A guest blog for the Journal ‘Challenging Organisations and Society’

MOOCs can get under your skin

MOOCs , Massive Open Online Courses, proliferated further in 2013. Check out Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/courses), Udacity (https://www.udacity.com/courses), Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/) and others. MOOCs are a fascinating development in formal education and learning, as they look so promising Massive and Open, suggesting a low threshold and providing an opportunity for many to participate, to be educated and all for free (at this moment). Can MOOC participation provide an additional learning strategy for professional learning?

Are MOOCs a potential or a partial answer to educationalist Ken Robinson’s call for changing the educational paradigm and fostering a learning and development culture that enables people to connect with their natural talent (see his video The Element and in Tedx Bring on the learning revolution)?

Or should MOOCs be seen as a truly new dimension of easy learning and web based connectivity? These were my guiding or working questions in exploring MOOCs as a phenomena, and as a potential rich approach to web based learning. Besides the supported paradigm shift that Robinson calls for, my curiosity is about the role of MOOCs in professionalization, the networked dimension is a corner stone of new professional development.

After attempting a few different MOOCs and following various discussion threads it became obvious that there are different MOOC-designs in use. For instance there are MOOC’s that are online versions of standard lectures, the talking heads these are not for the faint hearted as they become boring and I would find myself working on other  ‘to do’ items on my list. Other variations are the talking heads with the occasional visual in the lecture, this is better, but to me does not beat reading a fascinating book. MOOCs have huge numbers of registered ‘students’ or participants and attrition rates of 95% are seen as ‘acceptable’, the low threshold obviously makes it easy to register, to pursue the MOOC to its learning finale is clearly a different question. Later I learnt that these MOOCs are seen as xMOOCs and they differ strongly from cMOOC that are constructivist and invite participants to actively contribute to the design and flow of the MOOC, a sort of co-creation.

During the fall of 2013 I participated in the development or construction of a six week MOOC on Learning and Change run by Sioo (the InterUniversity Centre for Change and Organisational Development in the Netherlands). This MOOC managed to get under my skin, as it started off with a call to alumni to register as a facilitator or expert and to give an idea of potential input in the MOOC. These alumni were all change professionals and had followed at least a twelvemonth intensive learning experience at Sioo. This co-design was most intriguing as there was a very rich web based discussion on the materials, types of exercises and activities. The principle of looking for materials that would entice participants out-of-their-comfort zone and stretch them worked well. It was also fascinating to see that some facilitators shamelessly promote their ‘own’ work and materials. Others seemed to follow the rule that approaches that work in standard settings could simply be replicated on line. Jointly the alumni co-created a very rich collection of materials on a wide range of change management approaches, this consisted of  YouTube videos, poems, exercises, polls, invitations, articles, letters to participants, interviews, lectures. This collection was already an inspiring achievement. The ambition was that this MOOC would have a lower attrition rate and that we would provide for a combination of learning experiences through a weekly focus, optional activities and a smart combination of pre-arranged groups of participants with appointed alumni facilitators, in addition there was a virtual café for participants and there was a separate online working and exchange environment for participants and facilitators. This provided for multiple options for participants. The idea being that all participants would come to this MOOC with a well defined learning question that would allow them to select which content and activities were appropriate, this was their personal learning route. Finally all participants were invited to keep track of their progress using a learning logbook. In hindsight this MOOC was somewhat overdesigned. The implication of this was mixed, some got confused, irritated and dropped out, others stayed the course and reflected on the great time they had. I exchanged with a participant who expected a clear menu of options and instructions when to learn what. Others professed not to have a learning question and where just fuelled by curiosity and interest, and there were individual whose professional learning emerged during the course of the MOOC. Both participants and facilitators acknowledged that they had been lured into following links and found materials that they thought were inspirational or would use in their own work. Obviously the MOOC managed to get under more people’s skin, now that the excitement of running the MOOC has died down, was it worthwhile? The time investment was significantly more than expected, the eclectic collection of learning materials is a rich resource, having coached participants till the end and who acknowledge significant value is satisfying, and also puzzling as this coaching was essential to keep them on board and makes the MOOC a form of hybrid learning. Does this meet Robinson’s challenge: Was this MOOC a radical paradigm shift? No, not really. Did the MOOC foster inquiry and creativity? Clearly it demanded this of participants and facilitators alike….and further questions are still emerging, so my learning route on MOOCs and learning will continue.

COS journal

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