Open education
Open education

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Open education

4.3 What are MOOCs?

Although the ‘massive’ of the title implies that vast numbers of students are necessary, this isn’t always the case; some MOOCs can be relatively small in scale but many have attracted large numbers of students.

The term ‘MOOC’ was coined by Dave Cormier and arose after his analysis of one of the first MOOCs, the ‘Connectivism and Connected Knowledge’ course (known as CCK08) run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Other early pioneers include David Wiley and Alec Couros: they both ran open versions of campus courses, whereby a course with fee-paying students with access to the course instructor was also made open to anyone to participate. However, the non-fee-paying participants didn’t receive the direct support of a tutor or lecturer (the model we have adopted for this course).

MOOCs need to be open to all, so tend to adopt a range of technologies. The result is often a more distributed course structure than traditional courses, with learners using their own blogs in combination with a central asynchronous system (such as a blog or a VLE) and a synchronous tool (such as Collaborate).

One of the most innovative MOOCs in its use of technology has been DS106 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , the digital storytelling course run by Jim Groom. In this course learners keep their own blogs, which are aggregated together into the main course blog. There is also an assignment bank where learners suggest assignments, and a radio station that is open to anyone to use for broadcasts.

The early experimentation led to more mainstream adoption of MOOCs, and in 2011 two Stanford professors offered an open course in artificial intelligence that attracted over 100,000 students. This was followed in 2012 by Harvard and MIT announcing the formation of edX, a joint initiative to offer open courses. In addition, the Stanford team founded Udacity, a commercial enterprise to offer open courses, and a number of universities started offering courses through Coursera.

Activity 12: Background to MOOCs

Timing: 4 hours
  • Watch this interview in which George Siemens and Dave Cormier are interviewed by Martin Weller, about a range of issues concerning MOOCs.
Skip transcript

