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Learn Experientially and Connect Globally with MOOCs

Randy Fisher

There’s a new kid on the block that is changing how learning is designed, delivered and experienced. Called a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), it is making a big splash, with the potential to reshape education for learners, teachers and educational administrators alike.

These days, MOOCs are where it’s at. Mix together, an educational offering (which includes pedagogy for online education ); savvy marketing and a whole lot of hype for a compelling promise that a MOOC can reach vast numbers of people around the globe at an extremely affordable cost.

MOOCs can provide the offering educational institution or NGO tremendous with tremendous visibility, reach and access to a global constituency of learners at a fraction of the cost of traditional education, as well as the ability to package new course content and recycle older titles. Successful or not, MOOCs are altering how education (traditional and online education) is taught, managed and leveraged. They’re also creating new opportunities for democratizing learning, connecting learners, sharing and transferring knowledge, and monetizing education.

The origins of MOOCs stem from the pioneering work of Canadians Stephen Downes (National Research Council) and George Siemens (Athabasca University) who offered an open and free online course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Their experiential course leveraged distributed knowledge across across a network of individuals (connections) and enabled learners to build and share their knowledge dynamically. In 2008, their first course attracted 2200 learners with a call for participation at any level – people could lurk quietly, contribute loudly, or find a role somewhere in between. All educational materials were freely-available online and all course content was available through RSS feeds, and learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life and synchronous online meetings. The course was repeated in 2009 and 2011.

Around the same time, was the ambitious Learning4Content project from WikiEducator.org and Commonwealth of Learning, and funded in part by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Learning4Content was billed as the world’s largest free wiki skills training project utilizing MOOC-style online courses (see L4C 2009 report in Sources). Participants and graduates helped WikiEducator become a strong community of 18,000+ educators in 120 countries). Stanford University has since offered MOOCs and more recently, Coursera and Udacity.

Challenges & Opportunities

There is considerable debate about the merit and value of MOOCs. Some critics see MOOCs as a means to reducing classes and instructors to achieve great economies of scale and reduce cost. Others recognize the challenges, but are trying them out, learning about the mechanics of putting together MOOCs, and observing how a MOOC can add to the teaching and learning experience.

To be fair, MOOCs are in their infancy, with a lot of experimentation regarding design and delivery. There is wide variation in the teaching and learning experience – with some institutions simply offering online learning with MOOC-style access (i.e., open to all), and others really thinking about the importance of quality, and what needs to happen in terms of logistics and support and pedagogical design to ensure that people actually learn what they are being taught. Typically, MOOCs do not offer credit or grades, but in the case of SUNY’s OER 101 course some credit options may be available.

It’s easy to get lost or discouraged in a course with 2,000 or 100,000 people with little if any personalized attention. Indeed, the dropout rates are quite high – yet on part with many of the world’s largest open universities. Different people learn at different paces and bring different learning styles. Early MOOCs have a one-size fits all approach, but over time, teacher-facilitators are experimenting with different avenues for interaction including blogs, forums, discussions and videos.

The lack of training for teacher / instructors in online facilitation and teaching with this new medium compromises the learning experience and achievement of beneficial learning outcomes. Often a supportive and well-versed teacher can make the difference in a poorly-designed course and create opportunities for additional interaction, discussion and connectedness even when courses are primarily self-paced.

Bridging the North-South Divide

But these are growing pains – as any new technology, system or approach is bound to have. MOOCs experiment with a mix of technology (and education technologies) such as a learning management system, videos, discussion fora, instant messaging for learner support) to reach greater numbers of learners in the North, South and all points between. Already, there’s been a difference identified between Constructivist MOOCs (cMOOC) – focusing on knowledge creation and generation and xMOOCs (focusing on knowledge duplication). See John Daniel’s paper on MOOCs.

MOOCs offer a tremendous opportunity to learn and share knowledge synchronously and asynchronously to benefit students, course designers and subject matter experts. This experience provides information to increase quality, as the offering institution/NGO has access to thousands of potential beta testers to crowdsource improvements and obtain feedback for future iterations.

In my experience, that’s what happened in the Learning4Content MOOCs and mini-MOOCs, we noticed that learners were not completing their coursework during the 10-day period. Interviews with participants revealed that the course pace was fast; materials complexity high, and that in general, the course was really a discretionary activity (i.e., not tied to their job). I collaborated with Leigh Blackall of NZ, to redesign the existing course and reduce the time involved by 50% (to 5 days). We noted that if people learned wiki skills basics, they would be motivated to continue learning and support others. If they did not learn the basics, then there was no point in trying to get them to learn advanced skills – or, what we considered advanced skills! We launched the next iteration and reported much better results.

As an open online course, there are significant opportunities for research and program development, yielding a treasure trove of data that can be analyzed (keeping in mind privacy concerns) and utilized to improve the learning experience and enable new patterns and ideas for future learning opportunities to emerge. This flows nicely into research opportunities that can focus on efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability.

I also experienced this through the Learning4Content MOOCs, whereby I could follow complex, yet emerging patterns and connections as people shared their experiences and challenges while learning wiki skills. In particular, I observed a community radio practitioner from Kenya converse with a training coordinator in Switzerland about opportunities for sharing knowledge related to HIV AIDS Treatment Literacy. This discussion thread lead to a groundbreaking project to break down the silos between community radio professionals and scientific experts, so that community radio programming in Africa could benefit from the latest evidence-based information about HIV AIDS Treatment Literacy, and it could be delivered via educational programs expressly-designed for community radio in Africa. It also led to the creation of educational materials, workshops, train-the-trainer support and on-the-ground interventions via LearnShare HIV AIDS Africa Portal and the Community Media Community of Practice – it was a considerable success.

MOOCs can also respond to the lack of qualified teachers by providing teacher training to a much larger group of teacher-instructors and subject matter experts who are paid to teach their skills but have little background in teaching. Mozilla’s Open Badges could provide a model certifying skills or levels of achievement, which in turn could support capacity-building and peer recognition on a grand scale. Another area of opportunity is exploring new business models to support and monetize education. For example, while MOOCs provide the course experience for free, additional learner support, 1-1 coaching, examinations and even textbooks would have a small cost. If a course has an enrollment of 1,000 people, a required text at $25-50 could make for an enviable return-on-investment.

Many opportunities abound for imagination, ingenuity and experimentation. I look forward to your thoughts and questions as to how MOOCs can be leveraged to support change, learning and development.

The Author

Randy Fisher, MA, is an Education Specialist with the Information and Communications Technology Council in Ottawa, Canada. He has expertise in ICT4E, and in facilitating change and building sustainable and scalable communities for knowledge-sharing, networking and capacity-development He was a course designer and facilitator for a wiki skills MOOC and moderates an ICT and vocational education community (INVEST Africa) for the Commonwealth of Learning, and is a global leader in Open Education Resources.


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