Scaling up to moocl, not dropping down from a MOOC

Various problems that arise in open online education look different if we allow ourselves to consider alternatives to the currently dominant idea that the challenge is to serve better the masses of people who sign up for a MOOC. What would follow if, instead of dropping down from a MOOC, that is, trying to get masses of people signed up for a course and knowing that a tiny fraction will complete it, we built small effective learning communities and tried to scale these up to “moderately open online collaborative learning” ventures?

1. The first implication of the shift is pedagogical: a course is no longer the default model.  We are free to experiment with ways to address the needs of online learners who want to:

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

b) connect topics with their own interests;

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

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

After all, for any given topic, there is already an abundance of material out there on the web and very effective search engines.  If you want someone to package this into a course, you can search for syllabi or open course ware on your topic.

2. The second implication is that the challenges are not so much technological ones.

a) We do not, for example, have to create an automatic process for dividing up the people who sign up for a MOOC into small groups in which discussion will take off and be sustained.  Instead, we can focus on how to run small group discussions so that people keep contributing because their needs are met (see #1 above; The format of Collaborative Explorations [http://cct.wikispaces.com/CEs] seems to be working very well in this regard. When people apply they specify a time they can commit to meeting for 1 hour/week for a month.)

b) Nor do we need to adopt discussion board platforms, such as Discourse, that allow people to see the different threads.  In a small group meeting for a delimited period, something like a private google+ community suffices for participants to follow the threads.  Its unstructured, already-quite-a-lot-is-visible format has the virtue over Discourse of not requiring participants to invent informative thread topics or to click to open up a thread that might be interesting.

c) Scaling up becomes a challenge of

i) hosting any small group well so that people want to return for more small group experiences and to spread the word to others to join in for subsequent groups;

ii) recruiting apprentice hosts who can then host on their own  OR preparing an easy-to-follow script that can be used without first apprenticing to someone else; and

iii) getting members of the small groups to prepare summaries or syntheses that can be posted on a public community or double-post appropriate contributions to the small groups’ private communities so that the small groups become part of some larger moocl.  (The idea here is that the public community consists more of readable, thoughtful and digestible posts than of surfing-the-web links to elsewhere.)

d) The emphasis no longer rests on creating a people’s version of corporate MOOCs and trying to match their production values (which seems to be the focus of P2PU discussions).

3. The last implication is that we might reflect on not wanting to feel left behind as other players get big air time on the web.  In this sense the seductiveness of MOOC-ism is like the internet-era idea of going viral.  Of course, for every youtube or mp3 that goes viral, countless others don’t, but attention is given to the former, not the latter, and thus our ambitions are shaped.  The antidote is to cultivate a sense of self-worth that is not dependent on validation by the crutches of virality or stardom or making it big.   To this end it helps if we can participate in small groups in which we dig deeper, make “thicker” connections with other learners, and connect topics with our own interests and situations.   Of course, serendipitous connections—with ideas and people—sometimes happen in connectivist MOOCs.  But, I don’t see much inquiry into the frequency of  this happening, so when people respond to posts like this one by contending that the limitations of MOOCs are not reason to throw them out with the bathwater, I read fear of feeling left behind, not a well-developed argument.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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