By David Poplar
Like a conspicuous cell tower erected in a residential suburb, massive open online classes (MOOCs) — and discussions about them — have become a part of our educational landscape. The MOOCs we see today often bear little resemblance to the original MOOCs, which were based on a fairly radical learning theory called connectivism. Generally speaking, connectivism posits that, because knowledge is now accessible virtually anywhere, learning has become the interactive process of forming connections between information sources. Early connectivist MOOCs were thus designed to leverage the Internet as a massive and collaborative communications platform to facilitate these connections. As MOOCs evolved — along with large platforms such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity — they have actually grown apart from their connectivist ancestors and adopted a more traditional pedagogical approach, using the technology as more of a delivery mechanism than as an inseparable part of the pedagogy itself. As a result, many of today’s MOOCs are less collaborative and less interactive than earlier ones; for many educators and students, this shift represents a step backwards.
One attempt to reincorporate connectivist principles into a MOOC can be seen in the University of Pennsylvania‘s Modern American Poetry (“ModPo”) MOOC taught by Professor Al Filreis through Coursera. ModPo has developed several ways to take advantage of the most unique aspect of the communications platform — the ability to create a massive global community of learners who can interact with each other — and incorporates these into the pedagogical approach.
What follows is a discussion of how ModPo does this, based on my experiences as a teaching assistant for the course since its inception in 2012. I begin by briefly describing connectivism and how it drove the original MOOCs (now known as cMOOCs). I then discuss the distinctly different MOOCs that emerged — xMOOCs — and how they reverted to a more traditional pedagogical approach. Finally, I describe ModPo’s hybrid approach, and three specific ways that it attempts to bridge these two breeds of MOOC.
Origin of the Species: Connectivism
To understand MOOCs as they presently exist, it is necessary to discuss briefly the innovative — and controversial — proposed learning theory that inspired them. Connectivism explains both how and why the first MOOCs were uniquely designed to incorporate technology, not just as a tool, but as an inextricable part of the learning process itself. This discussion shows, by contrast, how different today’s MOOCs are and how differently they employ technology.
Connectivism: In Theory
Connectivism was first discussed in George Siemens’ 2004 article, “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.” Siemens offered connectivism as a successor learning theory to behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, and one that explicitly recognizes how our way of learning has been dramatically influenced — and even shaped — by the technological world in which we live. This new theory was needed because the earlier theories are, according to Siemens, limited and incomplete in that they fail to address the “learning that occurs outside of people (i.e., learning that is stored and manipulated by technology). They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations.” Just as importantly, the theory of connectivism considers the nature of the information itself, and how our informational landscape today is a virtual chaos of data, which itself is constantly changing and evolving.
[ Full article available at EDUCAUSE: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/mooc-evolution-and-one-poetry-mooc’s-hybrid-approach ]