Why we want MOOCs (even though they might work best in theory)

Marjatta Kiessl —  January 14, 2013 — 2 Comments

Reading about the “revolution of college education” or the “year of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)”, you might think that the MOOC concept has been invented just recently. But as often noticed: concepts evolve from previous concepts. The original idea of MOOCs came up in the 1960s and there were run some successful MOOCs as early as 2008.

Moreover, there are two different schools of thought behind the MOOC idea, they are currently referred to as „xMOOCs“ and „cMOOCs“:

Those initiatives by Stanford and Harvard and their partners (platforms such as Coursera and edX) represent the xMOOC-model whereas the cMOOC-model goes back to the connectivism theory by George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University in Canada, and has been in practice since 2008.

While in the US the buzz has focused on the top tear universities, in Germany, the latter model seems to obtain a lot of attention and I think there are good reasons for this.

Let me first point out some main differences with a particular focus on the underlying notion of learning in both models (admittedly, I will be brief on the xMOOC-model, because I think it is rather well known around here):

The “xMOOC”-model

The xMOOC are said to be more “traditional” and “outcome driven” because the well recognized teaching system of those reputable universities is applied to the online courses: Content is presented in video lectures and the MOOC characteristic formats are encouraged and incorporated in the system – such as peer review processes, social media interaction among learners and physical and online learning groups.

It should be added that the perspective to ensure a high quality learners’ environment will be strongly influenced by the development of semantic web appliances, as Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera and a former Stanford professor in the field of computer science, describes her vision of applying “learning analysis” to the enormous number of MOOC-participants. Vast amounts of data will reveal insights on learning patterns, allow to experiment with different didactic styles, trace user activities and interests or make suggestions where to find suitable input or even a future employer.

The “cMOOC” concept presents a learner-centred approach:

A cMOOC comes across as a format for advanced e-learners (as it requires a fair amount of digital literacy) and stresses the concept of learning as a process of sensemaking.

The course follows a structure, which provides certain landmarks to be considered, but is not entirely pre-set and leaves the course objectives mainly to the individual learner.

Therefore, it requires the learner to become a navigator through the material provided by other learners and the instructor in order to select content that is relevant to his or her task at hand, but even more importantly, it is about building, interacting and participating in networks and – as a consequence – producing artifacts.

The teacher takes on the role of a mentor and the peers might become part of a “network of shared interests”. However, this network is not limited to the course participants but actively encouraged to happen anywhere in the web.

There are multiple options to officially acknowledge the individual endeavours, such as credit points or certificates, but it is also indicated that public recognition of contributions in the digital space might add value to your record (Here I refer to an example that George Siemens mentions in his interview with Howard Rheingold: He talks about a student creating a video to present his understanding of the course material and uploaded it to You Tube. Apparently, the video got more than 100,000 clicks. He thinks this might have been more rewarding to the student than him as a professor giving a good mark.)

Moving big bricks: Education should mirror society (and finally: why I think MOOCs are good for us)

Considering high tuition fees in the US as well as the underrepresentation of educational institutions in many areas around the globe, the new accessibility to academic knowledge provided through Coursera and others are highly valuable and yes, can certainly be called a revolution.

Due to the demographic change in Germany, the demand for a fundamental structural change in higher education opening towards a lifelong learning concept is a vital concern of educational policy and we already see many endeavours to get this to work. This is only one reason why the reception on MOOCs appears slightly different from a national angle.

It seems obvious that we have to learn to cope with an overload of information and to select relevant information in order to actively participate in society, to do our job as a “researcher”- within or outside the academic world.

The web has already become a major hub for information and resources, but this is not reflected adequately in educational approaches yet. Our professional environment will shift more towards team work and collaborative endeavours and many areas of interest will grow and develop around the globe. It seems inevitable to mirror this development with new concepts in education, which fully integrate and draw on digital resources, and at the same time use insights won through appropriate analysis. Social computing is about people interacting with others – there is feedback, comments and opinions by real people.

We know that lifelong learning is a highly individual process and this is one of the major challenges. In this context, the cMOOC-model seems appealing and bears a lot of potential: If we motivate and enable people to participate, help them to achieve their objectives, create a framework to practise social computing and develop semantic technologies in order to provide best possible service, this could again be called a revolution (theoretically).

The true value of cMOOCs might be that they equip us with a tangible concept for a learning environment where we can test our acquired knowledge and our own understanding out there, in the real world, and combine it with the chance to get informal or formal acknowledgement for our endeavours.

Don’t forget: Without trials, we never learn.

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Marjatta Kiessl

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2 responses to Why we want MOOCs (even though they might work best in theory)

  1. Nice post, not sure if George Siemens is really a professor (maybe you want to check this).

    I fully agree with you that we need more trials but we also need to convince people to follow what we belief is the future of open learning. In this regard, a closer examination of the “true” potentials of (c)MOOCs seems to me more promising than a discussion of the “believed” potentials.

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