditional sub-clustered empirical knowledge models. Integrative and holistic knowledge approaches, distributed across global networks (for example, how the virus that causes SARS in 2003 was identified). With the MOOCs that we run, we attempt to emulate connective and integrative knowledge – a tug on what part of the knowledge network impacts other parts.
8. Fostering autonomous and self-regulated learners. At the core of the MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is a power question: what can learners do for themselves with digital tools and networks? MOOCs foster not only a particular type of knowledge in a particular area of inquiry; they also foster a self-regulated, motivated, and autonomous learner. When an instructor does for learners what learners should do for themselves, the learning experience is incomplete. Developing capacity for learning and the mindsets needed to be successful learners is a central attribute of our MOOCs. We are not only concerned with the epistemological development of learners (knowing stuff) – we target ontological development (being a certain type of person) as well.
These are a few of the more prominent attributes of MOOCs that I’ve been involved with. As stated above, there is overlap between our model at that of Coursera/EDx. However, Coursera/EDx emulates the existing education system, choosing instead to transfer it online rather than transform it online. No doubt they will continue to evolve their model and we’ll continue to evolve ours. Unfortunately, we will be spending slightly less than $100 million on ours!