MOOCs and Community Colleges

Interview with Patrick Flanagan, who was doing research for New Brunswick Community College (NBCC).

Patrick Flanagan: OK, thanks very much. So the first thing on my list of questions I sent you is about MOOCs representing a shift in teaching and learning, is what we’re talking about here basically a shift from content to learning skills, from teaching happening in one place to it happening in multiple places, to a shift in control of learning from institution to student… Is that basically how you would see the shift MOOCs represent? And, if so, what are the implications for the role that MOOCs can play in the future?

Stephen Downes: The first big shift that MOOCs represent is open learning materials, and I think that’s really key. Right now there’s a wide variety of different pedagogies being tried out with these, but it’s the open access that really differentiates MOOCs from previous forms of online learning. Beyond that it would be the distributed nature of learning that’s seen more often in some MOOCs such as ours and less often in other MOOCs, but there’s the idea here that people can interact and do things not just with the central university environment, but with their own environments and with third party environments like Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, etc.

Patrick Flanagan: Right, and I understand what you’re saying about how not all MOOCs are born the same. So, if MOOCs evolve the way of simply making online education more engaging and effective for learners and raising that profile—and I’d have to say it is making some impact in that respect, although from our interviews with post-secondary education institutions here in the Atlantic and with employers, I must say, in many cases it hasn’t penetrated whatsoever. I was really surprised at how many folks did not know anything about MOOCs, even within some post-secondary education institutions…it hasn’t hit the radar in some respects—so as much as it can raise the profile and reputation, if it were only to do that. Is that a contribution? Is it a tremendous loss? What would you say?

Stephen Downes: You know, it’s reflective of the wider environment. People pick up on things at different rates because they have different sources of input and I think this is reflective of that. You know, if you don’t read Time magazine, you don’t realize that 2012 is the year of the MOOCs; you know, it really is that simple. And so the evidence is, what we infer from that is, that they don’t read Time magazine. So, I would view this observation on your part—and I’m not surprised with it—but I would view this observation on your part as suggesting not so much that we need more publicity about MOOCs, but that the system that you’ve been dealing with needs mechanisms to become more plugged in so that they’re more aware of these things at the time they’re happening and not two to three years later when somebody follows up.

Patrick Flanagan: And so what would those mechanisms be?

Stephen Downes: Well, that’s a question. I mean, most people learned about MOOCs by participation in open online forums and electronic media of various sorts right, so they’re plugged into the wider learning community and that’s, you know, just as an aside, that’s what’s MOOCs are anyways, right? If you remove the course aspect from them, it’s this whole idea of being plugged into this wider community. It means teachers talking to each other in communities online. It means them sharing learning resources with each other.

You know, the very simplest forum they’re engaging in is a discussion list, and the more complex forums they’re engaging in Twitter groups or Facebook groups or whatever. And the evidence here suggests that they’re not doing that. And if they’re not doing that, that would be the problem, not that they’re not adopting MOOCs. So you really need to find ways of integrating them into these online communities. And you know, just as an aside, this is often not the instructor’s or administrator’s fault. If they don’t have good open access to these resources, like if say YouTube is blocked on their campus and Facebook is blocked, which is very common in a lot of places. If these services are blocked, they have no way of talking to people outside their own campus, they don’t learn. So I’d really be looking for ways to open up their access. I mean, even if they subscribe to my newsletter, but if my newsletter is blocked…

Patrick Flanagan: MOOCs have focused largely on the academic side of the house. What about manual skills and the blended training and the opportunity for community colleges with their students to benefit from it? The balance of what’s available out there is very skewed. What advice do you have for the community colleges that way?

Stephen Downes: Yeah, you know, part of the inspiration for MOOCs was the huge range of open learning materials that already exist, and I’ll give you an example. I’ve done recently a fair amount of carpentry in the home. I built a whole set of bookshelves and did my dining room, and I had to re-plaster my ceiling. I learned how to do that online. Or even with my bicycle, like fixing the derailer, I learned how to do that online. I can’t do everything online so, you know, I go into the bike shop or I pop into Home Depot and say “how do you do this?”

So, that’s the inspiration for MOOCS. And what MOOCs were intended to be is introducing that kind of thinking to the academic world. That’s why they’re focused on the academic world. Because the academic world had no clue that this is what’s happening in the real world outside them, because they’re insulated too. So, from the perspective of community colleges this is almost golden, because all of these resources either are available, or can be made available for students and, more importantly, potential students to look at and review before they even come into the college, before they even sign up for a course; they’re able to see, what is welding? What is learning a bead? Stuff like that. They can see it in video. If they’re interested, if the existence of these videos, and the utility of these videos is made known to them, they can look at this, see if it interests them, and it’s like the college comes along and picks up where they can’t do it on their own, gives them access to labs and workshops and facilities to try these things for themselves, gets them engaged in projects.

