What exactly is a MOOC?

I contemplated the title of this post for a few minutes before I started to pen it. After publishing a white paper on the subject, speaking at the Learning Technologies exhibition, hosting multiple webinars, and writing a couple of articles, was I getting back to basics?

The trigger for this post was an ex-colleague’s blogpost, Learning with a MOOC vs. Learning on an LMS, in which she admits that she first thought a MOOC was something like an learning management system (LMS), but later realized it is not.

No, a MOOC is not an LMS, but it is most often hosted on one. And, in the early days, around 2012, even George Siemens described MOOCs as a platform (Read MOOCs are really a platform), as in that is something that is much larger than just a course, but I still had trouble accepting them as a platform, solely because they brought together so many other platforms. So, I went about using terms such as an environment or ecosystem. At one point, I even wrote about MOOCs as an experiment, until I finally settled on referring to them as a “model” once I put together TIS’ Fish Tank model for designing a MOOC.

The instructional world around me appeared content with this new terminology, but to the business world, especially the eLearning savvy business world, it still did not make sense. To them, a “massive online course” was a far more easy-to-digest definition than an ecosystem or a model (that too with fishes in it!).

Then it dawned on them that other than the massiveness and openness, a MOOC appears to be like any other online course that sits on an LMS. “So, how is it different from an eLearning course?” asked many a client-facing sales agent.

“Well, it might help if you, just for some time, stop thinking about it as a ‘course’.” I suggested subtly, only to realize I’d thrown a bomb at them.

“What?” was the only bewildered response, they could utter.

Well, yes MOOCs are online courses available on an open platform, so anyone can join without any prequalification, often for free. And they are massive, as there is no limit to how many people can enroll for these courses.  But what makes them different, and disrupting (?), is the approach to both designing MOOCs and learning from them.

And thankfully, when I recently participated in a corporate MOOC, I got to hear something on similar lines from none other than Eliott Masie, and I quote him ….

“I am intrigued by MOOCs … because they are for me one of the learning disrupters … I mean a technology or a methodology, an innovation, a venture funded approach, an assumption, or a service that attempts to change, to swing around, to shift elements of what we do….”

So, when I now talk about a MOOC, I describe it as a “methodology”—an approach that brings together existing content from various sources and in various formats, allows for collaboration among participants, and thrives on curation of content.

So, there is a structure, and yet there is no structure, which in turn makes the learning a very unique and individualized experience. As a learner, you can walk into a MOOC with a multitude attachments – your blogs, twitter handles, social profiles, resources that interest you – and likewise, you walk out with multitude attachments – your very own custom and personalized package of social connections, content, knowledge, resources, and most importantly – a very personal and unique experience!

So, it’s the experience of being totally in control of your learning and choosing what you want to learn, from whom, where, when, and how is what defines a MOOC.

So, if you want to really know what is a MOOC, I’d say – go experience one!


The Corporate MOOC

Can MOOCs be the trigger to fully engage Senior Execs in continuous self-development?

In his speech on my company, Tata Interactive System’s, annual party earlier this year, my CEO, Sanjaya Sharma, when talking about current exciting times and the fast changing landscape of the ed-tech world with the entry of the likes of wearable technology et al, went on to share his experience with one of the latest phenomena in the education world – MOOCs. He reflected on the past couple of decades by stating “… there was a time when I thought of something I wanted to know more about, I ‘googled’ … and now I ‘MOOC’.”

I promptly nodded my head in agreement. The MOOC is no longer only an acronym; it is already a verb.

After a sort of longish journey through a plethora of debates and debacles in the higher ed world, MOOCs are now propping up in the corporate world. Will they work?

Well, it has taken some time to realize that those very characteristics that are unique to a MOOC (their massiveness, openness, connectedness, and their online format) and are not (yet?) working as intended in the academic world could actually find application in the real world.

The corporate world has a large population to train or up-skill; there is almost always a dearth of facilitators; taking time out for training has always been a constraint; and most importantly, there has always been a desire to foster peer-to-peer coaching and learning amongst the corporate learners. So, why not?

With this background, I decided to go back to my white paper on Instructional Design for MOOCs and pondered over whether the same design philosophy that I had chalked out for MOOCs in the higher ed world could also work for the corporate learners.

Meanwhile, Joanna Kori, who has joined us as a Learning Consultant in the UK read my white paper and came back with some constructive feedback, which, in turn, started a series of debates and discussions on the topic. With choices between two extremes—a purely behaviorist approach that xMOOCs (the more popular variety of MOOCs offered by companies such as Coursera, edX et al) tend to follow and the very chaotic and disorganized approach of a cMOOC (connectivist MOOCs pioneered by well-known researcher and theorist George Siemens and his colleagues Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier), both of us agreed on a middle path, albeit slightly tilted toward the connectivist model.

