Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Forget The Business Case, Open Online Courses Are About Learning

Monday 16 April 2012
Will Massive Open Online Courses replace the conventional system? Probably not, but they can offer something different, says Bonnie Stewart

Ever since MITx was unveiled last December, futurists have been predicting what it might all mean for higher education. They're calling it "The Great Disruption", a brand name worthy of Nostradamus. The Globe and Mail says it's about time. The Atlantic is envisioning a post-campus America.

For those of us actually enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses, though – or those like me who have enlisted both to teach and learn within these experimental course environments – this great disruption feels more like an augmentation than anything else.


Moocs do disrupt business as usual, yes. Those of us in the #change11 Mooc are engaged in the course at no cost, and nobody except us is holding our learning or performance to any particular external standards. Unlike MITx, the 36 week #change11 course offers no credential. These factors all make it a significantly different experience from studying at my bricks-and-mortar university.

What #change11 gives me, though, is access to a multitude of semi-organised ideas and expert facilitators, plus a semi-coherent network of peers to work through the weeks with. That network remains largely stable even as topics and facilitators rotate weekly.

It is this participatory element – the being part of a large, distributed network of people from varied backgrounds, focusing on the same topic – that enables open online experiences to offer value, even to those of us already studying in conventional institutions. That, and the speed and flexibility inherent in networked learning.


The Mooc augments my PhD studies by making it possible for me to be a public thinker and learner; by giving me up-to-the-minute access to the conversations shaping and driving my field, and the opportunity to participate in these conversations. They are available on the wider internet, certainly. But Moocs help curate and cohere them, and also overtly create them. Moocs don't just bring disparate networks and opportunities into focus; they carve out explicit teaching and learning spaces within the information overload of contemporary social media.


And with Moocs, those of us acculturated to academia have the opportunity to learn new, responsive, participatory ways of fostering public knowledge, both inside and outside of traditional institutions. The disruption may be profound, certainly. But so may be the possibilities.


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