The MOOC of One

I want to talk about the MOOC of one. What I mean by that is I want to talk about the development of the MOOC or the Massive Open Online Course. I'm one of the people who designed the concept originally in 2008. I want to explain myself so that you know what we did and why we did it. And I want to lead into a discussion of what will follow, what the next generation technology will be to follow after the MOOC.
I want to do a bit more than that. I want to begin this conference challenging you to rethink some of your perceptions about what it is to teach, what it is that an education is supposed to provide. We have this picture in our mind that an education is to shape or to transform, or in some way make somebody something, whether that somebody be a doctor, whether that somebody be a responsible member of society, whether that somebody be employed or an entrepreneur.
I want to begin by asking the question, "What does it mean to be one person?" What does it mean to be, say, Valencian? What does it mean to be a doctor? We have this intuitive idea that we think we understand when we begin to educate someone, we're going to make somebody a doctor, but what does that mean? I'm not sure we even know, and a major part of the reason we developed the MOOC is to challenge our thinking around some of these ideas.
In the traditional course, and that includes the traditional online course as well as the traditional offline course in traditional education (Pape talked about it as well) we have this idea that there is the authority at the center who will throw content at you - lots of content, piles of books, piles of video, and hope some of it sticks.
Even the MOOCs, the Massive Open Online Courses, that have followed the MOOCs that were developed by George Siemens and myself, the courses offered by Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, and the rest are all based on the idea of some body of content.
Is being one being the same? That's kind of a hard question. It's not even clear what I mean when I ask that. Let's take doctors. Does being a doctor mean having exactly the same knowledge as every other doctor? No.
Pape told us quite reasonably, different people work in different contexts. If they all had the same knowledge they might be useful in one place, perhaps New York General Hospital, but not useful in another place like Moncton General Hospital where I live.
Two contexts, two ideas of doctor. Just throwing content at people, cannot be sufficient to create doctors. It's the same with being a Valencian, or being a pine tree, or being anything else. It's not just being the same thing. Is everybody in Valencia the same? As I walked all around the city yesterday, I can tell you they are not!
What is it to be a Valencian? Think about that. If we're trying to promote cultural awareness say, "What does that mean? Do you have everybody memorize the Valencia song?" No. George Siemens and I created the MOOC, the Massive Open Online Course, to challenge some of these ideas.
People often ask us, "What do you mean by MOOC?" We say, "Well, Massive Open Online Course." They say, "No. What do you mean by MOOC?" 
What I mean is massive, not massive in the sense that we saying not or that we reach 1,000, 10,000, 1 million people. Anything can be massive in that way. Sea weed is massive in that way. What I mean is massive by design, massive in the sense that it can continue to scale without losing its essential shape.
In a typical course, the more you scale, the more you begin to depend on the central professor, the more elevated the central professor gets, and at some point, you have this iconic figure at the front of the room talking to all the masses. That becomes something very different from education where it was just and your friends figuring out how to put a truck together.
Education changes. Traditional education changes when you make it massive. We wanted to design a system that could scale without changing the nature of learning.
Open, by open, we meant free, gratis, en fran├žais and libre. Free as in beer, free as in open, free as in the doors aren't closed. Free, as in you can do what you want with it.
By online, we meant online. The reason why we meant online is because we understood that if we required somebody to actually physically attend our classroom, people in Africa, and people in India, and people in Europe would not be able to take their course, and we wanted them to.
And course is certainly an odd thing, but a course is something really, very simple. A course is something that begins, something that ends, something that has a topic, and that's about it. You might ask, "Well, why courses? Why not communities, video collections or whatever?"
We wanted to have something small that you can involve yourself in without committing yourself to for the rest of your life. You join a community, you're stuck with it, but the course, you have the happy knowledge that eventually this course will end, and you're out of it.
This is what our Massive Open Online Course looks like. Our Massive Open Online Course has a little website in the middle, but mostly what the Massive Open Online Course is about is the set of interactions between the participants.
What we've done, very deliberately, in our open online courses, is to create this kind of network structure, so that the promotion of information, the distribution of content, is a very, very minimal part of what the online course is.
We've done a number of courses in this model. We began with the course called 'Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008,' and that's popularly known as the first MOOC. It became massive only by accident. We set it up, we expected about 22 students. We got about 2,200 students. We were very surprised by this, particularly since the topic isn't exactly widely popular. 'Connectivism and Connective Knowledge' who signs up for that? Artificial intelligence, yeah, I can get that.
We did more courses. We did one called "Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge," PLENK. George named that course. I had nothing to do with it (the name). We had a 30‑week marathon course called "Change," in which we learned that 30 weeks is too long to have a Massive Open Online Course. We had one on the future of higher education. We did that one with the Chronicle of Education, EDUCAUSE and the Gates Foundation. That was very short course. It was over before it even started.
Right now we've just, in the past week, launched a course in French, a French language course called REL, Ressources Educatives Libres, Open Educational Resources 2014. We have about 1,000 people attending this course.
We've got some experience behind this. We're beginning to figure out what it is that makes a MOOC work, what it is that makes a MOOC not work. We've applied these lessons to open online learning generally.
