Reviving the MOOC

This article was created as a response to Dhawal Shah in EdSurge on A Proposal to Put the 'M' Back in MOOC. I actually typed the article into the comment form on the article, but it only allows posts from people who are logged into Facebook, which I refuse to do.

When we created the first MOOC in 2008 the idea was to recreate the concept of the 'course of lectures' from the traditional university.

On this model, students are responsible for their own education, often forming communities or societies to collaborate. Professors typically worked one-on-one with students, but from time to time would be enlisted to offer a series - or 'course' - of lectures on a given topic. The lectures could be (and often were) public, and were frequently attended by other professors in the same field.

The purpose of these lectures wasn't to serve up content for the students to remember. It was to give them food for thought, which they would take back to their own communities and debate. Students would bring in additional resources, contribute to the discussions, and over time, develop their own thoughts and theses (which they would eventually publish, and this thesis would be the basis for their examination and graduation).

When we set up our MOOC, it was set up as a series of discussions with guest lecturers. George and I (and sometimes Dave) would facilitate the discussion, converse with the guest, sometimes invite participants to converse, and later in the same week, would offer up our own thoughts on the topic. There was no prepared curriculum (other than the list of topics each guest would cover). It was all 'in the moment', which is what made it exciting and engaging.

The single best extension of the model, in my mind (and one which we never successfully emulated) was the 'assignment bank' from Jim Groom's DS106 (also supported by Alan Levine and Grant Potter). The idea was that students would create relevant activities (usually some form of digital storytelling) as 'assignments' and upload the description to the assignment bank; students in the course would then complete the assignment and upload the results somewhere and share the URL with DS106 participants. That's where my 'LetsMakeSomeArtDammit' blog came from.

The xMOOCs which followed (Stanford AI, EdX, etc) took some of the concepts we had developed, along with the name 'MOOC', and broke the model. They broke it in several ways:

- they depended mostly on pre-recorded videos for content (following the Khan Academy) model. This was content that was intended to be 'learned' by students.

- they dispensed pretty much entirely with the community or society model of learning, and eliminated almost completely the self-management by learners in the course

- the assignments were created centrally and became the means of assessment in the course

- they commercialized and monetized the course (as opposed to the education) which meant that progressively less and less of the course experience was freely accessible.

I think that universities (especially the 'elite' universities) have lost the plot when it comes to their value proposition (or, at least, what they tell the world their value proposition is). They are not (and never have been) selling 'courses'. It's not even clear that they have been selling 'degrees' (though many would say that's what they're buying from the universities).

They're selling two things:

- access to the top researchers in the field. This access isn 't a 'teaching' presence, it's access to the model and examples of the thinking and work undertaken by these researchers, and in the more elite universities, one-on-one access to the researcher him or her self.

- access to a community of like-minded individuals organizing their studies around the scholars assembled at the university

The outcome of this model is not necessarily a degree or certificate (though recognition by these same scholars that you've successfully defended your thesis is certainly of value and would automatically open doors for you at the same or other institutions, as well as in government and private industry).

The outcome is a deep and current education in a topic, a track record of some relevant contributions to that field, and association with a community that will continue to support its members and their work into the various professions.

Note that none of these are offered by the xMOOC. And note that they are (to more or less a degree) exactly what our MOOCs provided. We (had we ever been given the opportunity) would have created the business proposition very differently.

- participating institutions pay for the MOOC, and in particular, the technical infrastructure and the time it takes for researchers to participate (note that this is contingent on the professors actually being researchers)(also note that there are no 'levels of instruction' - the 'levels' are determined through the organization of the community or the society, not the teaching of the course)(by 'participating institutions' I mean not only universities but also governments and industries who see value in this particular line of enquiry).

- the university and the professor offer access to one-on-one (and possible small circle) consultations for a fee such that these fees offset the cost of the salary and support for the MOOC (this is a model that can be refined in numerous ways, from the very good (professors organizing themselves into self-managing cooperatives, which were the basis for traditional universities) to the very bad (an Uber of professors) - we have to be careful how we structure this.

- for lower fees, the universities offer facilitation for students communities and societies - these would be offered by higher level students and would include tutorial sessions and other activities to help lower-level students participate more fully in the courses

- while fees could be charged directly for access to professors, the more common (and preferred) model would be via sponsorship (by employers, by governments, etc.) and student participation would often occur alongside employment, internship or apprenticeship in some profession or discipline

The model I'm describing is based on the growth and development of the individual, rather than the idea of stuffing them full of facts. It is based on the idea that education is a cultural and social activity as well as a cognitive activity. It is a model that creates value for the participant immediately, rather than deferring that value to the conclusion of a very long and expensive process. And evaluation is based on actual contributions to the community, rather than through testing or some other sort of game.

If I were ever given the opportunity to manage an institution's online program, this model is more or less what I would do.


  1. I so appreciate the framing of this history for the oMOOC (Original) as "courses of lectures" which seems not focused on the lectures but the discussions generated.

    And thanks for the mention of the ds106 assignment bank (a concept I seem to suggest in every project) but I must make a small historical credit. Grant Potter was definitely part of the foundation, but his great contribution was DS106 Radio. The person who credit for the Assignment Bank must go to is Martha Burtis who did this and more for co-creating DS106, but she's often invisible in the Shadow of Groom. I did the archeology on the Assignment Bank history:

    I dream that someone would fund you to roll out the model described, maybe it's a dMOOC (Downsian) not that it would likely overtake the xMOOC Hype Train (which all its is shiny conductors have jumped off the train, i just keeps rolling through burgs like EdSurge).


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