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Posted by on Jun 23, 2011

MOOCs and higher education; MOOCs as distributed networks for learning

Having had recently participated in a MOOC (MobiMOOC, to be exact) and ramping up for another in the fall (alas, I will be unable to participate in the upcoming MOOC at the University of Illinois at Springfield), I am intrigued by the potential these formats have for learning in general and a cursory interest in how MOOCs might prove disruptive or supplemental to the existing practice of higher education. I am still a novice at these so would be able to offer much more measured feedback after at least a second one under my belt, but blogs are for wild conjecture so here I go. Please note that much smarter, more capable than myself have commented at some length on this already (George Siemens, David Wiley, Dave Cormier to name a few) and I am merely bouncing off these ideas. 

The jist of their conversation was the potential role that MOOCs might serve in educational reform in higher education, so my comments are sort of branching from that towards something else entirely. Some initial impressions of MOOCs are as follows:

  • MOOCs expose gaps in traditional learning structures

MOOCs embrace all that traditional learning is not in terms of rapid interaction, volatile knowledge construction and in doing so embrace the navigation of learning as opposed to the tools/materials/constructs of learning. Nothing new here as connectivism covers this a lot better than I could. Skills as opposed to static knowledge; navigation as opposed to set points. It is essentially a photo negative of the higher education model. Turn something around and you cease to see it as a stable whole, but rather a series of parts some of which work and some of which don’t. So, the contrast is always available in exposing what the edifice isn’t. In this case, MOOC as contrast, alternative, opposite. There is always value in opposition. At the very least it forces one to justify the overriding model that we take for granted. Why is traditional higher education the preferred model? What does it offer that I can’t get elsewhere? 

  • MOOCs act with urgency, elasticity, place great demand on learner initiative

It is this urgency and elasticity that are the “stuff” of learning. The great demand they place on learner initiative and resilience are indicative of that. Whether or not the average learner has the prerequisite skill set to navigate these massive courses is another matter, but I would agree with George Siemens here: “the fact that people don’t have the skills to participate in distributed networks for learning and sensemaking is exactly why we need MOOCs.” We need them as they expose environments where human agency needs to be directed, these nebulous, chaotic spaces where entire structures are built. The ground floor of raw creativity. 

This urgency, elasticity (MOOCs will be structured to a point, but essentially learners will draw whatever they want from them) stands in relative contrast to some, not all, institutions of higher education. Universities as venerated knowledge structures pulling with them the weight of collected human understanding and intellectual thought. So, MOOCs can serve them well simply by going off and doing their own thing. Can the two play well together? Sure. Universities can offer credits (or badges or whatever) for MOOCs and seep their influence beyond the walls of pure academe. Some of this is already happening. MOOCs can benefit from more participation and collaboration with traditional higher education (although that doesn’t seem to be any problem as many MOOCs spring, if only indirectly, from higher education). The two are a natural marriage (in terms of learning throughout life and throughout society); they extend the reach of learning and that is a good thing. 

I do think that urgency and elasticity are two characteristics that are emphasized merely in the MOOC structure. Respond to immediacy, the collusion of individuals, thought, and activity. Promoting an empassioned agency on the part of the learner. Aggressively pursuing individual development. These are skills rewarded outside of traditional learning structures (ie, employable skills). MOOCs do more than pay lip service to them. They embed them in the structure. It is hard to be passive in a MOOC and not be frustrated. 

  • MOOCs are ephemeral and that is where they gather strength
  • Not much to say here, except that MOOCs gather around a collective agent (a point of learning, a particular skill, a topic), participate in a frenzy of activity (like mating in the natural world-pairing, investigating, creating), and then disassemble. And there is strength in this disassembly. An embrace of ephemerality demonstrates that learning is a response to an immediate, present need (it can be more than that, of course), one that will advance the learner to the next step where they will be faced with familiar facets in novel combinations. Learning structures need to embrace this rapid assembly and disassembly to retain a vigor and energy (and ultimately relevance). Not the same as higher education, but a nice contrast kind of thing. 

    MOOCs, in the midst of all of this (and this lazily relates to the first point I was making), isolate skills needed to function in highly volatile environments (ie, modern knowledge environments, creative cultures-ones we all profess to be transitioning to). So, if MOOCS at least indicate that these skills are important (learning in distributed networks), then lets use them as a tool for figuring out how the pattern language of MOOCs can be applied to other educational environments. Take the bits that work, the bits that promote an agile learning and sensemaking process, and apply those elsewhere. Making higher education more aligned with tangible, authentic learning patterns is never a bad thing. This shouldn’t read strictly as making products of higher education more employable (but that is part of it), but rather making learning more relevant to the authentic dimensions of life outside academia. Sensemaking, problem solving, creative application and fluid association. All good responses to the volatility of modern life. MOOCS can provide a bit of pattern language here to help illustrate this. 

  • MOOCs are global (usually)
  • Think globally, learn globally, act locally. My professional network is scattered throughout the globe and I draw more reflective capacity from South Africa, the UK, India than I might from a local university structure on the East Coast of the United States. People often pay lip service to this aspect of interaction, but it is pedagogically critical. MOOCs work, in my opinion, because of the sheer diversity of perspectives and learning applications taking place simultaneously. There are subgroups formed with members based on interest and generally eschewing geography. Certainly a good model for international collaboration, one that mirrors academic practice in several disciplines. For the average learner, though, and this is why I am anxious to see MOOCs move beyond this vanguard of professional educators and into lifelong learning environments, this is a wonderful introduction to how globalization transpires. How communication can cut across boundaries, across distinctions or cultural organizers, and how interaction, meaningful interaction, is bounded by need and affinity. 

  • MOOCs are the skunkworks solution to what ails higher education (at best). 
  • MOOCs are the creative team out in a different facility building all the cool stuff. Skunk Works projects are meant to illustrate what is possible when an organization becomes so rigid in process that they cannot envision an alternative. MOOCS do that for higher education, but it is not an applicable alternative (not a wholesale one). It won’t fit if applied directly. It merely illustrates what is possible outside structure. A call for higher education to change their structure? Perhaps. But not meant as an alternative engine to drive the higher education machine. Merely to indicate what is possible outside the box.


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