Aalto University Design educational tool Open Source

MOOCs or orchestrated jazzy learning with the Web?

In many things the middle is the best. MOOCs versus no MOOCs? The Web is the best.

Photo by synestheticstrings / Wikimedia Commons.

The massive open online courses are seen by some as a disruptive innovation in education. For instance, Michael Barber and his fellow lobbyists of the Pearson recently published a booklet with a provocative title: An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead. In it the authors give advice for the university leaders:

“University leaders need to take control of their own destiny and seize the opportunities open to them through technology – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for example – to provide broader, deeper and more exciting education.”

The advice is interesting. Broader, deeper and more exciting education with technology? Yes. With MOOCs? Not sure.

Most people agree that there is a lot of room to develop MOOC pedagogy. Distance courses have been organized for close to 300 years. Online learning over Internet (often called eLearning) is close to 20 years old. Neither, the distance courses over mail, radio, TV or the eLearning with Internet, have been great success stories. The main criticism has been that there is a lack of (human) interaction. Those MOOCs that are now emphasizing communities, peer evolution and group work tasks are trying to do get this right.

With the eLearning and most of the MOOCs there seems to be one major problem: poor understanding of the nature of the Web and how to use it most efficiently in teaching and learning.

The people promoting connectivist MOOC (also called cMOOCs) claim that the cMOOCs are a platform that “emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning“. Maybe.

These MOOC enthusiasts seems to believe that the opportunity itself will make people autonomous, creative and social and that every person have this character. I agree — partly. All people are creative, autonomy, and social. The challenge is that most of us have a life history that has shape us not to be creative, autonomous or even social.

The MOOC developers should pay a special attention to find ways to support human beings that do not have pre-existing, internal motivation to be creative, autonomous and/or social. In this task the traditional schools, colleagues and universities are, at least in average, doing much better job than the MOOCs. Not all of them, but many. The key in the case of the schools, colleagues and universities is to be a community: a social network where people respects and cares about each other and support each other in their attempt to be autonomous learners.

Many schools, colleagues and universities are also today magnificently using the Web to achieve these objectives. For instance, my university provides for the academic staff a service to find interesting contacts to study and works with, a blog service, a wiki platforms and mailing lists. Maybe a bit surprisingly we also have pretty classical order and discipline management that do not want to provide these services for students.

With the tools we can orchestrate learning on the Web. We can orchestrate learning but still keep it free for improvisation. That is why I call it orchestrated jazzy learning.

We can have a blog for the study project, ask students to share their essays and other creations on a wiki, ask students to share their projects online have discussion on a forum on urgent matters in the community, use Twitter and Facebook to share our work and to facilitate discussion with a wider audience. Depending on the direction people takes in the course, as some kind of jazz collective, and depending on the respond we get from our “audience” we improvise.

Why it is so difficult to have MOOCs that would work this way?

The difference is in the number of strong and weak links. In MOOCs there are thousands of weak links — links between the people participating in the course. In an orchestrated jazzy learning with the Web in a campus university there are many strong links (your class, your teachers, your department, your lab) and many weak links (practically everyone in the world who is interested in).

There are, however, examples of building strong links online, too. Howard Rheingold’s Rheingold U is a good example of an online community with strong links too. The Rheingold U alumni have, for instance, co-authored the Peeragogy Handbook.

The General Assembly is another interesting startup with online classes and workshops in various locations. The service is matching great teachers and instructors with specific skills and people interested in to learn them. The classes are small and the courses are intensive (In 2001 I co-found a company called that was in practice doing exactly the same).

Adianta School for Leadership and Innovation is also doing things differently. They have a curriculum with three large themes: innovate, build and lead. In their program building balanced network of strong and weak links is crucial. For instance in one of the courses students’ assignment is to get 100 followers on Twitter and get retweeted 10 times in a week.

MOOCs are not the disruptive innovation in education. The Web is the disruptive innovation in education. Some players in the educational field will be better in utilizing the Web than others. Some will have MOOCs, when others will build jazz collectives using the Web.

It is not only a matter of using the tools, the Web. It is also a new way of thinking about studying and work. The Web is challenging us to see that most innovative and productive organizations and people are no more managed by “order and discipline”. The organizations are becoming networks of autonomous, creative and social subjects. We should take advantage of it. The right place to exercise this is a school. The educational organizations must be the first to change. Or actually, you must be the first to change.

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