Last fall I took my first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). I originally registered for The Age of Globalization (see The Inquisitive Learner Walks the Talk), but due to scheduling conflicts I had to cancel. Instead, I took U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self. This is the same course profiled in a Huffington Post article that the author refers to as, “…what well may be the most interesting project of my life.”
I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was certainly a fascinating experience. How many times can you involved in something that is truly global? Literally people representing every continent were present, some 25,000+ strong.
Here’s a quick review of the logistics and the three course components:
- Live webcasts, all at 9 a.m. ET, broadcast from a tech-enabled classroom at MIT. The show went on even when snowstorms shut down Boston. The president of MIT, who was out of the country, had to give permission to allow the class to be held even though the university was closed. Each session had a main presenter and frequently a few other people to mix things up. One of my favorite things was a note taker who drew a summary of the content as the presenter was speaking. The concurrent visual representation helped add another dimension to the learning.
- Hubs were self-forming local groups of people who you could participate with jointly. There was a Madison hub, Shanghai hub, London hub, and so on. Hub hosts provided the gathering venues.
- Coaching circles facilitated discussion, listening and dialogue. A guide was provided to lead the way. Between the live presentations, these small groups met either virtually or in-person to bring content to life.
You’d think it would be difficult to have an interactive component during the live sessions with so many people involved. It was actually made easy by using existing technology: the Twitter platform. Easy, that is, assuming you are of a generation that considers Twitter a native language. Participants were encouraged to provide input and comments, pictures and doodles, via Twitter (#ulab), generating hashtag clouds for the key items of interest for the presenters to address. Sometimes a presenter would pose a question and request answers via a specific hashtag.
As with most things, there are pros and cons that merit consideration in deciding if a MOOC is for you.
- The organizers and presenters were real professionals. It’s great to have access to world-class content that fits into your schedule without travel.
- It was easy to consume information in small chunks, and the hybrid format with coaching circles and hubs helped reinforce the content.
- This is just one approach to independent learning. Those of us who have access to alternatives could read a book or talk to an expert, just to name a few options. If you don’t have access to anything else, a MOOC could be transformative.
- You need to be able to commit the time for the live session and invest in the reading and preparation. The standard methods of accountability that are inherent with in-person educational experiences are not in place with MOOCs.
- It’s not a perfect substitute for live education. There is something to be said for blocking out your schedule to attend a school or conference. You have dedicated space and time for learning and increased connections to others.
- The economics of MOOCs sparked my curiosity. Is the model economically sound, or does an organization like MIT justify doing it just for the greater good? How are providers going to get past the free versus paid barrier? I’ve seen some classes that you can attend for free, but then have to pay a fee to get awarded continuing professional education credit.
After weighing all the factors, it’s on my docket to take another MOOC when I’m less busy. The bigger challenge may be settling on a topic, as there is probably a MOOC-based approach to just about anything. Social psychology? Psychology anthropology? Economics? We’ve all heard comments like, “There’s more information published in one Sunday edition of the New York Times than people consumed in their lifetime in the 1600s” or “It would take you 200,000 years to read everything that’s on the internet.” There is so much great stuff to consume, so little time. At least now there is a very rich mechanism to distribute it globally.