Transcript

Martin
We’re live. OK guys, thanks for joining us. Perhaps we should introduce ourselves first of all. I’m Martin Weller from the OU in the UK and next up is Dave.
Dave
Hi, I’m Dave Cormier at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada.
George
And I’m George Siemens. I am with Athabaska University in Alberta.
Martin
Excellent. Cool. Well, we’re here to talk about MOOCs today for my course, which is an open course and possibly a MOOC. And we’ll start with a question for you George. Can we call you the godfather of MOOCs? Would that be acceptable?
George
You can call me whatever you feel like calling me!
Martin
Right then, let’s go with that then. So, you were involved in the very early MOOCs back in 2008? 2009?
George
2008.
Martin
Why did you decide to run those kind of early MOOCs? What was it you were trying to achieve?
George
Well, this might come as a surprise but vast portions of my life aren’t scripted and planned in advance, so a good chunk of what happens is more emergent than carefully and strategically considered. But what ended up happening was, it was in 2007. And, at that point, I had run a series of conferences through the University of Manitoba, and these conferences were basically done open and online, and we used essentially the same tools that we’ve started using with the MOOCs, which was we used the discussion forum, we emphasised blogging, the use of whatever social media was common at the time, and Elluminate at that point for synchronous sessions. So what ended up happening, once we had done a couple of these conferences, at that point there was some open courses going on already. I think most notably, the work that David Wiley was doing, and that Alec Couros was doing as well. And I’m sure, if you went back further, there are people who would say, Oh you know I taught open courses, or a similar course back in, you know, 1970s, and I’m sure that’s true.
The big thing, I think, that we did with our particular format was that we took advantage of some of the technologies that were available at the time, and our goal was really just to say what happens. And by ‘our’, I mean Stephen Downes and I, was to just say what happens when we teach in a transparent way. We didn’t have any higher goal or far-reaching vision beyond just opening up the course and seeing what happened.
Martin
’Cos it was really the potential that the new technologies offered that you wanted to experiment with and find out and see what happened?
George
Yes. I guess in Gibson’s language it was about the affordances, and it was about recognising that for us to teach, and we had about twenty-five students had enrolled on the open course and then we had a larger number that joined us in the, you know, whatever, the free version. And so the twenty-five students were ‘for credit’, getting recognition at the University of Manitoba and about 2300 or so were there just because they wanted to follow or be involved in some way. So for us there was no additional cost. I mean, we could scale our interactions, our presentations, at least. There was no additional work that we had to go in to teach a course that size versus teaching a smaller group.
Martin
Okay, thanks. I meant to say I was going to have an alarm for the first mention of ‘affordances’ so you win that George.
[Laughter]
Dave – you’re accredited or blamed – whichever way you want to look at it, with coming up with the term ‘MOOCS’. I wonder if you want to talk about that term, particularly the four elements that are in the acronym? Particularly why you thought that they were worth highlighting in that way?
Dave
I was fortunate enough to stumble across the work that George and Stephen were doing sometime in the summer before that course was launched, and when I looked at what was happening it looked very much like some of the things that I’d been looking for. We at EdTechTalk – it’s a community of online educators who meet and talk about stuff – we were meeting every week and having discussions and learning together and the rest of that stuff, and the big question that we had was, ‘How do we do this on purpose?’ And we tried a bunch of different ways of saying, ‘Let’s have an event for a weekend where we’ll try and get together and write a curriculum for educational technology and open that up for everybody and let everybody participate and try to get some work done and learn together’. And there were pieces of that working togetherness and the affordances of the web (that’s two) that we had seen as being really, really valuable, but what we wanted to be able to do was do it on purpose, at a time that started. So let’s say that we all want to get together. My favourite example of all the MOOCs that we were involved in is the PLE MOOC. Here’s a topic that we are all kind of interested in but let’s set aside ten weeks of our time and get together and learn what we can about it. Maybe even push our understandings of it to a point where we are talking about things that nobody has talked about before, but generally use all those pieces and bits and pull them all together to try to come up with our own sort of narratives that will help improve how we see things.
So, that to me is the incredible value of the thing that George and Stephen ended up with, semi-planned – their experimentation led to, let’s say. So, when I look at those four terms, they all kind of fit into that piece, and I think online and massive maybe are easier to talk about together. There is a sense in which using the web makes things different, right? The fact that all the information is out there, that people can connect with people that they hadn’t necessarily seen before, that they didn’t know, people they can happen across.