At this point, Sahana Chattopadhyay, my colleague and another experienced ID, joined our discussions, bringing in her vast social media experience gained during her prior tenure as an L&D Consultant and Community Manager.

Charged with extremely valuable inputs from both these ladies, I was finally able to come up with a model –the Fish Tank model – for a corporate MOOC.

mooc-eco for blog

On 6th March 2014, Tata Interactive Systems called for a Webinar to present this model to the outside world including our corporate clients. Interesting comments and questions poured in from the audience, confirming the need to start designing custom MOOCs for corporates.

To know more about how our Corporate MOOC model can be used to engage senior executives in continuous self-development, access the recording of our Webinar at http://youtu.be/ZfsB-7js958

MOOCs as an Experiment

From among the providers of MOOCs, edX is more actively focused on treating MOOCs as an experiment—to better the quality of education. And, as a step forward in their endeavor, they recently announced a partnership with Google to build and operate MOOC.org, an open source learning platform. Read the press release or visit MOOC.org for more.

Coming back to the mission of improving learning, let’s run through the many initiatives—some predicted as disruptive—currently buzzing in the higher ed world. MOOCs and Adaptive Learning (and therefore learning analytics) usually top the list; another effort that is notable is the move toward competency-based education, and catching up with these efforts are digital badges for informal learning. Incidentally, WCET, the Mozilla Foundation, Blackboard, Inc., and Sage Road Solutions LLC are running a 6-Week long MOOC exploring badges as the emerging currency for professional credentials.

Additionally, the Innovating Pedagogy Report (2013) by the Open University lists the following themes: Seamless Learning (which I’d call “learning on the go”), Crowd Learning, Digital Scholarship, Geo Learning, Learning from Gaming, Maker Culture, and Citizen Inquiry.

Of all the innovations listed, the report clearly outlines MOOCs and Learning analytics with silver linings but also goes on to note that for these innovations to succeed, they need to complement formal education, rather than disrupt it.

“By bringing together MOOCs (as massive test beds for experiment outside traditional education) and learning analytics (as the means to provide dynamic evidence of the effectiveness of different teaching and learning methods) there is an opportunity for rapid, evidence-informed innovation on a grand scale” concludes the report. It describes MOOCs as an innovating pedagogy that brings together other innovations. Indeed, the integration of all these innovations so as to make them work in tandem is what forms the blueprint of the future learning ecosystem.

So let’s look at some of the various on-going experiments with MOOCs …

1. Awarding Badges: Early this year, the OLDS MOOC focusing on curriculum design for OERs experimented with awarding badges, which were also compatible with the Mozilla Open Badge Backpack. In a way, badges serve MOOCs well as they help recognize learner efforts (and achievements) in the course (thereby taking away the burden of formalizing every single MOOC with certification) and also help enhance the engagement levels, which in turn should improve completion rates. Badges have multiple uses – from the learning provider side, badges can help faculty and universities identify the right candidates for enrolment and further engagement to prepare them for careers; from the learner side, they will be able to demonstrate skills and granular learning, even the learning acquired on the job.

2. Integrating Social Media: From using hashtags to facilitate discussions on Twitter, to sharing on a variety of platforms such as Flickr, and forming online communities, faculty have already started to experiment with social media in their classrooms and online courses. Given that the millennials live and breathe social media, teachers have found this as a means to engage students actively in the learning and to help them generate newer ideas. A recent post titled “5 technologies to promote creative learning” on the Learning with ‘e’s blog by Steve Wheeler (an Associate Professor at Plymouth University) presents some good examples of how infusing wikis, twitter, and video mashups can take the learning experience a step further.

3. Mobile Learning: FutureLearn, the UK-based MOOC provider, has already announced that their MOOCs will be optimized for mobile devices, and in a recent interview, Daphne Koller stated that Coursera has started building up a mobile-devices team. Making a full course available on a mobile device and designing for mobile, however, are two different things. My colleague Tanya D’souza from Tata Interactive Systems has made an attempt to differentiate between the two in her white paper on “Creating Mobile Learning That Works.”

4. Gamification: Anant Agarwal of edX often talks about integrating the principles of gaming and interaction into MOOCs. In my white paper on “Designing MOOCs,” I’ve also listed some benefits of integrating sophisticated e-learning technologies such as games, simulations, and 3D into learning. Here’s a useful video I found on YouTube of Amy Jo Kim, CEO, Shufflebrain, talking about core concepts for smart gamification.

5. Learning Analytics: The current MOOC platforms are all capturing volumes of student data and claiming to using this data for research and examining the fundamentals of learning. The NMC Horizon Report of 2011 noted that the time to adoption for learning analytics will be about 4-5 years. A lot has happened since then. Here’s a blog post that delves into details, of particularly two components: machine grading and learning analytics, of edX’s technology platform.

