Further thoughts on MOOCs

After a bout of bid writing, I’ve finally got time to reflect on George Siemens’ visit last week when he came to the Caledonian Academy to talk about “Connections, Clouds, Things and Analytics“. Over lunch, we spoke a little about the recently concluded PLENK10 MOOC (see my earlier thoughts here). Having been a little sceptical about the wider relevance of MOOCs (e.g. in formal education), I’m slowly being won round.

One of the things about the MOOCs run so far is that there have only been a handful -and almost all have been about the learning in networks (therefore attracting a very unusual cohort of very ‘connected’ participants). Stephen Downes ran one on critical thinking, but again, I think his position in the community will have influenced the way the course ran.  What we really need is someone from a completely different field to decide to run a MOOC. This brings up questions of What topics would suit the MOOC treatment, and What level of education? here are some initial thoughts.

TOPICS: I think the MOOC concept lends itself to emerging fields – where disciplines need to talk to each other, where there is no one source of knowledge and where new ideas and knowledge construction can benefit the topic significantly. An example off the top of my head when discussing this with George was the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – in hindsight this might draw too broad a spectrum of participants. I should try and think of something better.

EDUCATIONAL LEVEL: This is a little more tricky and the thoughts here perhaps betray some prejudice on my part. I think the CCK/PLENK MOOCs felt like Masters Level courses – using primary sources, encouraging new contributions from attendees etc. Also, a MOOC is never going to provide everyone on it with the same learning outcome, so it is less suitable for formal undergraduate education where assessment is often rigidly controlled.

I think motivation is key to understanding where MOOCs will end up. As I’ve said before, I dropped out of CCK’08 before I really started. Initially I rationalised my non-participation as ‘I wasn’t interested in learning’. My second hypothesis was ‘all the information hits you like a tsunami and if you are not prepared for that then you will be immediately demotivated’. I’m now onto my third hypothesis, ‘that participants need to set some learning goals at the start of the course, to narrow what they are interested in’. So participants on a MOOC need to be intrinsically motivated. Even if they are, I think they probably need a little bit of guidance at the start to get them to actively consider their motivation for participation. In fact, if I were running a MOOC, I would make the first week an activity where each participant defined their learning goals for the course. Then I’d engineer networks with common goals … hmm, this starts to sound a bit like Charting.

I’ve no time to explore the ideas further just now (got another post being written in parallel), but all this talk of fluid learning outcomes and inter-disciplinarity got me thinking of some work which now seems very old (bit no less relevant): Ultraversity

Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

2 thoughts on “Further thoughts on MOOCs”

  1. Hi Colin

    Nice post. I’m with you on being uncertain about the MOOCs, and the need for motivation. I’ve been reluctant to sign up for some of the ones you mentioned as I just felt I would be overwhelmed – or maybe I was just being lazy. Also I think that my work networks are allowing relevant “stuff” from the courses to filter through too. Again probably a sign of laziness or is it just being pragmatic?

  2. Thanks Sheila, With CCK’08 (the first MOOC) I went in with the mindset that I probably knew everything about the topic, and my main motivation for participation was being nosey. Which of course was not enough, as you can see what is going on without engaging … and it becomes a bit dull after a while because you are not engaged … and you drop out. When thinking about it again though, I realised that the key benefit of a MOOC should be that you help to co-create new knowledge by engaging with others on the course. If you rely on your networks to filter the relevant stuff through to you (as I felt I did with PLENK’10) then you can end up being merely a consumer of new knowledge created by others.

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