You know, if I was in a community college I’d be looking at, for example, instead of an auto mechanics program, or maybe it’s supplementary or something like that. I’d advertise, “Refurbish this ‘67 Thunderbird with us! We have ten openings, we’re going to get a group together, we’re going refurbish the Thunderbird, here’s the videos.” Then we’ll come in, we’ll spend all day Saturday working on this, and we’ll take 18 weeks or whatever it takes, and at the end of it, I don’t know what we’ll do with the Thunderbird, but we’ll give you a certificate, right? And there’s no admission or anything. But over time if you get enough certificates you’re going to qualify for this auto-mechanics thing. That’s how I’d do it.

Patrick Flanagan: But what’s gotten in the way? The interest has really picked up on the academic side of the house, it hasn’t really picked up so much on the community college side, why not?

Stephen Downes: Well, because they don’t know about it. You know, they’re insulated for some reason from the conversation and the discussion.

Patrick Flanagan: And, what does it have to do with the resources that the big players, the edX’s and so on, have been able to bring to the table? Is that part of it as well, that the colleges don’t have those kinds of resources?

Stephen Downes: Well, these guys pursue a very deliberate strategy, and it’s really clever. They make announcements and they go in with a big splash. And the effect of this is not simply to market their own stuff, although it certainly does that, but to convince everybody else that “Oh, those guys are doing it, it’s been done, I can’t do this, because it takes so much investment and so much money.” And you know, in the long run, I wonder if that doesn’t do more harm than good. It doesn’t take a whole lot to pull off one of these things [MOOCs], you know. If you compare the cost of mounting the typical college course and you compare the cost of mounting one of these things, they can be very similar, especially if you do it the way I just described—almost low tech, click videos, existing videos that are already there online, things like that, and then you just sort of follow up on that.

Patrick Flanagan: Yes, we interviewed a woman at Fanshawe College, and she had a similar message—“we’ve put this MOOC up and it’s a small group of us and we just worked at it, but it’s quite possible to do, and it’s affordable and it’s interesting and we’re doing it to see what we can learn from it.”

Stephen Downes: It’s sort of like MIT saying, “we have advanced digital photography so nobody else even needs to bother taking pictures.”

Patrick Flanagan: You know, with your knowledge of the field, I wanted to see what you would advise colleges, where they would look for leadership and tech-oriented PSEs that are making good use of large-scale online delivery. Is there somebody that you would say, “Explore what these folks are doing?”

Stephen Downes: Well, the first thing’s Athabasca University that pops to my head. Rory McGreal. He’s got the last 12 years at an associate VP level, he’s talked to everyone, and he really knows the field, especially open access. He’s one of Canada’s leaders in open access. He used to work in NB.

Contact North in Ontario is also very knowledgeable. Also, BC Campus has really good on-the-ground knowledge.

Patrick Flanagan: I’m aware your time is going to run out… I want to ask you about this MOOC that you’re developing. I’m interested in knowing how that’s proceeding. It’s in French, isn’t it?

Stephen Downes: It’s in French; it’s sponsored by the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF); it’s going to be nine or ten weeks long. We’re looking at different aspects of Open Educational Resources, and we’re recruiting top-flight French language experts in the field from around the world. It’s going to run in the connectivist mode, and it’s going to be run using my own Grasshopper software, which we’re converting to multi-language delivery for this MOOC.

This is being developed by a team; we’re working with the Universit√© de Moncton and actually right now they’re doing most of the work!

Patrick Flanagan: Is CCNB involved with that as well or…?

Stephen Downes: No, but it’s a good point to raise and I’m going to raise it with our MOOC team, to see if we can’t involve them someway.

Patrick Flanagan: Any other resource advice for the President of NBCC?

Stephen Downes: Well, they’ve got us (National Research Council); we’re here in New Brunswick, right? It’s not just me; there are other people there who are very knowledgeable and very expert, and we’ve got a number of projects on the go. We’re just launching a new program called Learning and Performance Support System, which has natural tie-ins to a college level environment; so if there’s stuff we can do to help, I know that we would want to do that.

Patrick Flanagan: Thank you for your time and insight, Stephen.


  1. Some educational institutions are slow to adopt MOOCs because MOOCs are contrary to their organizational structure and philosophy.

    It's a bit like armor in the first and second World Wars. In WWI, armor was just coming about as a real option for combat. What little there was was tentatively used and was used in a way that did not change tactics.

    In WWII, the Germans used armor in a completely new way. The tactics caught up to the technology.

    Many educational institutions are still trying to use MOOCs in a way that will not change the underlying structures.


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