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Digitally mediated — education and commons

There’s no free. Commons is limited. Education is slavery.” – anonymous

Photo by Jorge Royan.

In the last couple of months I have spent a remarkable amount of time to think about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), learning analytics, data science, learning science, quantified-self, reflection in learning, tools for reflection etc. Same time I have been thinking what are commons in education?

What are commons? Antonio Lafuente describes the commons as follows:

Commons are a new way of expressing a very old idea: that some things belong to everyone and as a whole, they comprise a set of resources that should be actively protected and managed.

Simple. Commons in education means that opportunities to study and learn belong to everyone and together we create, protect and manage resources that will enable it to happen. I am in.

I am skeptical about MOOCs. I am not the only one. I also agree that there are, for sure, good moocs and bad moocs — high quality and low quality online courses.

I am, however, confident about digital technology’s, especially Internet’s potential in education. With the technology we can provide opportunities for more but also do it pedagogically better than ever before.

Why I am skeptical if I still believe in Internet as the most important change factor in education in my lifetime?

My skepticism about MOOCs is probably related to my failures with some early experiments with online learning.

(Yuan, Li, and Stephen Powell 2013)

In 2005-2006 I was running my first set of large-scale online courses (some kind of xMOOC). The courses were part of the Art, Design and Technology Master Classes in the Arab States -program, funded by UNESCO, designed, developed and lead in Finland but taught by teachers in Beirut, Dubai and London (if I’ll remember right). To keep it high quality we limited the number of participants to be 50. Out of the 50 participants taking the first course we selected 20 to the second and third part of the program that was planned to take place partly online and partly in Beirut.

This kind of study program was possible to organize only with the Internet. The students came from different Arab states and also the teachers were geologically distributed. Still I would not call it a great success story. The quality was not great, although we did limit the number of participants, had a great teachers-student-ration and time for individual tutoring. It just didn’t happen the way we designed it. Many students were shy and we failed to build social cohesion among the group. Also our original plan to bring 20 students to Beirut to work face to face and to have an exhibition in there was cancelled because of the 2006 Lebanon War. Still there were a lot of positive things in the course, too. For many participants the course was a first time they met other artist and designers from other Arab states interested in to use digital tools in their work.

In 2007-2008 I was teaching another course online. With this course I was experimenting with a colleague the idea of truly open online course (nowadays called cMOOC). To the Wikiversity site we made a sketchy syllabus and schedule of ten weeks Composing free and open online educational resources -course. Then people came, some edited the syllabus and about 70 registered themselves to the course. We didn’t limit the number of participant. In the the course we were having weekly videoconference sessions, gave feedback on the assignments people did on their personal blogs that were openly in the web and also gave them grade (passed/failed) based on their activity in the course.

I think the course was good for some people, maybe for 10 participants. For most it was not. The quality for all was not high. Most people dropped and from those who completed only few did very well their assignments and really put a lot of effort to their studies.

Still the experiment was in some level convincing me that this kind of course could have a real impact in a global capacity building. To do so we would need millions of people doing courses like this all the time in every corner of the globe. Could this happen? It will happen but it may take very long.

Commons in education is not reached with xMOOCs, neither with truly open online courses such as the Wikiversity course. We need both. And we need much more. We need:

  • Free and very low-cost access to educational content for all different age groups and in all the languages of the world. To do this we need free and very low cost connections to Internet, globally.
  • Open source / free software to run open education and to experiment with it in open education.
  • Free and very low-cost access to books (on paper and e-books).
  • Galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, in place and online — free and low-cost.

These are the educational resources that should be actively protected and managed if we are interested in to build commons in education.

11 replies on “Digitally mediated — education and commons”

Great ideas, Teemu. You shouldn’t be so hard on your own courses. Pioneers never have it easy. Besides, it might be that you’re barking at the wrong tree.

Having taken a few online courses I have some personal experience. I’ve also followed a few of them online just out of curiosity. I think the main problem is not the availability of knowledge (although I think it is a problem as well). Based on my (limited) knowledge, I think they best work for people who take them for the following reasons.

1. It is directly related to something they are working on. Either studywise as a part of a degree or work-wise to a project that they are engaged with.

