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cMOOCs: Putting Collaboration First

While the term "MOOC" brings to mind thousands of students viewing recorded lectures without much interaction, alternative models are fostering creativity and collaboration with peers.

This story appears in the August 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

What is a MOOC? The term has dominated the online education conversation over the past year, yet there is still a lot of ambiguity surrounding its definition.

Even a look at the components of the acronym itself--massive open online course--can lead to more questions than answers:

  • Massive:What is the threshold for massive? Is the threshold relative to the size of the institution?
  • Open:Is the platform open source? Can anyone lead a course? Can any institution offer a course? Can any student enroll? Are all of the materials open? (Free and open are not synonymous.) Is it accessible for diverse learners and languages?
  • Online: How do we define online? Are we thinking about SMS/mobile-only courses? What about blended learning?
  • Course:What makes it a course? Why are we trying to replicate face-to-face experiences (courses) in a new medium? Is the traditional semester approach ideal for online environments?

It is tempting to create a one-size-fits-all definition of a MOOC based on our answers to these questions, but even the archetypal MOOCs offered by Stanford University (CA), Udacity, Coursera, and other major providers would not be able to fulfill all the criteria of this definition. Coursera, for example, has massive enrollment (nearly 180,000 students per course), but only individuals affiliated with select institutions are able to teach courses through the site. While Coursera MOOCs may be open to students, the platform is closed to most instructors.

Beyond the Acronym
In order to develop a more nuanced view of MOOCs, it is helpful to use the pedagogical framework of the individual creating the MOOC to shape our understanding of the product. This leads us to a separate set of questions:

  • What is the ultimate goal of the MOOC?
  • What learning or instructional theories are informing the design decisions?
  • What is the role of the instructor?
  • What is the role of the learner?
  • How are the learners building new knowledge?
  • How is learning assessed?
  • Who is creating the content?
  • What types of interactions are taking place?
  • How flexible are the course path and the course goals?

In this light, MOOCs themselves are as diverse as the instructors who create them. As ed tech consultant Phil Hill notes in his 2012 report, MOOCs are "so distinct in pedagogy…it is confusing to designate them by the same term."

The need to acknowledge the differences between MOOCs has led to the rise of two main categories: xMOOCs (named for the x in edX) and cMOOCs (also known as connectivist MOOCs). A lesser-known version of MOOCs, the Open Boundary experience, is an online extension of a face-to-face course experience. Matriculated students study side-by-side with non-registered students, with the goal of exposing students to experienced voices from the field. Some of the differences between the two dominant "branches" of MOOCs are highlighted in the chart below.

xMOOCs vs. cMOOCs

What is the ultimate goal? Efficiently deliver content to larger audiences; award learners with certificates/certifications; reach new audiences; experiment with new courses outside the university structure; increase access to Ivy League content or provide free access to education. Foster connections and collaborations among learners; kindle future collaborations rather than provide a contained experience with a defined end date; spawn smaller niche communities.
What learning or instructional theories are informing the instructor's decisions? Instructionism (teacher-centered): The learning process focuses on moving knowledge from the instructor to the student. Connectivism and/or connected learning: The learning process focuses on the connections and collaborations between learners.
What is the role of the instructor? The creator of content, assessments, activities, goals, and learning path. A colearner, working collaboratively with other learners to create content, shape goals, generate new knowledge, etc.
What role does the learner play? The learner receives knowledge (usually in video format), participates in small group work, and responds to quizzes and assessments. The learner is a cocreator of the MOOC.
How are learners building new knowledge? Learners view content developed by the instructor and apply that content to problem sets or projects defined by the instructor. Learners create production-centered projects that relate to course themes; share knowledge they developed during the production process; give feedback and support to peers; share resources; etc.
How is learning assessed? Learners complete assessments (quizzes or peer-reviewed assignments) that evaluate their comprehension of a topic as it is understood from the instructor's view. Learners share their insights as they go through the knowledge-building process (e.g., via status updates or blog posts) and self-assess their learning paths.
Who is creating the content? The content is created by the instructor. The weekly activities are created by a core group of motivated learners and additional content is created by participants.
What types of interactions are taking place? Learners view content created by the instructor and work in small groups to solve problems/work on projects. Interactions take place between learners as they go through the knowledge-building process. The course content is shaped by these interactions as the learner contributes new material to the MOOC.
How flexible are the course path and the course goals? The syllabus, activities, and assessments are determined by the instructor before the course launches. Prerecorded video content works well for xMOOCs since the learning path is set. The general themes/topics are collaboratively determined by a small group of learners and shaped throughout the course by the whole group. Course goals are determined in response to the community, on a week-by-week basis.

Why cMOOCs?
cMOOCs and xMOOCs each have distinct advantages, and it is important to select the format that best suits the learning and project goals of a particular course. xMOOCs are an efficient method to deliver content that changes little over time and can be reused from semester to semester. They are also useful when experimenting with flipped classrooms on campus: Multiple sections of students can view lecture content online prior to meeting face-to-face. During the face-to-face meeting, students can use the time with the professor to delve more deeply into the material and engage in group discussions. xMOOCs, however, are not ideal for generating collaborative communities or for content that is subjective.

cMOOCs are a better choice for courses or subject areas that utilize collaborative discussions to build meaning. They are also well suited for sparking professional communities of practice and developing fully online experiences that are aligned with learner-centered pedagogy.

Dave Cormier, manager of web communications and innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada), coined the term MOOC in 2008. In this YouTube video, he gives a summary of the connectivist nature of MOOCs.

A cMOOC Timeline
If you have never experienced a cMOOC, it can be challenging to envision its mechanics. The outline below, based upon Mozilla's #teachtheweb cMOOC, shows how the experience unfolds over time and is shaped by the participants.

  1. Pre-MOOC: Members from Mozilla solicit participants from the web to collaboratively develop the goals and topics. The syllabus is released as a "work in progress" with general topics listed and the first two weeks of activities ready. Content and activities for the following weeks will be determined as the experience unfolds.
  2. Weeks 1-3: Participants learn about the central themes of the experience and build community. Participants greet each other; experiment with a number of different suggested learning paths; create their own learning objectives; record and share their insights and challenges; celebrate failures and successes; summarize community activities; and form small collaboration communities. Participants collaboratively plan for upcoming weeks.
  3. Weeks 4-6: Participants continue with the activities above and the focus shifts from learning the content to learning how to apply the content to their professional lives.
  4. Weeks 7-9: Participants continue to share and plan, and move off the web. The focus of these weeks is taking the learning to local communities and collaborators, as well as experimenting with the knowledge in the real world.
  5. After week 9: Participants continue to utilize the connections formed during the MOOC for real-world, ongoing collaborations. The small collaboration communities become self-sustaining, long-term communities of practice.

Ready to Try a cMOOC?
The Open Online Experience, a yearlong cMOOC for educators, begins this month. With a cMOOC, participants are welcome to start at the beginning or join the community at any time. For a list of upcoming cMOOCs, visit the Connectivist MOOC site.

Note: In true connectivist fashion, this article draws on the contributions and feedback from a group of peer collaborators formed via cMOOCs.

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