Friday, 15 March 2013

ScHARR MOOC Diaries: Part IV - Will size matter?

Will size matter...?  On MOOCs and going 'massive'.

First of all...

I'm excited by our ScHARR MOOCs project, because it is pulling onto centre-stage all sorts of questions about learning - and about what (and who) universities are for - that we often allow to drift away into the wings (or out of the theatre altogether).  In the last few years, my own role vis a vis teaching has increasingly been to lead and manage, more than delivering, and to be the place where the buck stops if something goes wrong.  And now here comes the opportunity to get on with some fresh new thinking about teaching and learning online, without US-style million-dollar investment, but with a huge fund of staff enthusiasm.  And with lots of interesting questions to answer, not least how 'massive' should we plan for our first MOOCs to be? How much will size matter?  Will any kind of innovative, interactive learning techniques survive a context in which there may be thousands or tens of thousands of people logging on? As outlined below, what started as a speculative set of questions and Google searches about size quickly led to other, broader questions.  I have found some useful, reflective articles while browsing - three of which are listed in the comments below. Each, in turn, opens the door to more resources and debates.

Before moving on with those themes, let me welcome the two members of staff who will be joining the team from now on to help get the ScHARR MOOCs up and running:

Angie Clonan:

Angie and Katie will each be working with the MOOCs team half-time, over the spring and summer - and will soon be posting their thoughts and suggestions in the Diaries.

MOOCs: size and other issues - some useful links

A little online browsing quickly tells me that the first MOOC was formally offered in 2008 in Canada, drawing on earlier collaborative online learning initiatives.  Technological innovations don't generally come out of a vacuum: there is always a context, usually populated by various jostling ideas and initiatives.  So MOOCs are not quite the new kid on the block that the current buzz of discussion in UK Higher Education circles might suggest.  For more detail on this point and others raised below, there is a very useful 2012 article here by Sir John Daniel, in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education:

Further browsing quickly brought up a distinction that has some relevance to the 'how massive?' question and related pedagogical themes: "cMOOCs" vs "xMOOCs"...         cMOOCs  emphasising a 'connectivist' and participatory approach, and xMOOCs adopting a more obviously commercial and 'broadcasting'  style and format:

"cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication."
(for the full discussion, see George Siemens' reflections at

My first reaction to this distinction was to reflect that of course I (we?) would much prefer the 'connectivist' emphasis, with its roots in concepts of student-centred and participatory learning.  If  that means being less 'massive' but more 'creative and collaborative' - then good.  Quality rather than quantity.

But as George Siemens points out in the www.elearnspace piece cited above, there are many unresolved issues here.  He comments that learners from contexts and countries where there is little affordable access to high-quality learning materials say they welcome the accessible "xMOOCs" provision, often delivered by high-status US universities with global reputations.  Restricted access to bandwidth can also make the more interactive styles of online learning far less 'open' than we may think.  That thought, of course, immediately raises another question: will MOOCs  just entrench the domination of the big US players, marginalising other perspectives, networks and organisations?  Walmart/Asda/Tesco drives out not only the educational corner shop, but the deli, the butcher, the baker and the wholefoods cooperative too in a familiar pattern?

These points and others are raised in a recent piece on MOOCs published on the Institute of Development Studies website (To MOOC or not to MOOC'... see link after the quotation below) . This Insitute is a charitable organisation based at the University of Sussex. It attracted a comment from a current MOOC user that encourages a more optimistic and less polarised interpretation of MOOCs' potential, though also one that reminds us of the online accessibility issues:

"I live in Liberia and have organized a discussion group for people who are taking Banerjee and Duflo's 'Poor Economics' course online. The course is at have a group of half Liberians, half expatriate development workers. It's really interesting for us and eye-opening for the Liberian students who have never been exposed to cutting-edge, rigorous thinking in development before. It would be fantastic if IDS could do something similar. Bandwidth is a real problem for us, though, so it helps to keep online lectures and audio materials to a minimum, or, if you feel you must be 'multimedia', at least include a transcript of the lecture, and the slides. "

So you may have a genuinely 'massive' MOOC; there may be thousands of people logging on who simply lurk and browse or consume the content without interacting online; and at the same time, there may be local groups who use their individual online learning as a springboard for shared agendas and creative ways of working.

Perhaps, then, we need to relax about the 'size' issue.  We will need to make sure that our MOOCs offer a range of levels of engagement: browsing, lurking, posting responses and course work, engaging in online discussion with peers and tutors, perhaps getting formal credit eventually (for some). We will need to experiment in order to find out what does work for our kinds of topics  on a very large scale, and what kinds of options we can build in for collaborative learning/working within that context.   We'll need to revisit and test that distinction between "cMOOCs" and "xMOOCs" and take our own thinking further. Watch this space.

(posted on behalf of Dr Jenny Owen)

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