The example I always use is Viplov Baxi. I am never meeting Viplav if CCK08 doesn’t happen. He’s an educational businessman/educator from India – a really great guy. The three of us have talked to him before and met him in New Delhi. But those kinds of connections are possible: access to information, access to content, the reduced role of content and the increased role of connection – I think that’s available online. When you bring ‘massive’ into the equation, all of those things get magnified and I think there’s a point at which you tip over the scales and I don’t know what that number is or might be but we all know sort of instinctively that five people in a classroom is very different than twenty. Twenty is very different than fifty. Four hundred is different than fifty and, I think, as you go out the scale the numbers change again, and again. I’d hesitate to put a fine line on that but the massive does take all of those affordances that are part of, that are available to you from the web and magnifies them.
Openness is really the whole project for me. It’s the most important word in the project. Once you are transparent in the way that you design and the way that you deliver, if you’re open to multiple truths, if you’re open to multiple points of access, multiple ways in which students can take up the work that you are doing, multiple paths of success – all of that openness allows for people to individualise the work that they are doing to make the learning about them, to allow them to dip in or lurk, or, you know, do a PhD about it. It doesn’t matter. But it provides variety and it really breaks down the walls of knowledge as we see them.
The course part is probably the one I get criticised the most for when people ask me about it, but my answer to that is simple. If you’ve ever tried to bring people together you will know that if you do not set a date and you do not put a topic in, things never quite materialise. So, we could all get together in ten weeks and talk about random stuff, and that would be fine. And EdTechTalk has been that for seven or eight years now, and I have learned tons and tons through there, but through the five years leading up to CCK, to the PLE MOOC, I had never taken the time to really think my way through how I felt about PLEs. And setting a course, and starting at the beginning and getting to the end allows you to – Do we have a neologism count? [Laughter] because I’m about to use one of those too! – it creates this sense of evented-ness, it creates this happenstance that allows people to think that they’re a member of something, that they’re joining something, that they’re a part of something that goes on. And it doesn’t matter if that event is planned for a trip to the pig farm or whether it’s a classroom in sixteen weeks, being part of that thing has a lot to do with (a) setting aside the time but also feeling like you’re a member of something that’s happening. So, I think each of those words reflects – and could I have explained this to you in 2008? Not so much – but that’s sort of how I see them now in retrospect.
Martin
Thanks. I think that’s interesting about the course element because we’ve got excited, still are excited about OERs, where you can learn at your own pace but you’re absolutely right, there's something about that bringing people together. We’ll probably come back to that topic because it’s the ‘M’, the ‘Massive’ part that I think that’s got people more excited recently, but we can talk about that when we talk about the new types of MOOCs.
I just wondered, this one’s for either one of you or both of you: from those early MOOCs that came out, what were the issues for you as educators? And, I know you've done quite a lot of research on the learner experience, what were the issues that came out from the learners as well? I don’t know whether you want to take that in turns or if one of you wants to plump for it.
George
Well, there was certainly a broad range of challenges that arose for learners and for the educators as well. One of the biggest things is drop-out rates. That’s still a problem that people talk about. You can have a large number of registrants and it’s difficult to say, you know, what does it mean to participate in this kind of a format? You know, if we look at the traditional and say if a student starts a course, success essentially is if they complete it successfully. I’m not convinced that’s the right metric to use in open online courses. Or, if it’s a metric, it’s certainly not the exclusive one. So I think that’s something that we’ve sort of struggled with.
What does it mean to be an active participant? If you sign up and read the daily emails, as an example, and maybe engage in Twitter occasionally, are you learning in the same way as someone who is, let’s say, doing some assignments and writing an essay or regular blog posts? So, the notion of ‘what is participation?’ hasn’t really been clarified in an open online course.
The other aspect is from a faculty member. What’s the value of expertise in these kinds of systems? If you have an individual who perhaps is very active, you know, in carrying a conversation forward but maybe he hasn’t studied particularly in that field but just has a high level of passion and interest, in a social network that individual gains a fair bit of influence and so expertise means something different in an open online course than it does in a traditional classroom setting. So I think those are a couple of the challenges we’ve encountered early on.
Definitely the different needs and expectations of learners. We’re doing an open course right now, called ‘The current and future state of higher education’. I’m always amazed at how many emails I get. People telling me, ‘Oh, you did this is wrong’, ‘You know, this shouldn’t have happened this way’, and I’ve had, I think, I’ve probably now had a twenty email exchange with one individual who feels that we didn’t target the right amount of experts that should have come in and talked to this topic. So, that end user experience is still quite significant. And how you manage that, how you influence that, I don’t know one hundred percent what that is yet. It’s about expectation change at one level but still, somewhere between the end user, the learner and their changed expectations and the changed role of the Faculty members you get at that very challenging learning process, that’s really quite different in an open course than it is in a classroom.
