By now, most people in higher education have heard of MOOCs, the “Massive Open Online Courses” that have come to save education or destroy it, depending on your perspective. And as we progress predictably through MOOC-mania, the MOOC-mania backlash, and the MOOC-mania backlash-backlash, it's perhaps time to take stock of how we got here.
Most MOOCs one sees covered today in the press came out of a Stanford University initiative to investigate the use of online elements in Stanford classes; faculty involved with and inspired by these experiments went off to form companies that investigated the idea of broadcasting a class to the world, allowing anyone to participate in the class through the learning management system (in this case the Class2Go, Coursera, or Udacity platforms, but it could have just as easily been Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, or a dozen other options).
But that was not the genesis of the MOOC. As originally conceived in 2008, the MOOC had a much more ambitious goal. The original set of MOOCs were framed as experiments in networked learning, the idea that knowledge is distributed across networks of expertise, and that learning necessarily involves engaging with those networks. Early MOOCs stressed that the strength of learning mediated by the Internet was not in a tightly controlled, branded, and centrally distributed online course, but in the ways that the web worked to subvert the notion of the class as separate from the world at large.
While the newer, less ambitious MOOCs have hurtled loudly towards IPOs, the original MOOCs have continued to reimagine what education can be when we realize the power of the web to cross traditional boundaries. For those suffering from MOOC exhaustion but looking for other models, I present a few of those experiments here. While some of these experiments are quite large in scope, all are based on principles that can be applied to classes in smaller doses, and they may spur some ideas on how to approach your next course. You can click through the links in each description for more information.
The Future of Learning/FoL (Harvard School of Education)
Spearheaded by educational researcher Jason Reich and run by the Harvard School of Education, the Future of Learning experiment is a rethinking of a yearly teacher's workshop which pushed people in the workshop to connect in ways that would serve them well beyond the class. Through building an aggregation and syndication engine that allowed course participants to contribute to a central public site by means as varied as email, Twitter, photostreams, and traditional blogging, the course not only allowed the participants to document their four-day experience through the creation of over 900 pieces of content, but connected the participants into a network that will serve the participants long after they have returned to their individual classrooms.
Digital Storytelling 106/ds106 (University of Mary Washington, Other Institutions)
Ds106 is one of the biggest success stories in the world of networked learning. While ds106 itself has only been around since January 2011, it grew out of six years of experimentation with "thinning the walls of the classroom" by pushing students into real, authentic, web-based work. (As an example of its influence, the Future of Learning site mentioned above sees itself as primarily a descendent of ds106).
In ds106 the class is structured around a variety of online community activities. As with a Coursera/Udacity-style MOOC the course is open to all. But unlike those experiences, the course is structured in a way that allows multiple levels of participation. So, for example, an educational media class at one institution might be in the community side-by
-side with a digital art class from another, but these classes would use a slightly different set of pieces of the course community. The “differential participation” this allows makes it easy for faculty to use elements of the online community without having to rewrite their entire course to “sync up” with it.
Additionally, since ds106 is a persistent community that has developed over many years, students of ds106 have over time built materials to help future students succeed. My favorite example of this is a video, "The Happy Student's Guide to ds106", produced by a student from the Fall 2012 class. It's possibly the best introduction I have seen to any class, ever.
Feminism and Technology (New School, Other Institutions)
Feminism and Technology, the result of over a year of planning, is running this fall as a ten week course. Like ds106, it is structured around reusable learning objects that are repurposed locally in individual classrooms. However, it is somewhat bigger in scope, with over 15 colleges and universities participating. It is also more "closed" than ds106 and the FoL projects, partially due to the need to have a safe space for discussion of these topics. Yet it still engages heavily with the world external to the classroom. As just one example, students in the class are encouraged to "storm Wikipedia" as part of a major assignment, finding articles that have downplayed women's role in technological innovation and correcting them.
Water106 (Washington State University, Other Institutions)
Ok, I couldn't resist throwing this in. Here at Washington State University Vancouver we are trying to get our own networked learning project going in the area of issues-based education. The idea is to loosely connect courses about a variety of things (engineering, statistics, public policy, sociology, biology, history, etc.) through a community that uses issues of water policy and water science to illustrate such concepts. Courses could intersect with the community for as little as a single assignment ("Compute the standard deviation of water rates within a given geographical area" for a statistics course, for example), or use the community as a place to talk about examples throughout a whole course (as will be the case with a public policy course being offered). Like the examples above, we'll also be pulling in people from other institutions as well, trying to create some cross-institutional synergy. More information on that project can be found here.
As always, if you are interested in any of the above projects, or would just like to think through ways in which your classroom could benefit from internet-mediated instruction and activities, contact your WSU eLearning consultant (or, if you’re on the Vancouver campus, stop by my office). We’re always happy to walk through options in course design with faculty, and love to hear about the interesting things professors are already doing in the classroom. If you’re doing something interesting along these lines, let us know!
Michael Caulfield, Director of Blended and Networked Learning, WSU Vancouver