Collaborative explorations: addressing the problems of MOOCs

Consider the questions posed by the MOOC Research Initiative:

  • “What models of MOOCs exist beyond large centralized providers?”
  • “What institutional, pedagogical, learning design, technological, and business models are currently employed and which have the most potential to have a positive effect for our learner population?”

The development of Collaborative Explorations (to be described in section B) contributes to these questions by addressing the issues identified in the section to follow.

A. Issues in the rush to MOOCs

1. A very small percentage of people who sign up for a MOOC complete the course as designed.  In other words, there are many who sign up whose needs are not being met, even if those needs are not necessarily clear to them or expressable in advance.

2. MOOCs that focus on transmission of content (x-MOOCs) are pedagogically retrograde, that is, their design does not reflect lessons learned in online education over the last 15 years, especially, the need to:

a) model the pedagogy on best practices of teaching-learning without computers [e.g., students (or participants) become self-directed and collaborative learners—gaining tools, ideas, and support from instructors and peers (or other participants) who they can trust; integrating what they learn with their own personal, pedagogical, and professional development]; and

b) use computers to teach or learn things that are difficult to teach or learn with pedagogical approaches that are not based on computers [e.g., make rapid connections with informants or discussants outside the course; contribute to evolving guides to materials and resources].  (Re: b), MOOCs do, of course, bring in participants from a distance, which is much harder to do without the internet.)

(See for guidelines already clear back in 2001 about specific situations and specific ways in which specific technologies are of significant pedagogical benefit.)

3.The high-profile MOOCs favor high-profile universities and their professors, even though sustained commitment to educational access and pedagogical problem-solving is more characteristic of faculty at higher education institutions where research is not the be-all-and-end-all (e.g.,

4. Connectivist or c-MOOCs, in which communities emerge around, but extend well beyond, the materials provided by the MOOC hosts, are more attentive to #2a & b, but the learning that takes place through horizontal connections and sharing within the communities is not yet clear.  For example, many TED talks or other you tube videos are posted, but without commentary explaining the significance to person posting it.  Questions that dig deeper into materials may get acknowledged with compliments, but are rarely followed up.  In short, the connections made in c-MOOCs seem to be wide but shallow.

5. Most smaller-scale sub-communities formed within c-MOOCs fail to thrive.  The most active sub-communities consist of participants who want to learn about and try out new online technologies, often with a view to their work as online educators or facilitators not to mastering the official topic of the MOOC.

6. The revenue model is unclear.  In other words, paying customers do not vote on the quality of the service with their $$.  Instead, the funding comes from other sources, which invites one to scrutinize the goals of the funders.  For example:

a) is the allure of (currently) free access a way to undermine public commitment to funding of public education; and

b) is getting to be a recognized high-profile player (and thus having a corner of the market) more important than the educational quality of the MOOCs?

B. Collaborative Explorations

Open-access alternatives to high-profile MOOCs exist, most notably, through P2PU (peer-to-peer university).  Ironically, it was a P2PU founder, Philipp Schmidt, currently a visiting fellow at a high-profile university, MIT, that led a c-MOOC on “Learning Creative Learning” hosted by MIT faculty and students using the freely available platform created by a mega-corporation, namely, google.  A prototype Collaborative Exploration (CE) was formed as an offshoot of the course on the same platform of google+ communities and hangouts.  New CEs have been undertaken each month since and an ongoing series is scheduled.  (Face-to-face CEs were also run over four days in May and in a super-accelerated 75-minute demonstration to technology educators.)

Collaborative Explorations are an extension of project-based learning PBL and related approaches to education in which participants address a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry and developing their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word). The basic mode of a CE centers on interactions in small groups over a delimited period of time, designed to sustain the face-to-face PBL experience of re-engagement with oneself as an avid learner and inquirer.

(The current online CEs take place over 22 days and consists of four 60-minute sessions spaced one week apart, in which the same small group interacts in real time live via the internet. Participants spend a similar amount of time between sessions during which they undertake self-directed inquiry on the case, share inquiries-in-progress privately with their small group and, optionally, publicly with the wider community for the CEs, and reflect on the process [which typically involves shifts in participants’ definition of what they want to find out and how].)