Martin
Dave? We can’t hear you, if you’re speaking Dave?
Dave
A story that I always use to speak to this issue, a colleague on campus that George and I actually work with, that has actually published a paper on this, his name is Sandy McAuley, who caught me going across campus in the middle of, I think it was EdFuture, and said, ‘I really didn’t like your course at all. I really don’t like MOOCs at all.’ And I said, ‘Okay’, because there’s that sense that (and George was just talking about those emails where people will tell you that they really don’t like what you’re doing, and you’re like – don’t do it?) because they’re still inside of that financial transaction where they have the habits of having paid for a specific thing and they’re expecting that thing and when they don’t get it they feel like they should, whereas, so that social contract is very different. And he went on to say over and over again, ‘It’s just terrible pedagogically, it’s never gonna work. I don’t understand what you guys are doing.’ And I said, ‘Well, can you just tell me what your experience is like?’ He said, ‘Well, I got to the first couple of weeks, I was a little confused. Then I started to get my feet under me. And then I met this guy that I had known before, and we had this idea, and we wrote a paper, and then we went to present it at a conference, but I never finished the course.’ And I’m like, ‘Sounds like success to me.’ He said, ‘Well, I should have finished.’ And it’s that expectation, as George was saying. And Sandy’s experience to me is the perfect example of how we need to rethink the literacies that we have – both as students in the ways that we perform our learning and the ways we assess it and the way we think about it and the ways that we’re responsible for it. And I think the responsibility is difficult for a lot of people.
And the same thing for instructors. The burnout from a MOOC I think is a lot higher. The burnout potential for a MOOC is a lot higher than it would be for a normal course, if you’ve got twenty random people sending you emails that you’re trying to get back to them. There are 762 tweets this week, according to Martin Hawksey’s report that went up this morning. And, you know, that’s a lot of content and there’s a lot of stuff going on, a lot of blog posts, a lot of positions. A really good one from Music for Deckchairs by Kate, I forget her last name, went up today. But there’s so much of it that it’s very easy to get too engaged and try to follow too much of it as an instructor and completely burn out. And if you look at the work that Rita Kop and Fornier – the early research they did on some of the early MOOCs – you can see the pattern. As the facilitator starts to get tired and their posts start to lower, participation follows the same track. And there was a bump where we did more blog posts and stuff near the end and the participation bumped and you can really see that happen. I think pacing, and also having a significant enough number of people doing the MOOC; it need not be one or two people, having twenty would probably be better so you have enough energy to pass around, so you have enough ability, not only to spread out the expertise but also just to manage the mental stimulation that comes along with it.
Martin
I guess that if the ‘M’ is ‘Massive’ then you can’t do that same kind of contract that you’ve talked about.
Dave
That’s right.
Martin
And you do need to rely on that peer-to-peer interaction. I know certainly in some of those early MOOCs, I came in to do talks for you, George, on some of those synchronous sessions, and because I’m sort of doing them in spare time, like 5 o’clock on a Wednesday evening, I knew roughly what I was going to talk about, the standard stuff. But I didn’t link it to the learning outcomes of the course, or anything in the same way that I might do if you were paying me, or students were paying on the course, so it’s a different type of contract that it generates.
Okay, thanks guys.
Martin
I think you may have covered this, Dave, but I kinda agree with you about openness being the most important part of that acronym. I just wondered if you just wanted to say anything about just the benefits of being open as opposed to just putting on a traditional elearning course. You could have just run elearning courses through your universities. What was it really about it being ‘open’ that you got out of doing MOOCs?
Dave
What is it that I get out of it? You certainly get more potential to be surprised and more potential to push your own. So for me personally, I encounter an awful lot, you get out of your sort of shell, you encounter a lot of opinions that you may not have seen there before. Also, openness for me is also about putting out half-baked ideas and not allowing people a window into the decision-making process and to the thinking and help. I find that my ideas get better much faster the more open that I am. So, if you just give people the finished product they’re only going to react to the pieces they can see, not to all the things that are going on underneath it. So to me that transparency allows for a far more nuanced discussion. And it allows for people to be looking less at what conclusions they’re supposed to be drawing but how they can think better about something. How’s that?
Martin
It’s good, I like it. It sounds professional.
[Laughter]
Martin
George. Do you have opinions on openness, George?
George