One of the things I've learned to expect in the first weeks of every single course that we offer are complaints. So many complaints the first week.
"Reading this course is like reading a dictionary," they say. Or there's always someone, "I can't find anything. Where's the nice, easy navigation?" Or there's always someone, "I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do. I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do."
Always people complaining. "There's too much content to read." I say, "Well, pick something then, and read that." "Just pick something." "No..."
In a sense, I don't blame them. I get it. It's confusing. It's hard. It's awkward. It would be so nice if we just gave you a series of videos and told you "Follow this path. Do this thing. This is the process. That's what we all want."
Instead we give them this. Look at that mess. That's the course we designed out of the box, and then we told our students ‑‑ our participants, as I prefer to call them ‑‑ to take that, and add on to that, however they wanted.
We did not want to tell them what to do. We had people create groups in Second Life. This was back in 2008. Second Life was still a thing. We had people create Google Groups in the REL course. That's happening right now. There are Google Groups set up. There's a Facebook group that's set up. There's a Twitter hashtag that people follow.
People spin off and create their own communities, their own version of this course. I try to convince Robert, who's my partner, Robert Gregoire, in presenting this course: people never go to the website. And it's true. They don't go to the website. They're too busy taking the course to go to the website.
People want process. Let's think about that. Is that how we become 'one'? Is that how we become a doctor? If we do the right things in the right order, that will make us a doctor. Does that seem right?
There's a whole school of thought, or multiple schools of thought, out there in the world. In the history of philosophy, different ways of defining identity. Operational. You are such‑and‑such if you do this kind of operation in this way.
Telephone operators are like that. I guess they don't do that anymore, but there used to be people in telephone offices that connected lines for you. They did everything very precisely, in the right way. I'm showing my age here.
Sometimes people define somebody in terms of the function or the purpose or the similarity of method that they use. We wonder is that what we mean. Is a doctor just a person who does things in the doctor method?
No. Not really. That's not really what we're training them to be. So there's got to be something more to learning to be a doctor than just serving the right function.
What about teleological? We hear this a lot. The course should have objectives, and if you satisfy those objectives, you will thereby have become a doctor or a Valencian or a pine tree or whatever.
But that doesn't work either. You can have all the objectives in the world, but still not be the thing that you wanted to be. Why not?
Philosophers have worried about this long before I have. There's a guy call Thomas Nagel. He looked at theories of identity based on operation, or function, or objective, or goal. He said, "These are empty because they miss the aspect of what it feels like."
I think that's pretty important. To be a Valencian is to feel like a Valencian. Isn't it? I don't really know what that feels like, because I know I'm not one.
He wrote a paper, Nagel did, called "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?" That's really interesting because we could do everything a bat does and still not know what it's like to be a bat, because there's a certain sense in which it feels like something to be a bat.
There's a whole basis for definitions of educational method based on feel like this. It's the idea of creating the experience of being such‑and‑such. You want to teach somebody to be a doctor? You create the experience of being a doctor. You want someone to be an entrepreneur? You create the experience of being an entrepreneur, very much like what we just heard.
There's a lot of merit and a lot of validity to that. This is where we see theories like discovery learning and experiential learning coming into play. I happen to think there's a lot to the idea of having the experience.
Thomas Kuhn ‑‑ who wrote "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" ‑‑ when he was asked, "What is to be a physicist?" He said, "Well, it's not knowing a whole bunch of things. It's seeing and feeling the world in a certain way. It's knowing how to answer the problems at the end of the chapter."
The problems at the end of the chapter never have anything to do with what's inside the chapter. If you've ever taken physics, you know what I mean. They're tests of a way of seeing the world, not just a reciting of facts.
What is it to create a doctor? What is it to create a Valencian? We create the experience.
I saw them doing that. In Valencia yesterday, I walked around the city, and in the air, they are throwing firecrackers and lot of firecrackers and having celebrations and eating in the sidewalk cafes in great big pans of paella. People are in the city learning what it feels like to be Valencian.
We have that aspect because it's a really important aspect in our MOOCs. The idea of creating this underlying network or layer of support that gives people the interaction and the experience that they need to have in order to feel like what it is to be such‑and‑such.
Our first course, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008, it was about being an educational technologist (we love recursion). We are teaching people how to be like us.
What we tried to do is create this experience and what it's like to be an educational technologist. We built the resources and we have people create their own resources. We set up this whole dynamic web.
From a provider perspective, this all makes a lot of sense. If you're seeing this from the perspective of the institution giving the learning, we're really on to something here. We have the students create content, we have students who are receiving content.
We have some course content that we're throwing into the mix. We have maybe events, recordings, all the elements there in our course of a whole community, really. Our course could be Valencia. It isn't obviously, but it could be.
All the structures are there, the experiences, the ways of speaking, the conversation with each other, the doing things, the making things, of finding your path around the city, all of that. We have created the experience of being an educational technologist. That's what we tried to do in the course.
But that's not enough. It turns out that our feelings are notoriously unreliable. I feel like I'm a doctor. I'm not. 
