MOOCs are Actually a Pretty Ancient Idea

With the upcoming MOOC Research Initiative Conference starting tomorrow (or today for the pre-conference cool kids), I wonder how much attention will be given to the history of MOOCs? Seems that most people only go back to the 1980s – or maybe even the 1920s or 1890s – for the roots of the ideas behind MOOCs. Lately I have been pondering if that is not far enough.

The truth is, the idea of free, open massive courses that are shared through whatever “lines” of communication were available as well as through personal learning networks goes back for centuries. Many, many centuries. Not with me? Let’s look at the Bible.

Now, whatever you think of religion, hang with me for a second. Jesus Christ would teach in open areas where anyone could join the class and interact with other participants. People would hear those teachings and then go out and tell others. Paul would write letters and then tell the recipients to read his teachings aloud at meetings and then have his “learners” send the writings to other cities so that others could read them. Paul would also go to public areas and teach his lessons and then people would leave to debate these teachings elsewhere. Of course, this was really just a part of the Greco-Roman society at the time – open air gathering places where anyone could stand up, teach, and then the crowds would debate with each other or even the teacher. People would come back to learn more or even request that teachers come to their town to share. Some would even take ideas they heard and teach it themselves in their own meeting places.

Sure, the “lines” of distribution were much slower that our current internet “lines,” but all of this was still an early version of “online.” These “lines” were just dusty stone-paved roads and verbal communications instead of electronic fiber-optics and digital interactions. But the massive and open part of these “courses” still existed.

Not to mention that I am being ethnocentric for brevity sake here – many other cultures and religions had open teaching through whatever means they had at the time. As long as people have been able to write, teachings were copied down and passed on to those that wanted to learn. And what about the pre-historic oral societies before that? Were cave paintings the original MOOCs?

I haven’t studied it yet, but I am starting to wonder if our closed educational systems based on one-way knowledge transmission are more of a modern anomaly than historical norm. Even if not, a historical look at the true history of massive open learning delivered through whatever was on “line” at the time is long over due.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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