If the CE scenarios related to a unit in a course or to issues that arise during connectivist MOOCs, the CE inquiries and exchanges would form additional resources for the course or MOOC participants. The scenarios involve real issues, but there is no assumption that participants will pursue the case beyond the limited duration of the CE. This said, the tools and processes used in CEs for inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and collaboration are designed to be readily learned by participants so they can translate them into their own settings to support the inquiries of others. In short, CEs foster “moderately open online collaborative learning.”  (For more details, see the longer prospectus at  For glimpses of the products and process of the first two CEs in 2013, see

In short, CEs respond to the needs of MOOC participants or other learners who want:

a) to dig deeper, make “thicker” connections with other learners;

b) to connect topics with their own interests;

c) to participate for shorter periods than a semester-long MOOC; and

d) to learn without needing degree or other credits for completion of a MOOC.

CEs form one model of MOOCs “beyond large centralized provider,” given that CEs use a) a free and increasingly familiar platform that can be readily learned and run by others and b) a straightforward script that can be adopted or adapted by others.  CEs could scale up once participants feel comfortable to volunteer to be hosts, with registration allowing a choice of times.  (To date CEs have used the times of 9am, 4, 5, 6pm US EST to maximize access around the globe.)  It remains to be seen whether CEs would scale up to match the numbers that complete corporate or institutionally financed MOOCs. Perhaps it is unnecessary to attempt to compete with them, but, instead, aim to carve out a niche of serving learners with the desires a-d above.

The business model is simple:

a) No-one gets paid and no costs are incurred.  (CE hosts have to be prepared to be compensated for their time by what they learn as participants themselves); and

b) A successful CE might inspire some participants to go an and register for a regular (revenue-raising) online course if the host teaches one or the host is an educational program that offers courses in a similar spirit to the CE.

The institutional model is simple:

a) (not yet implemented) Institutions draw attention to CEs hosted by their faculty through the same venues they would for MOOCs; and

b) Networks of regular, occasional, and potential participants are built up through CEs and participation in other MOOCs.

C. Towards further research on CEs and MOOCs

In the various ways sketched in section B, CEs address most of the issues about MOOCs listed in section A. Taking each issue in turn:

1. CEs do not aim for participants to complete a curriculum, nor to cater to every kind of person who signs up for a MOOC.  For those who join a CE, it provides a space in which they can clarify and revise what their learning needs are.

2. CEs model the pedagogy on best practices of teaching-learning without computers and use computers to teach or learn things that are difficult to teach or learn with pedagogical approaches that are not based on computers.

3. CEs are not the province of high-profile universities.  They have grown out of a sustained commitment to educational access and pedagogical problem-solving.

4. CEs acknowledge the value to c-MOOC participants of wide and mostly shallow communities for sharing, but emphasize the pursuit of questions that dig deeper into and beyond the MOOC materials. The kinds of learning that go on in CEs and their relationship to other kinds of learning is a topic for further exploration and reflection in CEs themselves.

5. CEs are a model for smaller-scale sub-communities formed within c-MOOCs that can thrive by virtue of a) the clearly delimited time commitment and b) the tools and processes of inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and collaboration that rapidly build trust and understanding.

6. CEs do not require large start-up or production funds and cannot be construed as an attempt to undermine public commitment to funding of public education. They do foster PBL-style models of student-directed inquiry and collaboration that might help improve the quality of the school experience for many students and teachers constrained by high-stakes testing.

All this sounds positive, but there are many areas for further development and extension of CEs  beyond the ones mentioned in #4 & 6 above. There is also a need to document and evaluate the CE approach so that publications and other online publicity can draw wider attention to its benefits and limitations.  Extensions listed in the prospectus include the idea that some participants might:

  • take initiative to combine reports into drafts for publication (with all contributors as co-authors or giving permission for use of their report).
  • elicit discussion about the operations—who gets to decide what CEs get launched and when, who can host a small group, etc.
  • clarify the possibilities and limits of CEs with regard to accommodating participants having different levels of preparation in the topics and/or the processes of interaction.
  • compare and contrast CEs with the tinkering and making emphases others give to learning in ways that are social, playful, disruptive of preformed ideas of one’s capabilities, and more.
  • develop a macro to automate the process of forming communities based on sign-up information.
  • discuss the connection or disconnect between overcoming barriers to learning and overcoming barriers to who can contribute to the production of established knowledge in various fields.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

One Response to Collaborative explorations: addressing the problems of MOOCs

  1. Chris London says:


    Anne told me it will indeed be taking place this fall.

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