Think about personal identity. What makes you, you? Most people say, I feel, I have my memories. I have my thoughts, my stream of consciousness. Of course the first question that comes up is what happens to you when you're sleeping then? Where do you go? The feeling of something disappears. Our memories go away. What happens to them when we're not having them? Do they no longer exist? Simply, our sensation of the experience is not enough. We need to build more into it.
I'm glossing over a lot here. There have been over the 20th century two major approaches to this question, which I'll call 'The Big Answer' and 'The Small Answer'. Yes, I made those terms up at about 2 AM last night, and I'm very sorry. Now you know what I do the day before a talk.
The Big Answer is this. We have the experience. Think of it as a movie screen or a computer screen. It's in my head. We have the experience and what creates that experience is we turn the camera out into the world and our experience is of the world.
What we're doing as students is trying to make sense of that experience. That's an approach to education based in semiotics, in meaning, in context, in representation and it's an approach to education based on not just what we feel, but objective external fact. There is a lot of sense to it.
This is where we get things like social constructivism or even empiricism or logical positivism where there is learning. We are trying to construct, or make sense of, or make meaning out of the perceptions that we have out there of the world. That's the Big Answer.
I'm glossing over very quickly here, but this is fun.
What's the Little Answer? Instead of the camera pointing out there, you turn the camera in and point it in here. Why not? Here are our experiences. Whether we're pointed out there or pointed in here we know, we're going to see the same thing.
The littler answer is we're trying to make sense of our own awareness, our own cognition, our own understanding. The Little Answer is based on a primacy of reason, it's based on critical or digital or whatever literacy's. It's based on the idea that we can look at whatever our mental contents are and make sense of them.
Education is a process of making sense of these things. Sounds great. Social constructivism, neuro‑constructivism, it's a very popular approach to learning, so much better than dumping content on people, so much better than trying to make people just do the right functions, so much better than just experience, because now our experience has a context and a frame.
A significant part of the educational world is in agreement with this, and they have good reason to be. Frankly, this is where I think George Siemens is. George Siemens is smack dab in the middle of the Big Answer.
I think that his version of connectivism is social constructivist of some sort with a network overlay. I take it a step further, because here is my problem: there is no one to do the constructing.
Think about it. Here is my screen, here is my camera pointed out, pointing in. Who is doing the making of meaning? There isn't some other little guy looking at all my perceptions, figuring things out, because then he would have to have a camera too to look at my perceptions.
That's the problem with social constructivism. There is no constructor. There is no person other than the learner themselves to do the constructing. There is no little man, there is no camera. That picture I just gave you, the Big Answer and the Little Answer - take the camera away. There is no camera. There is no one to construct our representations for us.
Now I've just destroyed every educational theory there is, what's left? I'm very sorry about. What's left is this screen, except it's not just a screen. That's an idea from the 1,600s, this idea that there is this tabula rasa on which you have senses that make little impressions.
Actually, this is a very special kind of screen we have, which is our mind, our brain. It is in fact a self‑organizing network. Interestingly, so is Valencia, and interestingly, so is a group of crickets and indeed, pretty much any large number of things than can interact to together, are self‑organizing networks.
They are at once perceptual systems and reasoning systems. There is no constructor. The thing that has the feelings is also the thing that organizes the feelings. That makes sense doesn't it?
I know, I've got to tell you more of a story than it. I've got to prove it with numbers and logic. I've got to show you working examples. I get that. It's a half hour talk. You'd have to give me some slack.
How do these self‑organizing networks work? There are some design principles that make good ones as compared to bad ones. What's a good one, what's a bad one, we can talk about that.
In general, human neural networks, student educational experiences, the cities, ecosystems and anything else you want to create a network out of work better if they satisfy the following four criteria.
Autonomy, the individuals in the network makes their own decisions.
Diversity, being one isn't about being the same. Let me repeat. Being one isn't about being the same. Being a Valencian isn't about being the same, being a pine tree isn't about being the same, being a doctor isn't about being the same. Diversity, in fact, is what makes being doctors possible.
Interactivity, the knowledge created by a network is created by the interaction between its members and, as we would say, is emergent from its members and is not simply the propagation of one person's opinion to another, to another, to another, to another. Everybody contributes together to make knowledge.
There is no one person out there who is the person in charge of what it is to be a Valencian. This concept is ridiculous.
This is why when Pape says, everybody has something to contribute, everybody has something to contribute, because what it means to be a Valencian is determined by the totality of activities, thoughts, expressions, being of every single person in that city.
You take one person away, Valencia is different. Kind of an important realization. Your approach to learning changes when you realize that.
Finally, openness, because networks cannot work if they are closed. Networks cannot work if there are barriers to communication, if there are barriers to entry, if only some kind of messages are allowed.
These are the design principles. You don't have to like them. It's an empirical matter as to whether or not networks that have them function better. My proposition is take a bunch of networks, test them against these principles. You will find that they worked better if they're going to shape these principles. Don't trust me. Go test it.
That leads us to this concept of personal learning. What is personal learning? We talked about MOOCs, talked about it open online learning, all of that. I'm going all way from massive courses to talk about individual personal learning. Why? Because the approach of a MOOC is based on the idea that individual people as defined by that screen, that's self‑organizing screen are taking the course. This is the thing.
