The Biggest MOOC Ever? NARC101: The Thought Processes of the Individual at This Moment in Time

A few more random thoughts from the MRI13 conference. Which probably won’t be the last. One of the ideas explored at the conference was that “course” is really a bad descriptor for open learning. “Community” would be a closer idea, especially if it is one that can continue after the official “course” end date passes. We also know that many cMOOCs rely as much on informal learning as they do formal learning. Some are even going into completely student-directed learning such as the DS106 Headless course.

Now, I’m not trying to say that we should get rid of instructors or SMEs or guides or what ever you want to refer to basically the person in charge. But the general direction of most good MOOCs are towards being community-oriented  gatherings for people to learn formally and informally with as much student-involvement/leadership as possible. As I was pondering this, something about it seemed really familiar. As if I had been a part of this for a long time and didn’t realize it. Then it hit me – we have all been a part of some of the largest MOOCs ever for a long time and may have not even realized it.

Facebook. Twitter. Tumblr. You name the social network. They are all… MOOCs.

Take Facebook for example. It is massive. It is open and online (and not just in the sense of free and digital). It is a community. And we are all learning things – whether it is informally about what our cousin had for dinner or a formal bit of knowledge that is similar to what we would find in college. Just today I watched a video about creating aluminum sculptures out of fire ant mounds. I probably saw a dozen creative videos just like this is some of my college art classes. Scrolling down my  feed just now I see at least a dozen things that would have counted as content back in college. And hundreds of other things that wouldn’t, but still count as informal learning.

But Facebook itself is completely learner-centered. There is no teacher dictating the content – we all get to share whatever we want. Or maybe Zuckerberg does see Facebook as course (NARC101: The Thought Processes of the Individual at This Moment in Time). Maybe “what are you doing right now?” IS the learning topic of any given social network.

Anyway, I am sure that I am not the first to think of this, and I know there are holes in my analogy. But what I really want to get at is this: what can we learn from Facebook and Twitter and other social networks about what it means to be in a massive, open, online, learner-centered community? Yes, I know that Facebook is not open in the sense of DS106 and supporting ideas of owning your own digital identity. But I think we can learn some things about how people interact in massive open online communities, what kind of interfaces they like, what they don’t like (especially when Facebook makes one of its infamous flubs), etc. I don’t have any specific thoughts off the top of my head in that area, but I’m sure I will soon :)

Give Me an M! Give Me a C! Blah Blah Blah To All This Theory!

So, yeah, there was this little conference that kind of became a big deal in Arlington right down the road from where I work. The MOOC Research Initiative exploded from the get go when people realized it wasn’t just another “death to the universities!” propaganda event. Well, many of us expected Jim Groom to open some minds at the opening keynote – but he went beyond that. It was more like a great disturbance in the force, with a hundred minds being blown by awesomeness and then suddenly silenced by possibilities they had never imagined. And the awesome continued through the other keynotes, presentations, funny-but-thought-provoking quips by George Siemens in between events, and keen observations on Twitter.

There were two things I noticed at the conference. One is that some of my biggest problems with xMOOCs in the past has been the sense that the people pushing them are focusing too much on the M and C and not understanding the O’s at all. Many people pointed out at MRI13 that “course” is not really the best metaphor for describing a MOOC. Community is a much better idea. But if you are focusing too much on making a “course” and forgetting the community…. you are just re-creating a 1990’s online course rookie mistake.

And how can I condense most problems with the hype about Massive in less that a book? Why does everyone focus so much on how these “courses” can scale up? Why aren’t you worried if they scale down to smaller “courses”? Is your “course” really that good if it has to have 2000 students to work? If it was really a good “course”, wouldn’t it work just as well with 20? But than again, how far is too far on scaling down? I have been in xMOOCs that would work best with 1 student (because that would make it more of a self-guided mentorship). If you course works best with one student rather than 100,000 – you have yet another big problems.

