Today, India is at an important crossroad when it comes to MOOCs. Much has been written and spoken about the potential of MOOCs in this country. Unfortunately, most of the conversation has been around platforms. It has also centered around xMOOCs or XBTs as I term them, ignoring the rather rich discourse around the cMOOCs. And it has centered around who gets to own them (from a public resource perspective). This confusion has led to inevitable delays in the launch of a mainstream MOOCs implementation and accompanying policy. Is there a way out for us?
I think there probably is a way out. But first our educators and policy makers must fully understand core aspects of this revolutionary development in online learning and decide their strategy for the future.
The very first thing to note is that MOOCs are not (or should not be seen as) traditional eLearning. Online courses do not equate with MOOCs. The point of confusion is that bit about “online” and “courses” that confuses many people and leads them to conflate the two things. The distinction between what is meant by online and courses in MOOCs is really important to establish.
In MOOCs, “online” does not only just imply accessibility to digital resources using the technology behind the Internet and multimedia. Online implies the social, the neutral, the connected and the collaborative online practice of learning. Rather than focusing on the message, the focus is squarely on the medium. More than the content, the focus is on the connection and the “dance of conversation”.
Traditional eLearning was constructed within an older paradigm of the Internet that has completely revolutionized in the past few years. In that paradigm, putting WBTs (or web based training) on the web and then monitoring activity and scores with the occasional discussion forum, is the norm. Being predominantly an expedient, factory approach, we had to worry about packaging (SCORM/AICC), interoperability (LMS, Common Cartridge) and rich media (usually Flash/Flex) for interaction. Content factories had sprung up in countries like India to service the huge demand to create vanilla WBTs. These WBTs stereotyped learners, had self-contained learning (I don’t want to use the vitiated term “self-paced”) and were produced in low cost locations for budgetary reasons (cost cutting on face to face training and offshoring advantages). Content development is expensive and most organizations created page turners at scale. Few organizations spent large amounts on advanced eLearning development, such as for serious games and rich interactive WBTs. Return on investment in terms of learning was difficult to demonstrate, but the return on investment in terms of being able to “train” much larger populations at a fraction of the cost was demonstrable.
But the Internet changed. It became writable, connected, social, open and interoperable. However eLearning remained woefully the same, rooted in the old Internet. And when cMOOCs came along, powered by the new Internet, eLearning folks had no tools in their armory to adapt to them. So they ended up interpreting MOOCs as just very large eLearning courses. In fact, if you were to compare a xMOOC to an eLearning course, many people would not be able to tell the significant difference in approach.
With cMOOCs, however, George Siemens (who brought in the theory of Connectivism) had quickly realized that the Internet had changed, and eLearning needed a new approach (often called eLearning 2.0) in the face of supra-abundant information and connectedness. With Connectivism, learning is the process of making connections and knowledge is really a network (Stephen Downes). This meant that the role of the teacher (or instructional designer) had to change to someone who could “model and demonstrate” paths to learning and the role of the student had to be to “practice and reflect” through a greater connectedness. In that sense, learners had to become more heutagogical in nature with a deeper sense of and skill for learning.
The second difference is in the term “course”. The “course” in cMOOCs was a journey of way-finding and sense-making, with minimal facilitation. It is a bit of a stretch to use normal definitions of what a course is, in the cMOOC context. To take an extreme viewpoint, cMOOCs are a bit like learning on the tap, like learning to be, episodes in a continuous stream of learning that you can access by connecting to others. In cMOOCs, both structure and content are loosely defined, with the community determining the nature and the contours of learning (community as curriculum). This “un-course” definition flys in the face of standard understanding of the term “course” which has rigid membership, duration, curriculum and outcomes.
To take an example, in a “course” , the teacher would draft a course outline, supply readings and references, provide a tightly designed progression for learners (read this first, take a test, move to the next topic) and so on. Students are particularly dependent upon the teacher and work in a closed group. In a cMOOC, people form a loose network (open, no membership bar) based on interest, the community members decide to engage on a theme/topic, they supply (as it goes along) the resources that interest them and those they think will interest others, engage freely on certain ideas, contribute to and document/reflect upon their learning and use a plethora of tools they are comfortable with.
The cMOOC platform enables the conversation by aggregating the member contributions, making them accessible, remixing and repurposing them in forms that are useful to search/consume and feeding them forward to members and into newer directions not anticipated when the cMOOC was conceptualized. In this sense, learning becomes an emergent phenomenon with ever changing contours. And learners learn to adapt to these chaotic conditions and to self-organize in ways that are meaningful to them. This is what happens in real life as we learn and evolve. As Stephen Downes remarks:
“What happens,” I asked,”when online learning ceases to be like a medium, and becomes more like a platform? What happens when online learning software ceases to be a type of content-consumption tool, where learning is “delivered,” and becomes more like a content-authoring tool, where learning is created?”
Most people would say that the “course” has value in its traditional format. I do not dispute that. Instead what I am saying is that cMOOCs provide a real alternative to learning in that manner and so instead of ignoring that value, we should embrace this plurality.
The other part of the term talks about another two misrepresented terms – “massive” and “open”.
In popular terms, xMOOCs are known to be massive in terms of the number of students attending one course. However, this is only a conventionally acceptable meaning of massive. What massive also really means in the cMOOC context is to do with how connected the members of the network are (density), how quickly messages reach the members (speed), what is the consumption (flow) of messages in the network and how easily are connections formed and abandoned (plasticity).
To take an example, whenever new information or opinion reaches a node in that network (a member), if that node is disconnected or loosely connected to the rest of the network, the speed of the new information in reaching other nodes will be low, and the information may die before it reaches the rest of the network. In a world where our skill is dependent upon gaining knowledge of things as they happen, this could be disastrous. Being disconnected or loosely connected with networks that bring us new learning and knowledge will only impair our education.
This is a sharp deviation from traditional eLearning, where these questions are not asked, because the network is the new Internet and eLearning still is stuck in the old Internet age. This implies that we will see the long tail in xMOOCs (where a large number of learners stay disengaged or minimally engaged with their learning, while a few exhibit intense activity) just as we did in traditional eLearning. And this is being evidenced by its high dropout rates.
The last term is “open”. Open-ness is interpreted in different ways in cMOOCs – free or fee, groups vs. networks (closed vs. open), no restrictions on membership, copyleft, diversity, unrestricted sharing, degree of engagement (yes, legitimate peripheral participation is also in evidence), risking public performance of learning (however incomplete), altruism, capacity to change, and ability to take criticism (or barriers to public display of learning). However, the major discourse around xMOOCs has been limited to just one or two of the dimensions listed above.
Hopefully, this understanding of the MOOC phenomenon is the first step that we in India can take while building a long term strategy. It’s important for us to appreciate the differences between traditional eLearning/xMOOCs/XBTs and step away to carve our own interpretations for our needs. If we are able to negotiate the transition successfully, an entire generation of learners will benefit. India has scale and that affords great opportunities for architecting powerful learning systems and for engendering better learners. Let us hope that this happens, rather than us aping the xMOOCs.