Productive MOOCs


One of my frustrations with MOOCs is that while they provide value for the individual, their (lack of) collective value is a missed opportunity. Although I’ve had a blog post in the works for almost a year, I could never work out how to write it concisely. A recent post by Rachel Harris of Inspire Research  provided a slightly different angle to address the issue.

Rachel is evaluating the ALT ocTEL MOOC and one of her evaluation questions is ‘Can new knowledge be generated via critical discourse in a MOOC?’. With our other research interests here at the Caledonian Academy we are really interested in knowledge creation and collective knowledge. So,  in the comments I said:

I’m firmly of the belief that knowledge creation is a key component of learning, and successful MOOC learners will (through writing and responding to blog posts) create new knowledge and advance their thinking.

Of course I am talking about cMOOCs here (xMOOCs will have to wait for another day, but Dave Cormier has a related post from last weekend which explores similar issues). My comment continued with this observation (from participation in cMOOcs, and from researching Change11)

But one of my concerns in observing other MOOCs is that while each individual might advance their knowledge, there is little in the way of collective knowledge advancement. What this means in practice is that there is lot of duplicated knowledge produced during the MOOC.

Wouldn’t it be great if cMOOcs could be made more ‘productive’ – instead of advancing many people’s knowledge a little by re-creating the same (or similar) new knowledge again and again, can MOOCs be structured to stimulate the creation of new knowledge in a more coordinated way. Can you bring the learners together to produce something entirely novel as they learn? This is in the true spirit of connectivism.

Aside from my desire to see new knowledge created, there is actually an important learning observation here. As I went on to say in the comment on Rachel’s post:

 To the active participants, this can be frustrating as the consequence is that there is too much ‘noise’ in the system.

You might read a number of blog posts by your fellow participants, each making the same point. In the Change11 MOOC, some participants found this boring, others (particularly the less confident) decided not to articulate their own view because they thought it had already been presented and didn’t want to ‘just repeat’. But articulating what you have learned is important so this is a missed learning opportunity.

On a more positive note, the emergence of self-organised spaces in the Chage 11 MOOC (the facebook group, the One Change a Day group) showed that co-creation could succeed, but it was only a minority of participants who managed to engage in this coordinated way.

Solutions. I’m not sure I have any,  but here is one idea**: Can MOOCs be used to encourage interdisciplinarity? An interdisciplinary*MOOC could bring together experts from different fields to explore a topic from different perspectives and adopting each other’s methods etc. The ultimate product could be the new knowledge created as a result, perhaps a series of working papers. The immediate flaw in this is that it doesn’t seem very massive (or at least the productive element might be the result just of the collaboration of the instructors), but if you can structure the MOOC participants as disciplinary ‘tribes’ then you can focus groups on creation of specific knowledge – e.g. initially discipline sub-groups could cooperate to co-create a disciplinary view, then be re-assorted into inter-disciplinary groups to explore the overlaps and tensions. oriented towards a more specific goal that matches their existing knowledge and motivation,  they can work together to co-create something that can be contributed back to the group. A structure such as this might also help counter the tension/imbalance between homophily and heterophily that I think is inherent in MOOCs.

* by interdisciplinarity, I mean ‘integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches’ – taken from which in turn is from a paper by Stember (1990)

**I’ll dig out the notes for the original blog post and write more at a later date.

Author: Colin Milligan

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

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