Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are an exciting new development in online education. In this article, Viplav Baxi explores the origins of MOOCs, their two main (‘c’ and ‘x’) variants and why it is critical to appreciate the distinction.
October 2008. Three Canadians, George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier started the first Massive Open Online Course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08) based on a new theory of learning called Connectivism proposed by George Siemens in 2005.
Positing Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age, Siemens asserted that learning is the process of making connections. These connections could take different forms such as those found in physical, social, cultural, conceptual or biological networks. These connections shape our learning because they help us navigate the increasing over-abundance of information and knowledge, leverage diversity of opinions and build the capacity to know, learn and adapt.
Stephen Downes proposed a new definition of knowledge which he called Connective Knowledge. Downes asserts that knowledge is the network. As Downes states: “at its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks”.
Dave Cormier is credited with coining the term ‘MOOC’ itself! He is also well-known for the theory of Rhizomatic Learning.
CCK08 transformed the way many people, including me, thought of education. The 12-week course was open and free. Over 2,200 people registered from over the world.
Even before CCK08 started, participants shaped the curriculum by suggesting areas of personal interest. Each week of the course, facilitators would briefly introduce the topic and suggest relevant open resources. Experts were invited to engage with course participants on each topic followed by an unstructured online conversation. Learning was distributed – participants interacted through tools they were comfortable with (like Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and SecondLife). The facilitators made their network connections and activity public, so participants could follow the leaders in the field and keep abreast of the latest developments.
Each day, using Stephen’s gRSSHopper technology, participant contributions would be harvested from all over the web, important contributions identified and a newsletter sent on to all participants enabling them to keep up with the activity in the course.
A few students (including me) signed up to become the first paid students in this the first ever MOOC. We submitted 3 essays that were evaluated directly by the instructors. The final certificate was awarded by the University of Manitoba (the course hosts) at the end of the course. Like many others, I started a CCK08 Blog that has a collection posts from each week of the course.
Participants self–organized to form many virtual and face-to-face open learning networks (that outlasted CCK08). They adapted material into their own language and context. The facilitators were always available as expert co-learners rather than as instructors. The sheer diversity in the community created tremendously exciting opportunities for learning.
CCK08 also illustrated four key principles of MOOCs – diversity, autonomy, open-ness and interactivity. Learning “emerged” rather than being pre-designed. Participants learnt to be practitioners rather than just “learning to know” or even “learning to do”. CCK08 also redefined the roles of teachers and students. The role of the teacher as an expert learner was to model and demonstrate while the learner had to practice and reflect.
Such a learning ecosystem reflects the reality of learning in a digital age, where information is over abundant, knowledge is increasingly specialized, change is extremely rapid, networks & social media have revolutionized communication and learning has become largely informal.
Such systems of learning can potentially solve the burning problem of employability of our students. It can help them gain the capability to become lifelong learners, negotiating external changes. It can raise the quality of teaching and learning significantly, in an equitable and affordable manner.
Since 2008, there have been a large number of MOOCs on the lines of CCK08. These MOOCs such as the Future of Education, Critical Literacies, Rhizomatic Learning and other versions of CCK itself, have seen rich interaction globally. A lot of published research and a strong community of educators, theorists, developers and thought-leaders have emerged. The new field of Learning Analytics has also emerged as a corollary of this approach.
Later, in 2011, two Stanford professors created an online course in Artificial Intelligence. They took the decision to make this course open and free for anyone who wanted to enrol. To their delight, almost 170,000 students registered for this course!
They discovered that people did in fact like the idea of coming online to learn in large numbers if the course was taught by reputed professors from top universities, was accompanied by a certificate from the university and was free.
Interestingly, they also started calling their online courses, MOOCs. The name stuck and MOOCs, so defined, soon caught popular imagination when more top universities got involved, technology to effectively manage large sets of learners matured and venture capital (& institutional) funds started backing the concept. Soon, we heard of massive investments in MOOCs and some of the top university brands like Stanford, MIT, Harvard and others backing them.
To distinguish between the two, Stephen Downes termed the original MOOCs ‘cMOOCs’ (for Connectivist MOOCs) and the newer ones as ‘xMOOCs’, the “x” standing for being an extension of something else.
That something else was really the type of eLearning that had grown very rapidly since the late 1990s. Corporations and even online learning providers found it expedient to digitize expensive face to face training and create standardized, mass learning experiences for their employees, in order to cut costs and save lost working time.
For the most part, this type of eLearning tried to simply replicate the traditional classroom and curricular practices online. In traditional online learning, all learning is centrally directed, restricted to the closed boundaries of the course, performed generally alone (collaboration features see very low usage patterns), mass personalized with rigid pre-determined learning paths and assessed largely through objective type assessments.
This type of eLearning had already failed to scale for many reasons. It was designed for stereotypes of industrial age learners. It ignored the diversity and overabundance of information that is present in real life. It ignored the autonomy of learners to personalize the learning experience. It ignored the richness of interaction on the World Wide Web. It ignored the “conversation” and “connections” in learning. xMOOCs are extensions of this type of eLearning.
By only incrementally extending this type of online learning, xMOOCs have massively magnified challenges such as low retention, rote learning, low employability and lack of student ownership, motivation, interactivity and engagement. It is as if they have ignored more than two decades of insights from online, open and distance education.
Backed by venture funding, top universities and media hype, xMOOCs have captured popular imagination. India has not remained immune to this hype. Addressing the need for personalized interaction and for integrating LABs, high quality online self-paced content is to be blended with face to face local faculty interactions and LABs. This addresses some shortcomings of the xMOOCs, but in essence remains their extension.
What we should be doing instead, is to build massively open connective learning ecologies that can help our students and teachers to become capable, connected and responsible digital learners – the promise of the cMOOCs (and of an ideal educational system).
These ecologies will both need and encourage experimentation and innovation. And they will yield better results because learners will be better connected and more in control of their learning.
The important question is: do we really care enough?