MobiMOOC, open learning/systems, and Communities of Practice
MobiMOOC and UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week
This is a quick post mentioning some of the fantastic work that one of my ablest colleagues, Inge de Waard, is doing. I do my best work through my network and Ignatia is one of the most important nodes in that network. Truly inspiring. She put together a presentation on MOOCs and mobile learning (and how the two should be more synonymous than they are) as part of UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week 2013 in Paris. It is well worth a look as it stresses the need for more open learning to be mobile-friendly (if not completely mobile-designed or optimized). As more and more of these courses become available, it seems pragmatic to begin to explore the possibility of interaction in mobile situations, reclaiming motion (commutes, etc.) as a learning space. It always prudent to design open learning for mobile technology. I see micro-courses spinning off of that that are optimized for the mobile scenario (skill-based courses, mhealth for urban living, urban m-authorship, etc.).
I have written about MobiMOOC before here, but for reference it was an open course (MOOC) held in 2011 and 2012 that explored mobile learning itself (a meta-MOOC to some degree). It cleared 500+ participants in 2011 and 700+ (I think) in 2012. Modest by MOOC standards, but a fairly specialized topic that I would love to revisit in coming open course iterations (see below).
Value of the MOOC for mLearning and Further Iterations
What Inge helps me see clearly is the need for the evolution of the MOOC form (perhaps escaping the term altogether and reverting to open course or open learning). This evolution will be influenced by multiple currents of persuasion and influence, economic, pedagogical or otherwise. These are serious discussions and they are taking place. Some are blatantly material or fiscally oriented, some are knee-jerkingly critical of change itself. Either way, it is the topic of discussion these days and these conversations are healthy inspections of the efficiency of the form itself (not just as a learning tool, but as an economical delivery device for education). MobiMOOC sits outside most of these discussions for a few reasons. Initially, these reasons struck me as being weaknesses or disadvantages in the race to MOOC everything under the sun. Now, I am beginning to see these as strengths of the system and the approach that Inge spearheaded. To her credit, she saw these well before I did.
As the recent controversy around the Coursera failure illustrates, closed systems can distort the transparency necessary for continued participant engagement in open learning. If people feel that courses can and will be closed (and submitted data lost) on the whims of stakeholders in the learning, then individuals are much less likely to participate. Think of how likely you are to invest your time and energy with tools that Google introduces considering how readily they are shut down. Or better yet, consider the fatigue of knowing Facebook can and often does change their rules of engagement. Sooner or later, everyone wants to keep their own stuff in their own places.
I don’t believe this process of establishing a ‘home-base’ (a site, blog, etc.) is a temporary one or even a workaround. It is the gradual demarcation of online space for personal use. There is less and less reason to invest in a space other than your own when you can share elements of your space (your words, thoughts, media) from the sanctuary of this home-base (PLE). I am moored by this blog online. It might shift from WordPress to Posterous to Tumblr to who knows where else (the location itself doesn’t matter), but all of this data shifts with it (as I store it here).
Running MOOCs with this design principle in mind is a successful strategy. MOOCs or any open courses can crystallize activity around a particular topic or affinity. By keeping the nodes of activity out there in the fields of practice and personal authorship, then there is no ‘lost’ data or lack of transparency. Inge created mechanisms for keeping participants engaged with the larger community even as they were working in their home spaces (via RSS feeds, hashtags, etc.). It was a seemingly ephemeral and fragile strategy, but one that proved particularly conducive to the discussions and subject of learning itself.
mLearning is a Community of Practice
MobiMOOC also worked to some degree as it was scaled to a Community of Practice (CoP). It was a working community of professionals and enthusiasts, all learning new applications or practices or even terminology. They were learners, certainly, but they were all (aspiring or applied) practitioners of the learning being undertaken. As such, it was authentic learning with some immediate application (for many). Inge even organized authenticity right into the curriculum by allowing for parallel mobile learning projects to be undertaken (and evaluated by the community). So, we have authenticity (real projects), practice (participating in real projects), and community (interaction, evaluation, encouragement). So, the fact that we were dealing with relatively small numbers proved an advantage. The subject was specialized and manageable. Activities could be designed relevant to the majority of participants.
The subject itself created a hybrid of a meta-MOOC (a MOOC about MOOCs themselves). The subject was learning via mobile technology, but the applications of that mobile technology were not what we might term ‘traditional’ learning subjects. They included Mobiles for Development (m4d), mhealth, and other applied subjects. This applied understanding of the subject matter proved to be an advantage for MobiMOOC as the usual disconnect between theory, simulation, and real-world application was gone. What was introduced and theorized in MobiMOOC was quickly illustrated to have real-world applications. So, MobiMOOC took strength from being a community of practitioners (aspiring or otherwise) as opposed to merely enthusiasts or curious onlookers. It was meta in the fact we were simultaneously engaging with and evaluating the MOOC as vehicle for mlearning.
MobiMOOC and Attrition
I suspect when the dust settles on the MOOC phenomena, we will begin to see relatively uniform data suggesting that student attrition rates follow the same patterns in all MOOCs. In fact, Inge and I and our Research Team wrote a paper trying to get at the attrition phenomena so prevalent in MOOCs. Massive uptake, minimal conversation of that uptake to completion. As MobiMOOC sits outside any formal institutional accreditation or offering, this truly doesn’t bother me. Some are intrigued, some dabble, and some disappear or go quiet. All are perfectly acceptable as learning approaches. What MOOCs reveal to me in this instance are the echoes of an extended orbit of participation. That for every CoP actively at work in a MOOC, there are layers of orbits present. Stars in far-off galaxies that have yet to be discovered. What these might reveal are the ripples of activity and how they interact with these extended orbits. The outer reaches of our influence, our community interest, and network theory itself.
I can say all of that precisely because MobiMOOC sits outside traditional modes of accreditation and formalization. This was a particularly brave approach by Inge and I think a particularly sound one. We can experiment with structures, content, and activities that resonate. We can morph from rigid course to free-flowing community of extended practice. We can use these courses as radar for establishing the outer reaches of community interest (what are the outer reaches of interest in mobile learning?). It is a generative process as each iteration is based on the feedback from previous iterations. That is not as easy to do in closed LMS or formalized curricula.
The attrition rates for these courses are high, but so are the completion rates. Just not as percentages of those who initially enroll. Mechanisms for improving the experience and the resilience of students to complete these courses will come with time, but it is a good time to reflect on the purpose of these courses (and of learning itself). Completion? Mastery? Learning to learn? Literacy? None of these are mutually exclusive, but none (so far) are encapsulated in their entirety. Until then, I prefer to focus on those that completed (a 100% uptick on those who completed the non-existent course before Inge came along) rather than the attrition rates. We have that freedom as we aren’t focusing on larger organizational processes or outputs. Just on the subject and the community itself.
This isn’t an either/or evolution we have with MOOCs. There are many paths to the same destination here. MobiMOOC is conducted in parallel with higher education, formalized xMOOCs, open learning, etc. but we are not in direct competition. Like all biological environments, we just believe that experimentation and the choice that experimentation provides the learner ensures that something positive will be produced on the other side. Be wary of anyone who spouts messianic phrases or pessimistic doomsday prophecies to the contrary. This isn’t the beginning or the end of the world. But it is a time of fertile opportunity. Experiment, learn, fail, and share.