When we design these MOOCs, we realized every single person taking our course is going to be different. Some use Internet Explorer, some of them use Firefox, some use Opera, who knows why, some even use Safari (and nothing works in Safari! [laughter]). Different languages, different cultures. Some people want to get the knowledge, some people want to socialize, some people want to meet other people.
We had one person in our first course, the sole purpose of their membership in the course was to call George and I techno‑communists. That's what they wanted to do. That's cool. We've gave them their chance and they did that and everybody went on their way. The whole idea of the MOOCs the way we built it is based on the idea that each person is a self‑organizing, perceiving, and reasoning system of neurons (and the course as a whole each person is a self‑organizing, perceiving, and reasoning system of people).
In our MOOCs, there's no constructor of things. MOOCs (and people) are self‑organizing networks that process and organize perceptions in a natural automatic way given that they are provided proper nutrition, diversity, openness, autonomy, and the rest. 
From the student's perspective, if they're taking the MOOCs - reflect on your own experience here for a second - they're right at the center. Goodness, they might even be taking more than one MOOC at a time. From different institutions at the same time, I know it's heresy but they might be doing that. They might be communicating on WordPress or on Flickr delicious, posting videos on YouTube, but they're always at the center of their Internet sphere.
That's basically how we, in developing the next phase -  remember I promised a new technology after MOOCs - but here is what it looks like. It's really MOOCs Mark II, but now we're telling the story from the perspective, not of the education provider, but from the perspective of the individuals who are participating in the learning.
We understand that they are perceiving and reasoning self‑organizing networks. They will be coming into this with that capacity, but with those needs, and therefore what we're attempting to do, we're creating something called learning and performance support system (I'm really sorry about the name)  to provide that measure of support.
In practical concrete terms, technological terms, and I can only gloss over this at the center is a personal learning record where a person keeps their learning records and everything related to do with their learning. 
We have support for a resource repository network to access all of these resources out there in the world. A personal cloud to allow them to store their photos, videos, et cetera, wherever they want. 
A personal learning assistant (no we don't mean an iPod, no we don't mean an app) - what I mean is a way of projecting the capacities of this system of the personal learning environment and of the associated learning resources, MOOCs, et cetera into whatever environment they find themselves. Maybe it's into a mobile phone, maybe it's into a computer, maybe it's into a car. 
I like to tell the story of a fishing rod. The fishing rod is very smart. It's connected to your LPSS, to your personal learning environment, and your fishing rod would help you learn how to fish, and it will complain if you do it improperly. Fishing rods are known for having short tempers. 
And for what we call an automated competence development and recognition which is a long way for understanding and again come back to a path here. Understanding what the gaps are in our knowledge, what resources we need in order to obtain the knowledge, obtain the resources, become the kind of person we want, help us self organize into being whatever it is that we're trying to be.
There's some more organized description of the same project. The blue things there are the reserach projects that I've showed you, research repository networks, and the rest. We're working with different organizations and companies to provide extensions of the service and we're working with education providers and the rest of the Internet in order to connect up the learning resources that are available around the world, from different MOOCs and different learning providers into each individual person's personal learning environment.
So what is it to be 'one' after all that? 
In a sense, to be one is to know that you are one, to know that you're a doctor, to know that you're a Valencian. 
But what does that mean? If you look at how these self‑organizing, perceiving, reasoning networks worked, basically what they are - and I'm glossing - they're pattern recognizers. Now that's a simple two word explanation and more complex functionality, but it will do.
So, if you're Valencian (are any of you Valencian here? How many of you are Valencian? One, two, three)  you recognize that building (don't you? I assume you do because you're really a bad example if you don't) and the point here is that there isn't some sort of set of conditions, set of sameness, functionality, all that big long, long definition, et cetera. You look at the building you recognize it. How does that happen? Because you're self‑organizing, perceiving, reasoning neuro‑network is the kind of think that recognizes things. 
How does one doctor know that another person is a doctor? The doctor recognizes another doctor. To be one is to know. To know that one is a doctor, a Valencian or whatever is to recognize that they are. It's a matter of pattern recognition, a perceptual property. 
And finally to be one is to be you. Now, everybody talked about massive open online learning. I don't care about the massiveness of open online learning. It's important - that there are seven billion people in the planet, whatever we do has got to work for everyone of them - but it's only going to work for every one of them, one person at a time. There's no other way of doing it. 
 There's no other way of doing it because there's no other way that's going to be genuine. There's no other way that's going to be effective. What makes the MOOCs special is that each person taking the MOOCs makes it their own. They create and shape their own learning according to thier own needs and their own interests, their own values, their own objectives. And that to me is what learning and education is all about.
So I hope you're thinking about these things. The different ways of knowing how something is one, the different ways of knowing whether you've trained someone to be a doctor, incultured them into being a Valencian, or just persuaded them to recognize pine trees.
Think about these things as is hear the presentation and think about the views of learning in education underlying the different presentations that you'll hear over the next three days. These slides and way too many more presentations are all available on my website and I thank you for your kind and patient attention.