I’m not even sure. I mean, openness I agree is a significant benefit. I’m not even sure if I would say that is the most critical aspect of it. I know openness is one of those things that’s very hard to critique because it’s kinda like saying you don’t like little babies, or fuzzy little kittens should be shaved or something. I mean it’s not quite the … it doesn’t quite amuse people but I think the part with massive is what changes a lot of the game as well because that’s what allows a certain level of pure-based learning. That’s also what impacts the ability for the pedagogical model to change. And the economy of scale changes, so it’s much like saying, you know, on the one hand, let’s say, I don’t know, go back to Guttenberg or something, you know you could say, ‘Well, technically, pre-Guttenberg certain texts, I guess, were open’. I’m assuming religious literature was open in a sense that anyone could read it or access it in some capacity possibly. But what made Guttenberg different was the ability for that openness to be made available on a different scale than what we’ve perhaps had in the past. So suddenly, yes, this resource could be accessed but it could be accessed by everyone.
So I think to a degree that’s one of the things that’s different with the openness conversation. I mean, there have been as you know, Martin, open universities, The Open University UK, Athabasca being another one, and these are systems that have in the past have had some content open but more folks on access. But more recently when you start to ramp up the capacity for many people to participate in open online courses you change a lot of the functions that we typically assume.
So, all I’m trying to get to, is the massive in my eyes is a very important aspect of that as well, because that’s where your pedagogical change comes around, your peer-based learning initiates and you really get the benefit of many people contributing in different ways, and bits and pieces amplifying each other’s work, people getting overwhelmed by the amount of content they’re encountering (like Dave noted), then having to adjust to new techniques and new methods to cope with that or else they’re going to lose their sanities. So there’s a lot of components there that I think are as important as the openness aspect.
Dave
And we can make an equivalent argument for online for that matter because Bonnie Stewart, who has been working with both George and I on a number of things, wrote an article a couple of weeks ago about Foucault’s open courses in 1970 where two thousand people would come in and they would have this open forum where lots of people would be able to come and watch. But his complaints and his reflections on that were about the fact that he couldn’t interact with anybody, and he couldn’t have a discussion, and he couldn’t follow up on anything, and he had no idea whether or not anything he was saying was actually digging in or echoing because he never heard back from any of those people. With 2000 people in a room he had no chance of actually engaging with any of the individuals who were there. And the web really allows for that. I mean they were probably talking amongst each other but they were probably all from Paris and they were probably all from a certain area, from a certain group or a certain class, and all those things impact the kind of discussions they were able to have. You know, Viplov Boxti wasn’t coming in for that talk and I think the onlineness there does provide – I think we’re probably at the point now where those of us who do this a lot tend to forget just how amazing that transition is. So I think you can make an argument for all of those.
Martin
I don’t know if I’m allowed to answer my own questions but I think I am, it’s my thing. So I think the openness also means the opening up of the curriculum. That’s the bit I find interesting. So that kind of whole, we can just put on a course right now thing, you don’t need to get approval from anyone and anyone can put a course together at university. I think we ran, I remember us running a short MOOC on ‘The future of the course’ I think it was. I think that came about because we’d had an email discussion or blog post with each other so you don’t need to go through an approval committee or do some market research. I like that democratisation of the curriculum. I think that’s an important aspect but that’s just my take on it. I think we kinda touched on it but we might explore it further.
So, after you lot did your kind of very experimental MOOCs, they got taken up by a lot of the US universities in a very different type of model. We had the artificial intelligence MOOC with 120,000 people on it; the Harvard and Stanford MIT type MOOCs. I wondered what your take on those was? Perhaps starting with you George and then Dave. They seem very different to the type of MOOCs that you’ve been doing. Oh, we’ve lost George. George is back.
George
Sorry, I’m back. Can you just quickly – I caught most of that but I dropped out at the end – can you quickly repeat the question?
Martin
Just what your take was on Standford/MIT/Harvard-type MOOCs?
George
You know quite honestly I think they are great. I know we’re supposed to criticise them and say oh they’re not as, you know, wonderful as the ideas that we’ve had but, you know, anyone who goes out and educates, or at least provides a learning opportunity for people in developing parts of the world and does so without cost and increases their prospect for opportunities, in my eyes is a terrific idea.