2. They are genuinely interested in the content and learning it. The best experiences I’ve had are when I’ve had to read and take in A LOT of information and I really enjoyed it.

3. They have planned ahead and set aside time for taking the courses. I did them in the evening when I normally would have set aside time for reading. Also, at work I wasn’t as busy as normally so I had the energy to dig in to the material.

4. They are prepared to be tested or otherwise engaged in the course. I have to say that it would’ve been easy to drop out if there weren’t weekly tests that kept me on my toes.

I think that the positive side in Massive Open Online Courses is that they are massive. I there are only a few people who have all of these qualities aligned and you cannot really force people to have these. Thus, every course will have a big drop-out rate. But if you plan the course to take this in account, it shouldn’t matter. After all, it’s the internet where scaling up should be easy, right?


To me commons are ordinary people – mortals? Not semi-Gods like Jobs or half demons like Hitler. Nobody remember or knows what the common has done but all together we are power.

So what makes a MOOC a good one? I guess you ned to have a semi-God presenters to give interesting and engaging MOOC. I don’t believe that MOOC can be engaging in the sense of students interaction.

To me the MOOC means totally open. It should be free of charge, number of participants is not limited, and its “open-ended”. There will be no final examination, no feedback to home assignments, no team work activities, nothing. Only online presentation. It’s up on participants how they motivate themselves to study and what they will do with achieved knowledge. If the topic is interesting ad the presenter (presentation) is engaging, then it’s fine. E.g. like like in theatre – nobody is expecting that audience is actively involved in action. But you still get some thoughts to think when the show is over. For most of the presenters the MOOC is not suitable format, because not all of us are artists.

So MOOC’s will fail if they are thought by commons. You need to have extraordinary presenter to make commons to listen and to follow. MOOC’s also fail if you try to organise activities that are hard to manage in online environment e.g. meaningful teamworks for unlimited number of participants, …


Martin wrote: “To me the MOOC means totally open. It should be free of charge, number of participants is not limited, and its “open-ended”. There will be no final examination, no feedback to home assignments, no team work activities, nothing.”

What you are describing is a library not a course, education or “teaching”. What you wrote is great for people who are in a situation that they can study independently. Most people, however, are not self-motivated and need help to get forward in their life. Their life situation is such that they just can’t get in to the “open-ended” studies. That is where education (and teachers) can help. And having educated people is everyones interest.

Martin wrote: “like in theatre – nobody is expecting that audience is actively involved in action.”

Education, teaching and learning should not be theater, at least not theater as mainstream theater is today. Still, even in the field of theater this is not that simple and it depends on the theater you go. In Brechtian “tradition” and e.g. in the Augusto Boal’s forum theater the idea is to activate people. Yes the audience is actively involved in action.

Martin wrote: You need to have extraordinary presenter to make commons to listen and to follow.

Hmm . . . Commons doesn’t mean “common people”. Commons is something beyond the people. Actually a public library is a good example. What it comes to extraordinary presenters, from my history lessons I remember at least two in 1930’s, one in Soviet Union and one in Germany, who really got people to listen and to follow. Actually, didn’t they also organize some massive open offline courses?


You are saying “Most people, … are not self-motivated …… That is where education (and teachers) can help”. That’s rephrasing the motto “education is slavery”.

Maybe the assumption that students are not motivated is self-fullfilling?


My assumption is that people in general are not self-motivated because of various reasons, mostly related to their life experiences etc. As a students in a great school (or in some another community) they can become motivated.


Going to school does not per se exclude self-education. The best schools (and other communities) are able to help you to be self-eudcated.


Katri: How (and why) do we cover the cost of libraries, universities, schools, Wikipedia etc. And this is simply billion times cheaper.


Many Universities in LatinAmerica have started offering MOOC courses, but they don’t seem to mee the openness, or the distibutiveness, instead they have been made like regular courses pretending that jus t because they are on a big platform they are MOOCs. I think for many people MOOCs are just fashionable. It’s something like what happened when the LMS became popular and teachers used them mainly as information storage tools to let the students access to the contents, ignoring many other possibilities offered by the LMS, such as the communicative tools that allowed students interaction.


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