The first thing you notice is the chaos. There is no one in charge. No place to go to find out what to do. There was a time when Apple stores did not have blue-t-shirt greeters at the front door. You just had to stand there, trying to make sense of the clusters of customers, gawkers, helpers, facilitators, and salesmen. Everyone seemed to be either milling around or hustling off someplace with a sense of purpose, while you just stood there wondering what to do next. My first experience with a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was like that.
I was writing the chapter on open learning in Abelard to Apple when I noticed that a group of Canadian learning technologists and innovators, led by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and David Cormier were organizing a course that was open to the world. Here is how I described it in Abelard to Apple:
Open-ended college courses are uncommon, but not for any pedagogical reason. There is no theory that dictates how college degree programs should be chopped into courses or how many semesters there should be, except that everything should work out to be just long enough to fit the required number of credits. Many institutions offer “Maymester” terms that fit between spring and summer and last two or three weeks. Advanced material is sometimes taught in small recitation groups and is spread over several semesters because there are as of yet no textbooks in the field and therefore no natural course boundaries. The length of a college course is a number that is chosen arbitrarily, and it varies from place to place.
Attendance is also a loosely defined idea for most college courses. In Europe, where completion of course requirements is determined by final examinations, attendance has no meaning at all, and students feel free to drop in when it suits them. Even in American classrooms, instructors rarely take attendance, and the only evidence that regular attendance affects learning is purely anecdotal.
There is no scientific reason that universities have not organized their curricula around Erdös-style open-ended courses. In 2008, George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University—the Canadian version of Britain’s Open University—and a research scientist for the Canadian National Research Council named Stephen Downes decided to offer a course on a theory of learning that they call Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or CCK. CCK is a long tail concept, a pedagogical theory asserting that learning takes place as students discover how to navigate the interconnected networks across which knowledge is distributed. Their course was about CCK and simultaneously used CCK as the primary teaching method. It was offered again in 2009, and eventually attracted several thousand students.
I not only wandered into a MOOC, but I also was handed a blue t-shirt, one of those black id tags on a lanyard, and a mobile phone so that I can connect new arrivals to people who can actually help them. This happened last year when George sent me an email asking whether I was interested in participating in a new MOOC that he was organizing. This one was about change in higher education. He wanted to call it, appropriately enough, “Change, Education, Learning, and Technology.” I said, “Sure!”.
Here’s where the Change MOOC lives. Actually, it lives lots of places. You can find it here as well. And if you are a member of the Georgia Tech community you can also find it here. There are Twitter feeds that you can find with the hash tag #change11. There is even a virtual study group at OpenStudy.com. Change11 is just entering its 5th week, and there is already more content than I can track. I find myself paging though FlipBook late at night just to see what’s up.
Who’s taking the course? It’s really impossible to say because many of the thousands who have registered already never say who they are or participate in the online discussions. But many hundreds do. They are mainly teachers, and they come from elementary and secondary schools around the world. There are also a fair number of educational consultants, bloggers, and professors who do research in education and educational technology. Conversational clusters self-organize. There are fights that crop up among groups that hold differing positions on important issues, and there are a few water balloons that are lobbed between groups. There are trouble makers, and serious students, casual observers and opinion-makers.
Who’s missing? People who should be getting comfortable with the disruptive forces in higher education. There are almost no university administrators or technology managers. EDUCAUSE is nowhere to be seen. There are dozens of websites that devoted to studying and commenting on policy issues, but if they are aware of Change11, they are silent about it.
Is Change11 or MOOC-fication the wave of the future? Probably not. It’s an experiment. It is no more likely to be predictive of what the future of higher education will be like than Stanford’s open course on Artificial Intelligence. Like all experiments, success is not the important factor. One thing is certain: higher ed desperately needs innovation and the only way to innovate is to try out a lot of ideas.
I was attracted to the MOOC concept because it illustrated a narrative that I was constructing for my book, but I was drawn into the idea of the course by the Greeters who assured me that the whole point of being there was to navigate concepts and discussions that were meaningful to me.
So now I find myself greeting new arrivals with: “Hi, I’m Rich. Can I help you find what you need?”
If you are lost already — if you feel like you have jumped into the middle of a conversation — then let me suggest that you click on the video above.