The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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The digital scholar

2  MOOCs

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Figure 7 Stephen Downes

The book The Digital Scholar was written before the advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are a good example of the way in which teaching can be influenced by the possibility of digital scholarship, and also how that can be seen as both a positive and negative development.

There was a coalescence of interest in running open courses from a number of people, including David Wiley and Alec Couros, associated with the open education movement in around 2007. The title of first MOOC, however, is often given to Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08), run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, in 2008. It was commentary on this course that gave rise to the term MOOC, jointly attributed to Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander.

What characterised these early MOOCs was an interest in the possibilities that being both open and ­networked offered. The subject matter of these early courses was related to the mode of presentation, so courses were in topics such as open education, digital identity or networked pedagogy. As with early elearning courses, which would often be about the subject of elearning itself, these early stages of experimentation focused on subjects where the medium was the message. As with elearning, this soon broadened out to encompass a much wider range of topics.

Another characteristic of these early MOOCs was that they were associated with individuals, not institutions. They were seen as George and Stephen’s course, rather than a Stanford or Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) course. This meant that they were experimental in terms of technology, both by necessity and design. These MOOCs used a combination of open technologies, such as WordPress and Twitter. Learning to use these tools and to make connections across the open internet was seen as a key aim for these early MOOCs.

In 2011, MOOCs took a very different turn when Sebastian Thrun launched the Stanford Artificial Intelligence course, with over 120,000 enrolled learners. This attracted much attention from the media and venture capitalists. With the cost of formal education soaring, the idea that you could take courses from the top universities for free seemed irresistible. Harvard and MIT created EdX, Coursera was launched by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng (with venture capital funding) and Thrun founded Udacity. The year 2012 was deemed ‘Year of the MOOC’ by the New York Times (Pappano, 2012) as most major US universities signed agreements with the MOOC providers to offer courses on their platforms or launched platforms of their own. MOOC mania was not restricted to North America: in the United Kingdom, The Open University launched FutureLearn in 2013; in Germany it was ­iVersity; and in Australia, Open2Study. Coursera is the most prominent of the MOOC providers, and it has over 500 courses from 107 universities and over 5 million learners enrolled (Protalinski, 2013). The pace of uptake, hype and development seemed breathless in comparison with most educational projects.

These new MOOCs were very different from the early ones pioneered by the open education movement. They tended to be institutional, based on a proprietary platform and driven by a strongly instructivist pedagogy. Whereas the initial MOOCs had emphasised the importance of networking, many new MOOCs were focused on video instruction and automatic assessment. The distinction was made between cMOOCs for the early, connectivist type MOOCs and xMOOCs for the new, didactic models (Siemens, 2012).

Since then there has been much debate about the financial sustainability of MOOCs, whether they can support all learners, the damage of the hype to education, and so on. This has led to something of a backlash against MOOCs.

In this video one of the founders of MOOCs, George Siemens, provides an overview of how MOOCs evolve the role of teachers:

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Transcript: How MOOCs evolve the role of teachers

George Siemens
The question I frequently heard early on, at least, was, well, how can you teach 2,000 students? And I said, well, you don't. The 2,000 students teach one another. You design the course in such a way that students have the opportunity to be peer instructors, as well.
It's a transition from hierarchy and structure, namely a classroom model where the teacher is in control, determines the reading materials, determines the interactions, to one that's network based. And what that does is instead of the teacher being the central node, the way they're in a classroom, in a network, they're a node among other nodes. They might still be a very important node, but students can attend a lecture, take a MOOC, for example. If they're taking a course in the university, they might take a MOOC on that subject matter with an outside provider. They might watch Ted Talks. They might take tutorials in that subject area that they find on YouTube. They might participate in an online community or group. They might attend an online conference or symposium. And the list goes on.
So instead of having a very traditional relationship of teacher, content, and student, now you have a network where you can access anything from anywhere. And it just means the teacher needs to begin thinking more about curating the teaching and learning process to use certain types of resources.
It also means that the educator needs to spend more time trying to create the right context of learning. So if you're not designing the sequence of moving through content, then you want to spend your time designing the learning space, making sure students have the skills and the capacity to learn in a networked way to use the tools properly to build the right kind of critical thinking skills.
And so right now, when I look at MOOCs, I think they're very much just this wonderful opportunity for researchers and academics and learners and administrators to just ask some interesting questions around, what does it mean to learn in a digital age? What does it mean to learn in network systems that we haven't had access to at the quality of interaction level that we have today?
So for me, I've largely ignored the business model question, because I think it's irrelevant right now. Down the road, that may be something we need to start thinking about. But right now, I'm just fascinated that there's this many folks paying attention and learning and that it's gaining the amount of interest that it has.
My concern is that we don't have diversity in the providers that we're concentrating around. Where are the African MOOCs? Where is the MOOCs out of Qatar? Where are the MOOCs out of, say, Latin American countries, Russia, China?
Right now, most of what we're doing with MOOCs is exporting. I'd like to learn more from a MOOC that comes out of the Middle East or a MOOC that comes out of China or those areas. And that's something that to me is a bigger concern than the concentration of MOOC influence or of MOOC providers right now.
MOOCs are a reflection of big trends. They're a reflection of the move to digital economy. They're reflection of our global connectivity. They're a reflection of society's need for continuing ongoing learning. They're a reflection of the ability for us to access the vast majority of resources we need on a daily basis, whether that's news or information, for free.
So they're a reflection of a variety of these very significant trends, including some really global trends, such as internationalisation, the fact that we're seeing unprecedented shifts economically to eastern parts of the world and southern parts of the world.
So this is what MOOCs reflect. And so what I'm saying is that if MOOCs die tomorrow, the groundswell of change pressures that MOOCs are a reflection of right now, that's not going to go away.
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