What MOOCs Can Teach Us About Community Outreach

Lately I have thought more about my post on Massive Open Online Course or MOOCs.  Here is some follow-up:

I watched a six-minute Ted Talk by Peter Norvig, a pioneer in the MOOC field.  He began the presentation by noting “everyone is both a learner and a teacher.”  The obvious statement is in line with the current buzzwords of informal, lifelong and free-choice learning.  However, importantly his opening statement contextualizes the MOOC discussion within these broader public, beyond the limits of traditional academia.  The statement of this Stanford Professor expresses his desire to engage with the broader public, not just those with the over $13,000.00 in quarterly tuition at his University.

In the presentation Norvig notes that the first MOOC he taught on Artificial Intelligence had an initial registration of 209,000 of whom 20,000 completed the entire course.  On the one hand, a ten percent completion rate is not impressive.  However, I suspect that many of the 200,000 who registered, as with the first MOOC course I enrolled in but did not complete, were testing the MOOC waters.  I suspect further that completion rates will increase through time.  Regardless, 20,000 students completed the course, considerably more than Norvig’s total traditional classroom courses to date.

Norvig suggested the course was as interactive and engaging as many bricks and mortar courses.  Student feedback to MOOCs supports this claim.  Norvig reports some of the student response to his course in his Ted Talk: “this class felt like sitting in a bar with a really smart friend who is about to explain something to you” and “made to feel like one-on-one tutoring” and “now I am seeing Beyes Network and game theory every where I look.”

MOOCs also stimulate further in-person discussion among participants.  Coursera.org has a webpage devoted to these meet-ups.  Norvig concluded his presentation noting that the initial MOOC offerings are being assessed and modified to better accomplish the course goals.  As he notes “the most exciting part are the data that we are gathering . . . we are gathering thousands of interactions per student per class . . . and now we can start analyzing all of that . . . and what we learn from that . . . that’s where the real revolution will come . . . and you will be able to see the results from a new generation of amazing students.”  Norvig is clearly not phased by MOOC naysayers.  Instead of focusing on what is wrong with MOOCs he takes the approach of building on their strengths.

What do MOOCs have to teach those of us working in Museums or around public engagement in archaeology?  I see that a good bit the lesson has to do with giving up ultimate control along the lines of the Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World post I did a while ago.  MOOCs also bring to mind the interactive model for engagement I have blogged about previously.  At the C.H. Nash Museum when we surveyed our e-newsletter readers about volunteering, 40% of the respondents suggested that we offer on-line volunteer opportunities.  Max van Balgooy has blogged about possibilities for online volunteering.  In our same survey of readers, 60% of the respondents wanted to see more of our museum content online.  In the wake of new offerings such as the Google Art Project, The Giza Archives, Virtual Hampson to name a few, the previously outside-the-box possibilities are becoming more the norm.  MOOCs provide another way to look at the relevancy of these projects that make information available to everyone with an Internet connection.  Instead of focusing on what these technologies are not, we can embrace the use of these applications in museums, classrooms, and beyond for what they offer in expanding opportunities for the broad public that we serve.

Related – here is a bit of a news update as coursera.org announces the addition of 12 new universities to their online course offerings, including my alma mater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A response to A Practical Response to Massive Open Online Courses

This past week I attended the webinar A Practical Response to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS).  The webinar defined MOOCS as everything from iTunes U to the edX initiative of Harvard and MIT.  Here are a webinar resource list and a link that compare the range of MOOCs.  Seven Things You Should Know About MOOCs provides the basics that can be ingested in 5 minutes.  Also, I previously blogged about MOOCs.

The webinar title suggests a less than favorable overall assessment of MOOCS.  The 60 minute webinar bore out that expectation.  I won’t expend much figuritive ink on the bias except to note a couple of points.  The moderator’s near fanaticism in noting that “elite” institutions led MOOC initiatives was overkill.  The same was true for references to the “hype” around MOOCs.   The moderator’s comparison of MOOCs to the Oprah Book Club suggested the webinar would be as “fair and balanced” as Fox News.

Here are a few things the webinar coupled with my MOOC experience got me to thinking about:

Who are MOOCs for?  The obvious answer is potentially everyone with internet access.  As of June 2010 this means 77% of the United States population with no state at less than 60%.  A tremendous potential of MOOCs is the ability to engage in informal, free-choice, and lifelong learning, concepts today in the forefront of museum discussions.  Outstanding reports from the Center for the Future of Museums are available on these topics.  Academic sponsorship of MOOCs responds to this social need.  A good bit of the critique of MOOCs rests in their perceived impact on traditional academic degree models.  The perception is greatly inflated.  Coursera is one of the more successful MOOCs at this time.  Their home page notes that you can “Improve your resume, advance your career, expand your knowledge, and gain confidence by successfully completing one of our challenging university courses.”  All of that is true.  I believe that making such coursework available to all citizens, in their homes/libraries leads to increased civic engagement.  For academia to argue otherwise is self-serving.

What About MOOC content?  The criticism of MOOC content is difficult to take seriously.  For MOOC courses taught by tenured professors at Princeton, Harvard, or any other institution, one might reasonably assume that the content will reflect those very credentials.  I did not complete the Human Computer Interaction course I previously blogged about specifically because of the course content.  As opposed to alleged comparability to the Oprah Book Club, I dropped the course because I could not keep up with assignments that  required peer-interaction and review.  The course was more about the subject than I wanted.  I do look forward to other courses I have registered for that are more relevant to my research and career interests.

How can MOOCs be sustained economically?  The panelists were surprised that the biggest reason webinar respondents gave for liking MOOCs was that the offerings were open or free, causing one panelist to ponder “perhaps” we should be examining the cost of higher education.  As I often argue in my blogs, when our institutions demonstrate their relevance to the public that they serve, that relevance will be translated into economic support.  For example, in the case of the C.H. Nash Museum, over the past five years, we have moved from a position of extracting resources to inserting resources into the community in consultation with the community based on their expressed interests and needs.  When it comes time for the public of our community to demand of the elected officials support for programs, we are now in a much better position to receive that support.  I don’t see this as opportunism, rather, as living into our mission as an institution created to serve the public.

MOOCs, whether manifested as iTunes U, Coursera.org, edX, Ted talks, or the Oprah Book Club, ultimately operate from the same starting point.  In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky (2010:98) writes “Interpretations that focus on technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them . . . no one want e-mail for itself, any more than anyone wants electricity for itself; rather, we want the things electricity enables.”   In the same way MOOCs is a technology that enables the publics desire for Massive Online Open Courses.  If this is wrong, then MOOCs or whatever they evolve into, will fail.  If the behavior is real, then all the hand-wringing and excuses will not stop them from succeeding.

What are your thoughts on MOOCs?

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