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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 Co-Learnit.com 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.
A couple of days ago Esko Kilpi wrote about emergence and self-organization with references to the Wired’s article The GitHub Generation: We’re All in Open Source Now and Sugata Mitra’s latest TED talk Build a School in the Cloud.
I started to think how would be a school that is primary operating according to the principles of free and open source software development communities. I didn’t think about online schools or even the possibility to extend some of the school operations to the “cloud”. I was thinking more school as we know it today: a place, most often a building, where people come to learn. I made a list.
(1) Free project spaces. The free and open source school must have a lot of free project space for anyone to take in use for any project they are interested in to work on. The space should have basic materials (pens, colors, paper, cardboard, partition walls, whiteboards, laptops etc.) for people to define spaces, to write, to draw, to hang up things, to save things etc. (You may compare this to all the online services we have to host open source code, mailing lists to communicate, GitHub etc.)
(2) Freedom to start and join projects. In these spaces any member of the school is free to start a study project and invite in it who ever they want to invite. The spaces are open so that people can see what other people are doing and anyone may join them for a short or a longer period of time. This is the case with visitors, too. Doors are open for people to come and see what’s going on and to join a project if they wish. Joining a project is the only way to become a member of the school.
(3) The school is a copyright / IP free zone. Anything seen in the project spaces can be copied to another project. In the school people may show whatever media for each other for whatever purpose without any copyright restrictions.
(4) Progressive inquiry. The purpose of the school is to help people to learn on things they are interested in to study and learn about. The progressive inquiry, relying on scientific method and critical thinking method, is the primary approach in the study work. The aim is to deepen everyone’s understanding on the things under study and also contribute to the commons.
(5) Flat organization. Students are free to study whatever they want, but because we know that sometime students may need advice to find topics that are truly meaningful, interesting and important there are two roles in the school: students and mentors. To become a mentor is a matter of merits. Mentors select mentors.
(6) Civic virtue, transparency and leadership. Civic virtue is expected from all the members of the school. The primary decisions making method is consensus. Decisions are expected to be based on on sense making after having all possible data in hand and listening of different point-of-views. If some people do not agree with the decisions they are free to forge the School by starting their own School. There is a leader.
Simple. Why we are not doing this? Or are we?
In the last ten years design thinking has been one of the most used buzzwords among technology and design circles. In my book Designing Learning Tools — Methodological Insights I also use the term. To be honest, one of the sections is titled “Design Thinking: Solving Wicked Problems in a Participatory Way“. Cool title, isn’t it?
Last week in San Francisco I visited Square, a company providing electronic payment services with smart phones. Currently their main product is the Square Register, a credit card reader you can attach in your phone or tablet and start accepting credits cards. With their product, also small merchants and individuals can take credit cards.
Their second product, the Square Wallet, however, is definitely more interesting one. With the wallet app, running in your phone in your pocket you can pay just by saying your name. After saying you name in the checkout your name and photo appear on a screen of the cashier and he may confirm the sale. The data comes from the server based on the location information. Smart. No showing your phone, no scanning, no NFC, no RFID. Nothing. The technology works in the background. You keep your head up, say your name and you have paid.
I asked the people in Square how do they feel if I define them as “design company”. They didn’t object. It is, naturally, a real software engineering house but design thinking seems to be the driving force behind their product development. The vision is not to provide credit card readers or payment solutions but to improve the user experience and interaction in a situation of making payments. When you approach the matter of paying someone from the point of view of a service and an experience you can design products like the Square Wallet.
This blog is not about payment systems or customer experiences. From the Square example, however, we may gain some insights to learning and education, too.
In the iTEC project we (my research group) have also brought design thinking to classrooms by promoting teachers to carry on design activities with their pupils. Right now we are prototyping a design toolkit with a group of teachers. The aim of the toolkit is to help teachers to design learning activities. The kit with the title “Designing Learning Activities — a Workshop Toolkit for Teachers” will be published in a couple of months.
This is all good, but I am still wondering are we really able to catch the essence of design thinking in these? Should we still step back and think one more time what is learning and education really about? How people could raise their head up, say their name and learn? How would be a learning experience designed primary on this principle?