Collaboration and community are beautiful

There are many lessons to be learned from what is going on in the MOOC sector. The first is that we have a lot to learn, even for those of us who are committed to doing it ‘properly’ whatever that means. I’m not trying to convince you of “MOOC yes” or “MOOC no”. We can have that argument some other time. I’m talking about we already know from using these tools.

We’ve learned (again) that producing a broadcast video set of boring people reading the book at you in a monotone is, amazingly, not effective, no matter how fancy the platform. We know that MOOCs are predominantly taken by people who have already ‘succeeded’ at learning, often despite our educational system, and are thus not as likely to have an impact in traditionally disadvantaged areas, especially without an existing learning community and culture. (No references, you can Google all of this easily.)

We know that online communities can and do form. Ok, it’s not the same as twenty people in a room with you but our own work in this space confirms that you can have students experiencing a genuine feeling of belonging, facilitated through course design and forum interaction.

“Really?” you ask.

In a MOOC we ran with over 25,000 students, a student wrote a thank you note to us at the top of his code, for the final assignment. He had moved from non-coder to coder with us and had created some beautiful things. He left a note in his code because he thought that someone would read it. And we did. There is evidence of this everywhere in the forums and their code. No, we don’t have a face-to-face relationship. But we made them feel something and, from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear to be a bad something.

But we, as in the wider on-line community, have learned something else that is very important. Students in MOOCs often set their own expectations of achievement. They come in, find what they’re after, and leave, much like they are asking a question on Quora or StackExchange. Much like you check out reviews on-line before you start watching a show or you download one or two episodes to check it out. You know, 21st Century life.

Once you see that self-defined achievement and engagement, a lot of things about MOOCs, including drop rates and strange progression, suddenly make sense. As does the realisation that this is a total change from what we have accepted for centuries as desirable behaviour. This is something that we are going to have a lot of trouble fitting into our existing system. It also indicates how much work we’re going to have to do in order to bring in traditionally disadvantaged communities, first-in-family and any other under-represented group. Because they may still believe that we’re offering Perry’s nightmare in on-line form: serried ranks with computers screaming facts at you.

We offer our students a lot of choice but, as Universities, we mostly work on the idea of ‘follow this program to achieve this qualification’. Despite notionally being in the business of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, our non-award and ‘not for credit’ courses are dwarfed in enrolments by the ‘follow the track, get a prize’ streams. And that, of course, is where the diminishing bags of dollars come from. That’s why retention is such a hot-button issue at Universities because even 1% more retained students is worth millions to most Universities. A hunt and peck community? We don’t even know what retention looks like in that context.

Pretending that this isn’t happening is ignoring evidence. It’s self-deceptive, disingenuous, hypocritical (for we are supposed to be the evidence junkies) and, once again, we have a failure of educational aesthetics. Giving people what they don’t want isn’t good. Pretending that they just don’t know what’s good for them is really not being truthful. That’s three Socratic strikes: you’re out.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, at night being struck at the apex by three bolts of lightning simultaneously.

We had better be ready to redirect that energy or explode.

We have a message from our learning community. They want some control. We have to be aware that, if we really want them to do something, they have to feel that it’s necessary. (So much research supports this.) By letting them run around in the MOOC space, artificial and heavily instrumented, we can finally see what they’re up to without having to follow them around with clipboards. We see them on the massive scale, individuals and aggregates. Remember, on average these are graduates; these are students who have already been through our machine and come out. These are the last people, if we’ve convinced them of the rightness of our structure, who should be rocking the boat and wanting to try something different. Unless, of course, we haven’t quite been meeting their true needs all these years.

I often say that the problem we have with MOOC enrolments is that we can see all of them. There is no ‘peeking around the door’ in a MOOC. You’re in or you’re out, in order to be signed up for access or updates.

If we were collaborating with all of our students to produce learning materials and structures, not just the subset who go into MOOC, I wonder what we would end up turning out? We still need to apply our knowledge of pedagogy and psychology, of course, to temper desire with what works but I suspect that we should be collaborating with our learner community in a far more open way. Everywhere else, technology is changing the relationship between supplier and consumer. Name any other industry and we can probably find a new model where consumers get more choice, more knowledge and more power.

No-one (sensible) is saying we should raze the Universities overnight. I keep being told that allowing more student control is going to lead to terrible things but, frankly, I don’t believe it and I don’t think we have enough evidence to stop us from at least exploring this path. I think it’s scary, yes. I think it’s going to challenge how we think about tertiary education, absolutely. I also think that we need to work out how we can bring together the best of face-to-face with the best of on-line, for the most people, in the most educationally beautiful way. Because anything else just isn’t that beautiful.



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