I have some issues and concerns with the pedagogical model. I don’t think that they’re as innovative as people give claim to because in my eyes they basically duplicate all of the structural components of a classroom, you know – the heavy emphasis on expertise, the drilling of content and quizzing. These MOOCs prepare people for the knowledge structure that we currently have, or have had over the last century, very well. My argument is that the complex problems that society faces going forward, aren’t going to be solved through necessarily an exclusive expertise model. They’re going to be solved through very much a networked and distributed approach, where many individuals provide different pieces of the knowledge puzzle. And so I think my main critique of those MOOC formats, is that they duplicate the classroom model and they don’t necessarily prepare people for participation in these very complex chaotic knowledge settings that most of us live in these days.
But setting that critique aside, I personally think Coursera, edX are wonderful. I find that I’m constantly taking courses, never finishing them, but getting the first few lectures here and there, dropping in and out, getting some great reading resources out of it. And I can only imagine this discussion I had when I was in New Delhi (as Dave mentioned earlier) I had a chance to connect with a few people who had taken these courses and the problem that we sometimes have is that we say, ‘Oh, you know here’s our first world problem, right. Their pedagogical model is not one that fits with my ideological orientation’. And yet these folks here were just absolutely thrilled to be able to access a course that would help them get a chance for employment, or that would help them get quality instruction that would give them a better opportunity to succeed in their colleges. So I think when someone is busy complaining and whining about Coursera and these big MOOC formats, my first response would be, you know, build something better that has a bigger impact globally on the quality of lives of people taking these courses and I’ll listen to your complaint. Up until then it’s just, you know, there’s no point in complaining about something that in my eyes is having that big of an impact on people around the world.
Martin
Very good. Thank you George.
Dave
You’ve left me in the unfortunate position of agreeing with my fine colleague from the West. Yeah, I think when we’re looking at preparing people for the future, we're preparing people to choose an answer, not to find an answer. I think that distinction is going to be a big one in terms of the ways in which we teach people how to learn, so my pedagogical complaints and concerns are the same as George’s. I’ll add one, and that’s what tends to happen when these things start, is that eventually you have to find a business model. And if you bring everybody on board and then add a business model, then there’s a potential for that business model to completely twist the whole process. So if it encourages the move towards robograding or that kind of thing at a massive scale, if all of a sudden we’re doing automated, that kind of stuff, and we start thinking of that as what we should be doing for learning, encouraging people in that model of finding answer rather than choosing answer, I have concerns about that. But how do I feel about major institutions giving knowledge to the world and organising that? ’Cos I think of the ‘course’ in the same way as I think about it for the things we’ve done. It just organises content. It puts it in an package and puts a flag up so you can find where that package is, and then you can go in and potentially – even with those other, with the xMOOCs, with the ones from Coursera or wherever – you can still do the networking stuff. Like that can still happen. It’s not the intent, but there’s no reason for that not to happen anyway.
So there’s lots of great potential there. There’s lots of great stuff coming out, you know. More and more people are talking about the responsibility of academia for giving back to the community and all that. Fantastic – overall fantastic. Do I have concerns? Yes. Pretty much the same ones that George has, but yeah, it’s totally good.
Martin
Can I just add in one of my concerns to see whether you think I’m right to have this concern or not? Going back to the thing about the open curriculum: if there is a business model, we suspect that you’ll have 120,000 people sign up and ten per cent of those pay to be accredited, or something, then the ‘M’ in the MOOC always has to be Massive for that to be the business model and so that might preclude certain niche subjects that you’d want to do on MOOCs so it might lead to a kind of …
Dave
… mainstreaming of content. Yeah, totally.
Martin
And that goes completely against what the original intent was to do which was to open up the curriculum. But there’s no law there saying you can’t do the other MOOCs as well. You’re not banned from doing it, but it could ironically kind of narrow the curriculum down by M having to mean Massive.
Dave
What I’m really hoping for, sorry George. What I’m really hoping for going forward is we see more and more organisations, like trade organisations, professional organisations, running their own MOOCs so that those niche industries get supported from inside, you know. So that you end up having these kinds of, whether they’re in partnership with universities or not.
We saw one with the summer of learning this summer, where you have a niche group who are essentially using this as a way of bringing people together; share knowledge, build knowledge, connect, all the rest of that stuff. And I think that will also help serve some of those other things.
Will it mainstream inside of universities? I think the other point to that is it also speaks to words like fame, rather than expertise. So the thing that’s gonna attract, I mean one hundred and twenty-five thousand, five million, ten million, why stop. The thing that’s going to attract ten million people to a course is not the level of your expertise necessarily but the level of your fame, and that also, I think, is encouraged by that model as well. Again, not necessarily a bad thing but certainly something to think about.
George
