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The Essence of MOOCs: Multi-Venue, Non-Linear, Learner-Initiated Learning

A reflection on the new model of MOOCs

MOOCs--massive open online courses--in the end may not be so "massive," "open," or even "courses" in the usual sense of the word. And, they may come to blend online learning with place-based instruction or real-world experiences, and not be quite so "online" as they started out to be (see "MOOC Students Who Got Offline Help Scored Higher, Study Finds," June 11, 2013, Wired Campus).

At the Root of MOOCs: LIL

The upswing of interest in MOOCs is perhaps a harbinger of the speeding up of a historic move to learner-initiated learning (LIL). Learner-initiated learning is a term that may best describe the new forms of learning that have emerged to combine learning experiences from multiple venues. An internship here, a course there, job-related learning here, self study there and so on (often called DIY learning). Even students enrolled in degree programs do "swirling," taking courses from colleges or universities away from their home institution. Or, as an added option now, learners may take a MOOC, or use open education resources as part of or in addition to assigned materials. LIL is also related to "self-directed learning" or "self-initiated learning," two research threads that began in the last century (cf or or

Learner-initiated learning occurs in formal and informal, moderated and un-moderated learning experiences. In the last 5 years, since the Great Recession began, learner-initiated learning has become a mode of life for many people who have had to change jobs, enter a new field, develop new skills to move up, or who are now just part of the new-job-every-three-years pattern so common in our economy now. The term LIL recognizes that, from the perspective of a career or a life, the learner has had to take charge of her or his own learning.

From a campus IT perspective, the LIL trend has been recognized in the "BYOD" (bring your own device) trend. Campus IT units have had to accept the reality that nearly all students bring with them to campus a smart phone, a notebook computer (e.g., iPad), and/or a laptop that will be used on campus for curricular purposes. BYOD reflects the move toward LIL: You own your own portal to the vast world of information and you begin to own your own learning.

The move to LIL started and gathered steam in the last century under the aegis of co-op learning, problem-based learning, collaborative learning, undergraduate research, and other "high-impact educational practices" or experiential and active learning forms (George Kuh, AAC&U,, 2008). But the Internet and especially the Web gave a turbo-boost to this movement. The "cloud"--given that both data and functionality can be available somewhere "out there"--accelerated the movement even more.

The MOOC is only a symptom of this movement that has been underway for decades. MOOCs represent the logical outcome of the move toward LIL: If the vast majority of learners in the global connected culture are not enrolled in college, education has to extend to those new learners. The difference between MOOCs and previous technology-enabled learning applications is that MOOCs have broken the logistical barrier for higher education, in order to meet the surging demand for both more learning opportunities and for a lower-cost business model (albeit with significant misgivings expressed by some commentators). 

We all recognized the failings of MOOCs when they started--the poor completion record, the dependence on lecture and perpetuation of the content delivery model of learning… But all of that is not at issue here; this article is not an apologia for MOOCs but merely recognition that some new form of learning was inevitable in a dominant worldwide service economy. That form--the MOOCs--has grown out of the legacy and ongoing movement toward LIL.

What, Really, is LIL?

In contrast to the general practices and gestalt of undergraduate education under which students are "given" an education, LIL is a self-managed acquisition of learning skills necessary to the work we do now in our culture. LIL does not necessarily mean that learners are on their own and must discover knowledge themselves. For the 17 to 22 year-old cohort, especially, that would usually be inappropriate. But, if we have in mind, instead, the 17 to 85 year-old cohort, LIL could often mean that older learners--over 25--are in fact mostly on their own and must develop new learning skills themselves.

An adult learner today harvests knowledge from many sources. Connected humanity is awash in information. Why should employers weigh so heavily the learning from just one source, that of formal learning? How can an institution certify the kinds of multi-venue learning that a learner engages in today? Maybe that's even the wrong question. Maybe the right question is "How can an individual learner credit the learning she or he has accomplished and demonstrated?" The emerging trend toward "assessment of prior learning" (PLA) is one answer--to seek out certification through PLA. The learner bears the onus of responsibility to present evidence of that prior learning for it to be recognized.

This is the crux of LIL: If learners are in charge of their life-long learning, then they are also in charge of getting their learning recognized. They must find ways to certify their own learning through a combination of external credentialing and internal evidence. "Internal evidence" is what the learner gathers to demonstrate achievement and capabilities. Learners must be able to create a Web site to showcase their achievements and capabilities, with links to actual instances of work--photos, animations, graphs, writing, video clips, and so on.

