I’ve been familiar with the concept of MOOCs since Dave Cormier started talking about them a few years ago. The concept is pretty simple. Course materials are posted publicly online. Anyone can participate. Facilitators provide materials in a number of different formats to start the conversation. These might include journal articles, blog posts, videos, or other things. Participants react to this material through the media that’s most appropriate for them. Some will use their blogs. Others may use Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus. They may discuss the ideas on webcasts. Achievement isn’t tied to the number of hours spent or the results of a final exam. Each participant has his or her own goals. The benefits they reap from the course are proportional to the effort they put in.
This kind of informal learning is very appealing to me. I’ve often mentioned that formal higher education has been largely irrelevant for me. The things I need to know and think about and have opinions on to be effective in my job are not the same things they teach in grad school. So I learn from my network. A MOOC gives this informal, learning-though-participation-in-the-community approach a little more structure. There are topics. There are timelines. This week we’re talking about the Digital Scholar. Last week’s topic was Mobile Learning.
There’s still a disconnect, though, between the authentic, useful learning that can happen in this kind of environment and the type of formalized professional development that is necessary to maintain liscensure and secure salary advancement. I have to take courses to maintain my teaching certification. And if I amass graduate credit hours, I get paid (a little) more by my employer.
So this year, I’m participating in a pilot to try to bring these two worlds together. If I participate in the Change MOOC, and it’s a valuable learning experience for me, how do I prove that I’ve accomplished something, and that the awarding of credit is appropriate? Working with a local university, I’m trying to find a balance between freedom and accountability.
Higher education, at least here, is built on time. How many hours are you spending? If you don’t spend 15 hours, you can’t get a semester credit. Somehow, I have to keep track of my time. This isn’t any different from a consulting gig, or even from what my daughter has to do to keep track of her schooling hours. The discipline of a time log is something I’m not used to, but it’s not too big a burden.
The second component is that of participation. I can read / watch / listen / consume the materials for the week. And I can even document how much time I spend doing that. But for real learning to take place, I have to make those ideas my own. Chris Lehmann points out that you have to take an idea and add something to it to make it your own. For me, I initially anticipated that this would mean a weekly blog post. So far, that hasn’t happened. What I do have is more of a private journal. There are lots of reactions, half-baked ideas, observations, applications, and random thoughts. I still hope to pull those into a more coherent form, and the public nature of the MOOC implies that some sort of public participation is expected.
The final component is that of network-building. I’ve been cultivating my professional learning network for 5-6 years now. But the MOOC gives me the opportunity, the excuse, and the obligation to seek out new voices. I should be reading what other people are saying about the course material. I need to be commenting on their posts. We need to be starting some more dialogues. I’m hoping that I’ll start gravitating toward the same people after a while, and I’ll form some relationships with those people that will transcend participation in the MOOC.
So far, though, it’s been a pretty rough road. The simple mechanics of learning in the open are harder than I thought. How can I read and annotate this e-text while I’m eating lunch away from my computer? Can I listen to the webcast with this week’s facilitator in my car while I’m driving home from work? How am I documenting time and taking notes? As I wait for my kids at choir practice and play rehearsal, how can I make the best use of my time? How do I know when I’ve read enough, and it’s time to react? How do I know when I’ve reacted enough, and it’s time to reflect? Looking through the RSS feed, a lot of others are struggling with the same kinds of things. MOOCs are not ubiquitous yet. They get in the way. We don’t quite know how to navigate them. So far too much of the discourse (including this blog post) is about the format and the mechanics of the course, and not so much about the content.
I’m okay with that, for now. The content is there, but it’s not in the foreground yet. I need to figure out how the course works first. Then, I can focus more on the learning. That’s just taking a bit longer than I expected.
Photo credit: Carol VanHook, via Flickr.