And I think the other aspect to be quite conscious of is, you know, in terms of the potential negatives of the Coursera and these projects is not that they themselves are bad but I think quite often people in higher education are just too freakin’ lazy, and what I mean by that is you've got all these universities signing up for Coursera now and soon we’re gonna be at this point – you know it’s almost like a type of knowledge colonisation, right, where students in Africa, or India, or Latin America are starting to take these courses, and yet the leaders in those countries, the university leaders that should be exporting, let's say, their view of knowledge,or their unique knowledge contributions that they have to make, they’re joining these systems and playing within that structure, so I would really like to see individual countries who have the resources to put together their own MOOC format and their own structural approach. So that’s very helpful, I believe, that these systems, these university leaders would stop joining stuff and start creating stuff because I don’t think we’re far enough along in this game that we should be centralising on one model at this point.
You know, we’ve done some open courses in the past, Dave and I, together with Stephen Downes, then all of a sudden a group, the DS106 group (DS106 being a Latin term where all the really cool kids hang out) and then they end up coming out with their particular format. And I learned a lot watching what Jim Groom and Alan Levine did with their course format, the emphasis on creating things and how they used a different approach, this ongoing structure. There were a lot of things they did differently that I learned from. So, if the same things hold true, if everybody joins Coursera we’re missing these experimentations where new people are creating new ideas, and we don’t get to see what, oh this is amazing what these guys in South Africa did or what these folks did in Brazil was, I love this new innovation. Instead they’re playing within the innovation structure that someone else created and I think that’s a big loss in the future.
Martin
Okay thanks. I think I agree with that. We should mention DS106, I think. You talked about signing up for lots of MOOCs and Jim Groom has that nice term about drive-by assignments: people come in and just do one or two assignments and then disappear again, and I think that’s right, it’s part of the different contract you have with a MOOC. So I guess my final question, just to end this, and is for both of you: any thoughts on the future directions of MOOCs? Because they range from being – they’re going to kill all universities, we’ll have only ten global providers of MOOCs for the whole world – to they’re just a passing fad and next year we’ll be going ‘What were those MOOC things, remember those?’ So I wonder if you have any thoughts about where they will be headed?
Dave
I think I have a feeling I know what George is going to say. For me, I think that all we’ve done is put a name on something that was kind of happening anyway and structure it one kind of way and mostly the work that those guys have been doing. But looking forward, if the university contract is about delivering content, then the universities are dead already because that’s not gonna work. So if the MOOCs take care of all the necessary content that you need to take on and it’s a way to skip your way through the first year of university by accomplishing all these gather the language kind of business that would be cool. I’d be okay with that. That hurts the business models of higher ed in a lot of cases, not so much an institution like mine, but the bigger ones. But no, I mean you’re not gonna get leadership. You’re not gonna get a sense of someone’s expertise on that day-to-day sort of understand what it’s like to be a guy in a lab researching wonderful new things, by taking a course in this way, in a massive way. There are ways in which direct, day-to-day communication with someone who really knows what they’re doing, and understanding what it means to think and to grow and all the rest of those things is something that, to me, is what the university experience is about, so I don’t see those things. If it gets rid of all the really simple stuff that would be great. And then we can focus on the real business of higher ed. But I think they’ll keep going. I mean it’s been called that now, I don’t see it going away soon. It’s too much fun not to.
George
Yes, and I’d agree that there’s some aspect in which it definitely, whether you call it something else down the road or not, isn’t really the issue from my perspective. But at this point using the internet for teaching and learning, and using the benefits that are unique to the internet, namely the capacity for scale, for conversations, the adoption of machine learning models for assessment and evaluation, those components, whether they stay under the umbrella term of a MOOC for the next five, ten years or whether those individual components get subsumed in different parts of the system, they’re not going away.
I think we are at a different point in education. People have talked about this for over a decade: how what happened to the music industry is going to happen to education, or what happened to the newspaper industry is going to happen to education. The impacts are going to be different but one way or another the internet is going to happen to education, and I think it’s time that educators and the university leaders stop fighting the structure of the internet and start adopting it in the creation of their institutions. I think what this does is particularly critical because when we look at how the education system has been influenced over the last decade, you know, we’ve seen the opening of content. More recently we’ve seen the opening of teaching, and now we’re starting to see, potentially, the opening of assessment and evaluation models.