  1. Great ideas Stephen, thank you for sharing/teaching/communicating. It's a little difficult to get the idea of learning networks (courses and educational environment) working for and on the basis of neural networks (our minds). I hope my neural network can recognize this pattern correctly. There are still a couple of questions that make me write here: 1) Is it a kind of fractal structure when a part (a person's mind) is to some degree similar to the whole (the learning network)? 2) If yes, can we think about the learning network as about a sort of mind?

  2. While it's tempting to say there is a fractal structure wherein the patterns in an individual mind reflect the patterns of society-wide knowledge, I'm inclined to think that such a relationship isn't the case, because a fractal structure is created through a reiteration of the same algorithm or function across fractions of the original structure, and I don't think any such sfunction operates on both society and individual minds.

  3. Probably very simplistic but are we looking here at self organised learning groups who are brought in contact via the platform and use the MOOC as a common resource?

  4. Probably very simplistic but are we talking here about the formation of new style self organised learning groups who are "brought together" via the platform and use the MOOC as a common resource? If this is successful, are there implications for other types of self organised learning groups which may have formed in other ways?

  5. That's a fair description. I'm not sure of the other self-organized learning groups - I think they would see this as a tool to augment their existing communities.

  6. MOOCS is pretty much like cooking shows in some cable tv. You start looking at them wanting to learn something to improve your next meal. Everything looks easy to do, you believe you have all the tools inside the house, but suddenly somebody comes up with the need for a special Guatemalan pepper, or a brown sugar made in Jamaica. "No problem", thinks the audience, just order it thru the internet from…Well, that’s the problem: No matter which teaching school or ideology prepared you for the ongoing life learning, there is a limit. This limit is the noise that gets into the context of the message you were delivering. The noise has mostly the concreteness of a couch. The question is if we want to help them find the right links to keep moving, or just wait for the good participants to filter the noise down.

  7. I like the idea of 'massive' being individualistic. From experience, I do wonder whether the average student will see the benefits and how they will cope with self-direction and organisation. Likewise, the 'must have' drive institutions appear to be adopting may detract from this idyll. Nevertheless, I am inspired by your ideas and plan to take them forward.


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