There is a lot at stake for learners. The learner of today, more and more, is responsible for their own learning and credentialing. And if, after college, learners will be looking for jobs every 3 or 4 years, there is no doubt they must manage their own learning over the long term. Graduation is not an end to learning; it is only a point of intensification.

What Does LIL Mean for Higher Education?

A common metaphor for learning in a traditional higher education system is a path. A young learner finds a path through the courses offered at a college or university and is assured that, at the end of that path, she or he will have achieved a learning outcome. It is all so neat and logical.

The path metaphor is appropriate to a time of stable knowledge--hardly the case today. Why is the path metaphor not as useful now? A path, for those familiar with hiking, can make you oblivious to the field through which the path runs. You keep your eyes on the path so you don't fall and so you can anticipate changes in the terrain. Walking on a path can become almost like sleep walking after a time. And what happens if, high on a mountain, the path ends and you have before you just unmarked terrain?

That's the metaphor that applies to learning today--a field of constantly evolving knowledge with no fixed paths. Learning in this field is multi-venue and non-linear--you learn where and when you have to. You may not be able to prepare for what you have to learn, either: Non-linear learning means learning in a field of knowledge when you don't have a set path through that field.

The problem this presents us with is that the time-honored paths through stable knowledge no longer predictably lead to an appropriate entry point to work. The paths are over there in that imagined but lost world of stability and predictability but do not connect to the new world of rapid change and unpredictability. You may have learned to walk on a path with great skill but the world challenges you now to find meaning in a field. You need a different set of skills.

How Can a Course Move from Path to Field?

An academic course can have a path that leads to the unmarked field within the time frame of the course. For traditional age students, the path part of the course (the informational part of the course), especially in the first and second years of college, may need to be longer than with older students. The path part is familiar to us all: What basic background do these students need to begin to construct knowledge in my field? What background do they need to solve real-world problems as we do in my field?

Then, the students move off the path you are providing and actually enter your field of inquiry. They are then acting as learners initiating their own learning, perhaps in teams or perhaps by themselves; perhaps in the classroom or perhaps somewhere else; perhaps using resources you’ve provided but more likely using the resources of the world; and probably addressing currently contested problems.

New Implications for the MOOC

The MOOC phenomenon has enlarged the thought space in higher education at a faster pace than before MOOCs (see "7 things you should know about MOOCs…"). MOOCs have made tangible what was only an inchoate need for some kind of institutional transformation before. Understanding MOOCs as just a part of the learner-initiated learning movement of the past half-century may help us better understand how to think about MOOCs. MOOCs may not be the transformation we expected or even wanted but perhaps we can make them become the transformation we want.

LIL puts learners at stake for their own learning. LIL is the opposite of passive learning. It is not an external "treatment" but an internal quest. As the average age of undergrads and grads continues to go up, the internal quest will be more prominent, albeit a quest driven by necessity and not necessarily by love of learning.

Part of the necessary quest for more learning is the need to document the learning. Those who are employed may be looking for a promotion or may need to re-certify their skills. They need an online repository with a metadata set to describe attributes of learning artifacts generated in their formal and informal learning experiences. The metadata allows them to do advanced searches for examples to back up their claims made on their Web site. The repository should also be able to create that Web site to showcase accomplishments and capabilities. This repository is the new path, the path of coherence within the personal field of learning for each learner.

This is the challenge for all learners now: The curricular path determined by an institution is becoming less and less personally useful today. Without the traditional path--"I went down this path and this degree shows I finished the trek"--and therefore without the same persuasiveness of the degree, where does coherence lie? A person applying for a job must have a "narrative" that persuades an employer to hire her. If that narrative is not convincingly provided by the traditional degree, where does she get it?

That narrative may be in the online repository, or at least in the interpretation of the significance of the repository provided by the showcase Web site prepared by the job seeker. Your alma mater does not create your sole narrative; you do.

LIL--and the MOOC as an instance of LIL--pushes forward the need for this online repository. In some cases, electronic portfolio technology can provide the capabilities, or in other cases, a combination of technologies can provide the capabilities of this repository. But an online identity is a sine qua non today.

MOOCs arose first as cMOOCs, an inventive way to use massive technologies to make learning more social. The xMOOC, the version that has caused the big stir, uses massive technologies to create a new educational space. That space is wide open for new forms of learning. It is hard to make a case that the xMOOC is a good thing, but it is important to recognize that this new space is a great opportunity for educators and learners to move to learner-initiated learning, the appropriate model for today.


[Editor’s note: Both the Campus Technology 2013 conference and the co-located AAEEBL conference in Boston July 29-August 1 at the Hynes Convention Center host numerous sessions and featured speakers who address the issues identified in this article.]

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