Now, what’s interesting is we’ve spent all this time pulling apart the education system, so we can talk about the disaggregation of higher education and that. So we’ve pulled all these pieces apart, but that notion of pulling it apart is fundamentally opposed to the role that education plays in society. Which means that we build some cohesive elements that people can connect with, link to and understand and we emulate the knowledge structure of a discipline to the curriculum that we create. So I guess what I’m trying to get at is, ‘Great job disaggregating, folks. You’ve had fun over the last fifteen years. Now put this crap together in some way that’s gonna have a meaningful impact on society.’ And so I think that’s what we’re going to see – the next stage coming out is where people are going to start weaving together or creating new integrated systems.
The biggest value of higher education has always been it’s an integrated, cohesive structure. You didn’t have to run all over hell’s half acre to understand something. You can connect with researchers, the smartest folks in society if you will, in the higher education system. Now I think we’ve pulled things apart, we’re going to see new models of stitching it together but these models are going to emulate the structure of the internet rather than be antagonistic to it.
Dave
Yeah.
Martin
[Laughter] It’s interesting. You can see higher education as a kind of convenience bundle if you like – all those different services: of content, studying with a cohort, accreditation, and recognition, and research – you may as well pay for them all in one bundle. I’m trying to experiment with taking those bits apart, but it’s when you can come up with new convenience bundles that I think it will be interesting. Before we finish, any other thoughts, chaps?
Dave
I think for me when you look at MOOCs think less, ‘What’s a MOOC? And is that one? And what is that over there?’ But rather, this is the approach we taking over the next few months. If we look through the lens of the MOOC happening and all the things that are around it, what does that tell us about higher ed, and how can that help us improve it? And that to me is, rather than worry about the definition and this is a MOOC and that isn’t and what’s it gonna be, rather, it happened. It says something about higher ed and I think that that lesson, if nothing else, is an important one.
George
And I think building on that is this notion that the research mindsets that academics bring to their labs or to their own research project unfortunately that isn’t carried over into the design of the education system.
Dave
I don’t know why but it doesn’t at all.
George
No. And so one of the arguments I’ve tried to make over the last little while is that when a researcher doesn’t understand a phenomenon, or some funky new species that’s sitting on their table, whether it is some kind of social phenomenon that they can’t quite seem to understand or they don’t have the language or the words to communicate to their peers, they enter a stage of research. And, you know, whether it’s hypothesis creation and testing, whether it’s conducting a series of studies or whatever else, but they become an observer of this phenomena that’s in front of them and they sort of minimise their bias so they can have an objective perspective of what this thing is and then they can interact with it meaningfully. And I think that’s exactly the mindset that researchers or individuals in higher education need to take – is pullback and say the phenomena that we no longer understand isn't some animal, you know, in a cage or isn’t some social phenomenon. What we don’t understand is the higher education system and its role in society. So we need to adopt the mindset of a researcher, you know – pull back, as neutrally as possible; understand what is this, what’s happening, what’s going on, what am I seeing, what are others seeing, communicating that with your peers so that we begin to treat the education system as an entity that we’re trying to understand. And that requires research, and experimentation, and I think that’s really a key point for understanding where are we going with MOOCs or just where’s the, on a broader scale, where is higher education trending.
Dave
Yeah, it’s super interesting. So many visceral responses. So many, like, knee-jerk responses. And I think any time you see that, it’s time to go, ‘Whoa, what does this say about how I feel about this? How much of this is just not the way I learned it and how much of it is real assessment about where we’re trying to go, what we’re trying to do?’
Martin
That’s a very emotional response.
George
Oh yeah, it’s amazing.
Martin
I like the idea of MOOCs as the kind of barometer or the platform for just testing higher education in general. Thanks guys very much for spending the time, fascinating chat.
George
Thanks Martin, always a pleasure to connect with you.
Dave
Absolutely.
Martin
Hope to meet up with you sometime soon. Thanks guys.
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  • Read McAuley et al. (2010), The MOOC Model for Digital Practice.

    This is a lengthy report so if you do not have time to read it all focus on the Executive Summary and the section entitled ‘Gaps in knowledge about MOOCs’.

  • Read Weller (2012b), MOOCs Inc.
  • Before we examine MOOCs in more detail, briefly consider if the MOOC approach could be adopted in your own area of education or training. Post your thoughts in your blog and then read and comment on your peers’ postings.

Additional resources

The MOOC Guide: Stephen Downes (undated) sets out some of the history of MOOCs.

Amnesimooc: Martin Weller (2012a) outlines the differences between online distance education courses and large-scale online open courses.

What is a MOOC?: JISC webinar (2012) describing the MOOC phenomenon and demonstrating examples of practice and support in the UK.

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