A MOOC is what you make it

I have been hearing more and more somewhat demanding calls for a definition of a MOOC. Is it this video-based experience in which knowledge may be tested, and may it lead to course credit? Is it a social experience that leads to an article or a grant? Is it harbinger of the downfall of the University or is it the savior of the institution? What on earth is this MOOC of which you speak?

My response – well good luck defining that. 

A MOOC is what the student enrolled in the MOOC will make it. It could be a one week dive into an online experience that allows them to explore (with support) a certain tool. It could be watching that 15 minutes of a two-hour video that allows you to learn that skill you need. It could be emailing the professor and getting some gem of information that fills out the puzzle for you. Or maybe it’s just the albatross around your neck, reminding you that higher education isn’t the same as it was even a year ago. A MOOC is what you make it. Define it, and it loses that mystery. 

I did a lot of research on MOOCs, and I have a Pearltree you can look at if you want more information on my resources. I like Catholicism because it was the first Christian Church. I studied Poe because he wrote the first mystery. That doesn’t mean that I’ve never been to and enjoyed a Baptist Church, or that I’ve never read and enjoyed James Patterson. But there is something a little magical about firsts. Firsts reveal something that was not known before, and firsts reveal roads that were initially invisible. I like firsts. I find a lot of joy in understanding firsts, and in seeing how all the others base their own interpretations on them. 

The first people to write widely about the MOOC had a nice little philosophical framework. Now I won’t debate whether this is a Theory or a Pedagogy – but regardless – there is a framework. The research made sense, and it’s a great place to start. 

Those who are still confused about what a MOOC is should go back to that framework and read the early work of Downes and Siemens. I’m not saying they know it all – and I’d bet they won’t say that either. I’m just saying, there is value in understanding the “firsts” and measuring subsequent efforts against them. There’s value in building on this. 

Now I am nothing if not a pragmatist. I am probably pragmatic to a fault. I am boringly pragmatic. 

Therefore, I say the first responsibility of those individuals who experiment with MOOCs should be to their paying students. It’s great to give your product to the world. It’s an individual choice (I think it should be) and it’s a service to others. It’s wonderful to support people who don’t pay in your class. And it’s great to engage your students in helping each other as well (whether they pay or don’t pay). But ultimately – if I have to decide where my effort will go – it is to the paying student. This is the student whose work I will grade. It’s the student whose emails I immediately answer. And it’s the student I will go out of my way to help. 

In the MOOC – we have to create a community that is self-sustaining. We can’t be dependent on a professor for day-to-day help and guidance. I am seeing even in my contained online courses that this is possible. I don’t understand why a MOOC is less a MOOC if paying students are in it. I also don’t understand why a MOOC is less a MOOC if you can’t see the thousands enrolled. I guarantee that you will not see the thousands enrolled. 

Those who try to define the MOOC should take a couple of them. I’m not saying take an xMOOC. You can watch video on ETV or on Discovery and probably learn just as much. Take a cMOOC. Take the etMOOC or the moocMOOC or the oldsMOOC. There are many people enrolled. You hardly ever see them. There is a core group that populate the twitter chat. There are highly visible students: organizers who take the discussion to Google or to Facebook. But they disperse. Part of the mystery of the cMOOC is the way that it morphs according to those involved and their levels of involvement. 

A MOOC is what you make it, man.


5 responses to A MOOC is what you make it

  1. Marty Laster says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It resonated for me, starting with the discussion of “firsts.” I also enjoy Poe and Patterson, an evolution. Both use primates as central characters. MOOCs strike me as a mysterious new religion(s), a systematic attempt to make meaning.

    In my field, leadership, there is a concept of the rolling coalition. It is the idea that a monolithic set of supporters no longer exist for a leader. He or she must keep an open mind and recognize .the shifting pattern of support based upon the issue at hand.

    It seems to me that MOOCs are evolving into a rolling coalition of learners.

    Thanks for this stimulating piece.

    Please consider me part of your rolling coalition,

  2. I throw the word “silly” around a lot in my life, and I think that the whole argument a lot of us have had over the semester is silly. I don’t feel we want to be led around by a professor, at least I don’t, and I would feel insulted if you tried to do so, but we do need a clearly defined framework to exist within. Telling people they can do whatever they want is silly. We have X amount of hours set aside during the week to work on classwork, and X amount of time to finish the course, and X amount of time to finish the program. It is simple math and common sense to provide people on a track the tools they need to get their work done in that amount of time. Providing links and videos, then providing feedback in a twitter chat, or emailing individual students who all have the same question is silly. Growing up in a small town with excellent schools, family, friends, and a plethora of possibilities each day gave me the chances to do projects that most people never get to do, but having a role model, and purpose was the defining factor in my success. It is silly to give someone a tool without guidance, and sillier still to give someone an entire shop of tools without first learning what each tool is called and it’s correct purpose. How to maintain the tool, how to use it safely, where it is stored, and how it fits into the rest of the shop. The same goes on a boat with all the tools there, as well as gym, a studio, or yes, even a classroom (virtual or not). Telling people to go out and explore who just simply don’t have the time, and knew they didn’t have the time, so they enrolled in a program was said to be delivered a certain way on certain days, with specific criteria then be blindsided at the last minute without a way out is, again, silly. MOOCs are a wonderful tool and should be used more, and are at the center of what we are trying to do in our classrooms everyday, but they still need structure, and they need guidance.

    • akedtech says:


      It’s strange that we all have such different reactions to this learning environment. Some of us are really excited about it. The structure of the class, as it is organized around the Essential Questions, standards and Rubric, are not very different from any other online classes. But for traditional students, in particular, this environment seems to be pretty frustrating. It certainly elicits a lot of passion! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We’ll try hard not to be any sillier than we must.


  3. dtj800 says:

    This MOOC experience has left me with a new way of approaching technology – an exploratory mindset that I do believe will come in handy in life and in teaching. I do understand the previous comment and the frustration of having too much content to sift through, but this particular MOOC has been about technology for me – getting to explore how I might incorporate it and what is available. In the future, if I were to be in a MOOC I would want a more focused topic that didn’t feel quite so unwieldy.

  4. Kate says:

    I think there are a plethora of issues in eduction today, and one of the most worrisome is a resistance to change. If you are unwilling to change, adapt, learn, and grow then education is not the place for you. A MOOC is a place for higher education not undergrad hoop jumping…. Therefore you receive less guidance and less handholding. Have fun with this, or get left behind in the dust of technology and education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s