I had never heard of Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs) until a recent conference that I attended. The concept behind these come from both chaos theory and the idea of self-organizing human groups. Now enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, there are now large-scale endeavors of groups learning together, with nominal leaders who guide and facilitate. The technologies are manifold, and they are cobbled together through various linkages. This learning occurs in dispersed environments. The learning may be in multiple languages simultaneously. There is plenty of sharing of digital multimedia contents: images, slideshows, videos, concept maps and diagrams, and other types of information.
From what I could tell, a leader starts a course at a particular time, and there is a lot of flexibility in the pacing of the course and sometimes even when it ends. Work is divided up among the learners. There is not real-time synchronicity but rather a sort of “period synchronicity”—in which participants learn and share together during some sort of shared time, but the work is mostly asynchronous.
The time issue of the learning also suggested that maybe the learning was very timely and up-to-date, with learners going out to capture relevant information and sharing that with the other learners—in a kind of jigsaw situation.
The presenter at the conference presented a node-link bubble diagram of various connections between her learning and individuals who informed her learning. Some of the links were thin ones, and others showed thicker relationships. I was not clear if those ideas were manually created or if that was the result of a computerized software analysis of her work or a text analysis showing her interactions.
In a sense, I would guess that the facilitators of such learning must be well known in their respective fields (e.g. they have established bona fides), and they must have some attraction to other learners. There is a lot to be said for bringing sparkle into the learning—given how busy people are nowadays and some of the tradeoffs in this informal learning situation.
My sense of this was that learners could join in the learning just as participants. Others could enroll and actually earn credit for their work assuming they met particular learning outcomes and submitted certain work. Both the formal and the informal learners were working side-by-side in these MOOCs.
For such “massively online open courses” to work, there likely have to be a certain critical mass of learners. There must be a shared culture in which all members of the learners can voice their opinions and work as a self-correcting self-motivating group as they move forward.
For many students who are taking formal courses—for which they’ve paid tuition and which are part of a certificate or degree or other program—those structures are not sufficient to keep them on track. They may have friends in the classes. They may have regular schedules. They may have classroom and laboratory spaces.
The MOOCs seem to have some loose structures of time, some loose structures of individual ambitions and goals (except for those who are trying to actually earn credit), and maybe some structures of technologies (including a weekly report of the learning and maybe some microblogging and email and other reminders of work). These seem like very loose structures to me.
I know that there are some faculty who are planning on deploying MOOCs to supplement their blended courses. Others are parts of MOOCs for their own professional development.
All said, I think these approaches are interesting and promising because it’s not just digital learning objects that are inert—but the learning is enlivened by co-learners and leaders. The cost of entry is low—with just technological access and will to really join and participate. (Of course, I assume there is prior learning that is assumed as well for the learning…because those who are not prepared will likely just feel “lost.”)
In the same conference, I learned about a course that was purely taught through a micro-blogging site (Twitter), with all assignments and links and contents shared through 140 characters. All to say that there are more and more creative ways to use connectivist technologies for online learning. For this latter case, the professor was considering having Flash Mobs congregating on various businesses or adding some real-time live interactivity in refreshing ways.
I am heartened by the creative approaches of faculty, and it’s always refreshing to return with new thoughts to apply to the instructional design work and the faculty work of our clients.