Too many xMOOCs (and even a handful of cMOOCs) completely misuse the Open and Online part of MOOC. They tend to think that Free and Digital means Open and Online. As many people at MRI13 pointed out, Open is not just “Free.” If content can’t be remixed, its not open. If the design process is not open to allow students to contribute, its not open. If the content is still stuck in your proprietary delivery system, it is still just an LMS on steroids, even if you let everyone get in.

And finally, Online. Look, making content digital and putting it on the webs is not all there is to being Online. The web is a networked, interactive, social community. If your “course” is basically a digital version of a lecture hall that is put on the web, your “course” is not truly Online. Its just digitized bad pedagogy.

Which bring me to theory – the second thing I noticed. As Martin Weller points out, several people were suggesting that we move past theory or that theory no longer matters. That might be true if more people were actually getting the theory behind MOOCs correct in the first place. I rarely hear things like Heutagogy and Sociocultural Theory mentioned at these conferences even though they are really what we need to be focusing on. So the its not that we need to move past theory – its that we really haven’t touched on theory enough. There is so much confusion over the research results because we don’t have a strong enough theoretical base to frame the research and data properly in many cases.

Look at it this way. Pedagogy and Andragogy focus on structured education. MOOCs tap into personal learning networks and all types of unstructured informal learning. Heutagogy focuses on learning how to learn, double loop learning, universal learning opportunities, a non-linear process, and true learner self-direction. Pedagogy and Andragogy focus on creating “courses.” Sociocultural theory, when used in education, looks at the effect of communities and cultures on learning.  When we continue to talk about Pedagogy and Andragogy, we are framing the conversation with concepts that no longer fully apply. There are strains of both in MOOCs to be sure, but MOOCs have also moved way past those basic concepts.

Another thing I noticed – while reading the Twitter stream and thinking “who wrote that awesome post” or “who is this cool person” I was shocked to see people in my own Ph.D. program that I have never met! This made me realize that for the most part, we are still thinking of MOOCs and courses as silos that don’t interact with other courses. The colleagues of mine are probably in the online cohort, which I never get to interact with. Or at least in some other courses that I haven’t taken yet. But why do we not have online cohorts interacting and learning with residence courses? Why are we not interacting with and learning from other universities that are offering similar courses? Why are we so isolated in our courses? Can the Massive part of MOOC also describe the scale of who we interact with? A Massive conglomerate of people that are learning the same topic? I don’t know if that is a problem with Massive or Open or both… but something that seems to get missed in all but a few cMOOCs.

My only other regret from MRI13 was that I missed so much due to the ice storm. Jim Groom and I never got to go grab TexMex and go thrashing (skateboarding for you posers out there) in downtown Arlington. Letting ice stop you is for wimps. I also hear that Shirley Alexander, Bonnie Stewart, Amy Collier, and Tanya Joosten killed it during their panel – wish I could have caught that. I also couldn’t track down Blacktimelord and other people that looked really cool by their Twitter profiles. But I did get to see some people speak that I had never heard before. I ran into old co-workers and bosses that are still staying a part of the emerging conversation. I found out that George Siemens in now officially a co-worker, with a temp office two doors down from mine. Of course, he is leading a project that Harriet and I proposed over 5 years ago and were told it was too radical and out there for UTA to ever go for…. so I’ll try not to be bitter :) A prophet is not welcome in their own hometown after all. At least I have found other Universities here that want to work on my ideas – I was being quite literal in this post when I said I was working on some of those ideas :) I have come to accept my role as squeaky wheel on the edge of things that most people ignore because I am constantly questioning every thing.

Oh yeah – there was also Stephen Downes on a steer. I really like Stephen even though he occasionally misunderstands what I’m blogging about :) I wish I had gotten a chance to meet him and pick his brain of all the awesomeness that is in there. I’m also glad he is finally realizing that xMOOCs are different than his vision of MOOCs.

We really need to do this again or keep the momentum going or something.