How can we get more serious about MOOCs?

MOOCs currently are able to retain only a small percentage of their students through to completion. Is this mostly because the courses are free, and therefore students are not serious enough? And would adding a small fee bring in the required seriousness? And if the courses are not free then would they still qualify as MOOCs?

When I sought the views of John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, Albany, New York, on this burning issue of low completion rates, he stated …

In my opinion there are multiple reasons for the low completion rates (under 10%) of MOOCs.

    The participant is not truly interested in the topic but wants to see what all the hoopla is about.
    With no psychological or financial investment, it is easy for the participant to become engaged in other activities/interests.
    Work is too hard for the participant’s level of preparation.
    Participant is fatigued by the lack of instructional diversity and the absence of any meaningful engagement with either the instructor or the material. Methodology feels more like a classroom lecture on steroids with all interaction taking place, or not, with peers.

Incidentally, the companies offering MOOCs do not consider the high dropout rates a cause for concern. Anant Agarwal, the founder of edX, in an interview with The Economist says …

…we should put this number in perspective…if you look at traditional universities…some of our top universities accept between 5-10% of the students that apply… with MOOCs…anyone can sign up…even the fact that 5-30% are successfully completing what are high quality hard courses, I’d view that as a really good thing…

So alright, we are now looking at the number in perspective. But are the two scenarios—one of a traditional university accepting a small percentage of student applicants and the other of a MOOC being able to retain only a small percentage of enrolled students— comparable?

Furthermore, if these 70-95% of students who dropout are the ones who were not truly interested in the topic, then there should not be much cause for concern from academic and pedagogic perspectives. But even if a small percentage of the 70-95% dropouts were truly interested in the subject but dropped out because they couldn’t cope with either the subject matter or the format, or because in spite of their interest, got engaged in other activities and were therefore not able to commit their undivided attention to the course, then I believe we do have a problem at hand.

So, what is the solution?

University of Maryland University College (UMUC) recently announced that they will give credit to some MOOCs but will evaluate these first. I presume the students aspiring to earn these credits will surely be serious about the courses. So, should each MOOC find a university that gives it some credit to be taken seriously?

In my white paper on “Designing MOOCs,” the focus has been on the design, and therefore the engagement level for learners in a MOOC environment. So, if engaging interventions such as games and simulations are used to enhance the learning experience, would the completion rates improve?

And finally, should completion rates be measured on the basis of what the students want to learn, rather than how many students enroll? A prerequisite test or an initial survey to find out whether the course would meet student expectations and likewise whether the student has the prerequisite for the course will allow an early filtering to ensure only the interested students sign up and complete the course.

Designing MOOCs

A White Paper on Instructional Design for MOOCs

The year 2012 saw a “massive” boom in the higher education world, making MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses—the new buzzword. From talks by educators in ed-tech conferences and forums to media reporting and micro blogging by thought leaders, just about everyone connected to the world of higher education has been talking about MOOCs since then.

And rightly so. Hyped or not, MOOCs are bringing about a revolution in education, a thought affirmed by forerunners like Andrew Ng, Director, Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and Co-Founder of Coursera, who says …

“When one professor can teach 50,000 people, it alters the economics of education.”

 –  Andrew Ng
Director, Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and Co-Founder of Coursera

Indeed. So, if MOOCs are going to disrupt traditional education, then shouldn’t there be some deeper thinking around their design and development? Although the content is drawn up by subject matter experts (faculty), just how much thought is given to pedagogical and instructional design issues? Are MOOCs even reviewed for quality before they go public?

Not all MOOCs—especially the ones that are informal—probably need to go through a thorough and formal cycle of review for conformance to quality. However, if a university is considering offering MOOCs as part of their formal curriculum, would it then not be worthwhile to develop a pedagogy that is unique to the institute and that delivers a quality product to their learners, even if it does so free of cost?

This white paper draws attention to some of the design and quality aspects of MOOCs and goes on to propose an instructional design philosophy that integrates sophisticated e-learning technologies (interactive content, games, simulations, story-based approach et al) to enhance the design of MOOCs and take them a notch higher in terms of learner engagement.

Given the buzz around them, this white paper assumes that the readers from higher education are familiar with the basic definition of a MOOC. The white paper, therefore, starts off with only a brief introduction to the different types of MOOCs, more so to differentiate the more popular xMOOCs from the original cMOOCs. Thereafter, the paper remains focused on design and quality aspects of MOOCs.

In the end, a critical question—whether every university should offer its own MOOC—is raised. A question that can be answered best by the specific institute; the paper, however, presents some thoughts from articles and posts on this specific question, and then goes on to explore possible business models and partnerships a university can get into for developing a unique MOOC that could, in fact, become a signature course for the university.

Read the full white paper at http://bit.ly/14rvLkz

View a preview video at http://bit.ly/10V49Hb