Science and Society

I was asked:

I'm a second-year student at Sciences Po Paris on the Nancy French-German campus. As part of a research project on the link between science and society, I'm working with a small group of other students on the concept of MOOCs. Therefore, I have been reading a lot about how they work and the different objectives behind their use.
 
I was wondering if it would be possible for you to explain, even in a short way by mail, what was the original idea that led you and Mr. Siemens to starting the project. Do you feel that this sentence: "In his work as a professor, Stephen Downes used to feel that he was helping those who least needed it. His students at places like the University of Alberta already had a leg up in life and could afford the tuition.", published in an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education on the 29 August 2010, reflects your original idea?  
 
Do you think MOOCs can really change the future of higher education? Could they just be instrumentalized? 


The Chronicle quote expresses a part of it. This is my motivation for working toward open education and open educational resources. I have been campaigning for access to education for a very long time (to be precise, since September of 1981, when I wrote my first (student newspaper) article on education funding. It was a struggle for me to access higher education, and expenses (including tuition) were always a struggle. For most of my student days I also worked on various jobs (dishwasher, store clerk, janitor, editor) to make ends meet. I met a lot of people who were just as qualified as I was to attend post-secondary education but who were not able to for social and economic reasons.

The other part of it explains how I felt access could be provided. Part of this is open source software and shareware, which I had used since my early days on a computer. Starting in 1980 I worked on computer programming, and in 1981 was exposed to 'Adventure', an online game propagated by sharing on mainframe computers (I was in Texas on a three-month training program for Texas Instruments). When I was tutoring for Athabasca University in 1988 or so I set up a Maximus Bulletin Board Service, using shareware, to try to reach students. This interest in computers in open education convinced me that they could be used to provide access beyond what in-person classes could provide. I pursued this thereafter, creating a compugraphics course, creating MUDs, and creating websites. In the 1990s, working at Assiniboine Community College, I drove around in a van filled with a computer network to remote communities and First Nation reserves in Manitoba introducing them to what the internet could do.

The other part of that explanation addresses networks and connectivism directly. While in university I studied philosophy, and in particular, the processes of learning, inference and discovery. I became convinced that cognitivist approaches were wrong (there is no brain writing; we don't have propositions in the brain). The network approach gradually emerged as the alternative - I had worked on it on my own for many years, creating concept maps, developing a 'logic of modification', etc., and then saw Francisco Varela give a talk at the University of Alberta hospital on networking and the immune system, which opened the doors. I followed up reading Rumelhard and MacClelland, and attending a Connectionism conference in Vancouver in 1990, and developed a network-based approach from there, incorporating the web, RSS, email newsletters, and other decentralized and distributed practices. This eventually merged with what George Siemens was doing and became connectivism.

The course itself was George's idea. He had run a successful online connectivism conference in 2007 and wanted to offer a course on connectivism at the university of Manitoba in 2008, and asked if I would co-teach it. I agreed on condition that it be an open course, and suggested that we run it as the first 'connectivist' course, the idea being to illustrate through practice what the theory described in principle. This meant it would be a distributed network-based course, that people would create their own blogs, that we'd use RSS and email, etc. He set up a Moodle installation and took care of the 'official' side of the course for the University; I designed the distributed parts, RSS aggregator, newsletter, etc., and we both participated in discussions and live webinars with guests (Dave Cormier helped us with this as well). We did not expect the course to become massive, but because of the way we had set up up, as a decentralized course, the course easily scaled, and became the first MOOC (so named by Save Cormier and Bryan Alexander in an online discussion (in Ed Tech Talk, I believe) about the course).

Can the MOOC change the future of higher education? I think it already has. It entrenched the idea of open online learning as mainstream, disproving the idea that it would be necessary to charge tuition for an online course. There had been free courses before - I remember taking a massive email-based course in the 1990s welcoming people to the internet. There had also been free online learning resources before and even free self-study courses. What made this different is that it was a course in the traditional sense, with pacing, with live events, and with (a lot!) of interaction among the participants. The course disproved the idea that only higher education institutions could provide the social aspects of an online course, and was the first to show it could be done in a scalable and massive fashion (as it had already been done in sites like SlashDot and WebReference, etc). These ideas are mainstream today, but they were inconceivable in 2008.

I think the influence of the MOOC over the long term may be even deeper. We are today weeing the dangers and weakness of centralized social networks online. The centralized MOOC (as exhibited in Coursera and Udacity) could not sustain a business model; it was many times more expensive to host than our decentralized course (since most of the activity took place on the students' own websites). So they have retreated from open online education, while decentralized courses continue to be offered informally and for free. And we don't need to worry about whether a course is massive or not because we have not invested hundreds of thousands of dollars creating materials in advance; open online learning is based on open educational resources, which people are now beginning to realized are best created and managed as a decentralized community-based resource. And the idea of a decentralized web is being explored by many people as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter - things like #indieweb and Mastodon / Activity Feed, etc. are being developed as alternatives - these are not really influenced by the MOOC in particular, but have the same origins as the MOOC, and benefit from open online learning.

And that's probably the final point. MOOCs were one part of a much larger story, a story that begins on one hand with shareware and bulletin board services and mixtapes, a story that includes cooperative networks and community organizers, a story that includes the study of computer networks, artificial neural networks, and community-based networks, a story that includes a mental puzzle about the bridges of Konigsburg, the synchronous chirping of crickets, the study of immunology, the creation of web-rings and content syndication, and (in my case) the story of someone observing the difference between being able to access an education, and in being denied that access. This is an important point to understand, because an emphasis of any one part of this fabric as 'instrumental' will not be effective without explicit recognition that it is embedded in this entire fabric, and that you can control or direct this network, that's not how it works, you can only be a part of this network and endeavour to make it better.

I hope this helps answer your question.


-- Stephen



('Science and Society' was the subject line of the email, and I assume the title of the course being taken'. I looked up the reference to the article to add the link to this post.).
 

Comments

  1. Thank you for this Stephen, I wasn't part of that first MOOC back in 2008 but sure wish that I had been there.

    My roots and background in open source since the early 90s and helping to run BBS systems and user communities (Amiga User group in Victoria, BC) back in the 80s were part of the formation of my views and practices in open education locally since I started teaching full time here in México back in 1995. I was always the outlier pushing the use of open source software for programming as well as for services in educational technology. Sometimes I feel smug or vindicated that others around me see that but then I kick myself since that isn't the point.

    All of this background work are the support structure with the much needed work going forward in making educational (in all its forms) accessible through open resources and practices.Thank you for this Stephen, I wasn't part of that first MOOC back in 2008 but sure wish that I had been there. My roots and background in open source since the early 90s and helping to run BBS systems and user communities (Amiga User group in Victoria, BC) back in the 80s were part of the formation of my views and practices in open education locally since I started teaching full time here in México back in 1995. I was always the outlier pushing the use of open source software for programming as well as for services in educational technology. Sometimes I feel smug or vindicated that others around me see that but then I kick myself since that isn't the point.

    All of this background work are the support structure with the much needed work going forward in making educational (in all its forms) accessible through open resources and practices.

    Cheers and thanks to whomever brought the question that led to this post.

    Cheers and thanks to whomever brought the question that led to this post.

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