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.