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On MOOCs and OER: A post-conference reflection

I had the pleasure of attending the Learning With MOOCS workshop, sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (, which was organized by MOOC’sters from Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley and other notable institutions (Organizers, 2014). A gathering of just under 200 people from around the world, the focus was on research concluded or in progress, and research opportunities with MOOCs. Data, data, data was on everyone’s mind. But there were other persistent threads of conversation including open education resources (OER), content sharing and reuse, learning tools interoperability (LTI) and access to education (US community colleges, global audiences, non-wired/disconnected regions).

Below, a brain dump/rant/expository of thoughts and notes that piled up during and after the event.

Square One

Joshua Kim (Dartmouth) was one of the participants at the workshop and after the event he posted a MOOC mythbusting summary at Inside Higher Ed, 8 Myths About MOOCs (Kim, 2014). He did a fair job (and it was nice to meet you again, Josh) even including a nod toward the notion that the MOOC community and the pre-existing online learning community are different (#3 on the list). At multiple points throughout the conference participants could be heard groaning under their breath or reaching for the mic to argue that the ideas evolving from MOOC research are not new. Faculty and course designers have been facilitating online and distance education for years and they have been generating research by the boatload.

What motivates students online? How do you engage students from a distance? What content works best for students working independently? These questions and more have been researched, documented and published for decades. MOOC providers (institutions) who have a masters or doctoral program in instructional design, elearning, online learning, curriculum design or distance education could be served well by tapping into that readily available expertise. MOOC instructors could add an instructional designer or elearning specialist to their team along with a data scientist (because, remember kids, its not just about the data – the learning experience is a crucial component of the MOOC movement).

For those who see MOOCs as a way to build community rather than a just another way to get more freshman through algebra, there is a similar parallel effort with research (although, granted, not nearly as much). Professional learning communities (PLN) and online learning communities (OLC) have the been subjects of investigation, too.

I spent a year researching PLN and OLN for a capstone project while earning my masters degree in education. Along with a subject matter expert (medical doctor) in palliative and hospice medicine, I used the research to develop an online social network for medical professionals, social workers and pharmacists to prepare for certification in palliative care (Saarinen & Makowski, 2011). In addition to distance education and elearning research, we compared our target demographics to PEW Internet data on social media use and consulted Charlene Li and Josh Bernhoff’s guidebook on social media, Groundswell, (2008). As the network grew and we learned more about participant behavior, we tweaked, refined and expanded what and how content was offered in the network. We accepted that not everyone would be a “creator” or a “critic” (Li & Bernhoff, 2008) or complete the curriculum. Instead we embraced their interest in the topic and tried to ensure they learned as much they wanted without worrying about a race to the finish line.

An interesting thing to reflect upon is that I felt compelled to categorize participants, just as we do with MOOCs today. I identified segments of the online community and tagged their profiles: seeking certification, medical students (enrolled in a palliative medicine elective or assigned to an oncology rotation), and members of clergy (who work alongside medical professionals in patient care at end of life) and looked to see if they demonstrated similar or different behaviors than others in the group, looking for predictable patterns or trends. If MOOCs were available then, in 2009, that project very likely would have been a MOOC instead of a PLN. The concepts are very similar: teaching and learning in an openly accessible online environment, with participants led by a subject matter expert through a guided structured curriculum.

I have often said that constructivist MOOCs are PLNs with a new name, something that academics could grasp onto and make sense of (the C, “course”). With a start and an end date, plus an opportunity to control how and when information is disseminated, xMOOCs provide a familiar and safe context that academics feel comfortable exploring. MOOCs are not an entirely new way that educators and learners can meet online, but that’s OK. The scalability questions are interesting and the emergence of platforms dedicated to collecting learner data is new. So, please, carry on.

Let Me Edu-tain You

During the Tuesday evening event at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, a panel of platform spokespersons from FutureLearn, Coursera, Canvas Network* and edX responded to prepared questions from outgoing EDUCAUSE president Diana Oblinger. After a few minutes of standard rhetoric on what MOOC platforms do and don’t do, Anant Argawal (edX) mentioned the “6 minute rule” of video delivery uncovered through analysis of hundreds of thousands of MOOC content data points (Guo, 2014). The 6 minute rule may be true for MOOC enrollees watching lecture videos but it isn’t true for general consumption of other multimedia.

I have been learning a great deal about American politics, Multiple Sclerosis, global affairs and workplace relationships by binge watching The West Wing on Netflix.  Legions of movie goers have no problem sitting through 2.5 hours of a summer blockbuster at the theater. Put a group of kids in the minivan, pop in a Disney DVD, and they will sit and watch at 26 mpg until the tank needs a fill up. instead of making lecture videos shorter to ensure that students watch them, let’s make instructional videos more entertaining.

Sure, giving the academe the Academy treatment is a lot to ask for, but at least stop with the talking heads and the professor talking at the camera from an easy chair. Shoot video out in the field, record in the lab, make some creative editing decisions. I didn’t learn the Pythagorean theorem in Brother Guy’s geometry course in 10th grade; I learned it working on a construction site when I needed to build a straight corner out of 2×4’s.

Lobster Tails

Much of the popular MOOC content is generated at 4-year colleges and universities based on curriculum offered to their regular students. Faculty are creating MOOCs based on syllabi designed for students who have proven mastery of study skills and ability to engage in college at a predetermined level (SAT score, GPA, completion of prerequisite courses). That content and course design is not meant for a global or general audience which is what MOOCs are (supposedly) comprised of.

There is a significant need for high quality OER in community colleges and K12. MOOCs are generating a ton of free content. We need to provide a bridge between the need and the resource. We also need to free up the content and make it accessible in chunks outside the MOOC so pieces can be included in lessons, so a teacher or a class doesn’t have to rely on the full course structure.

For example, publishing a CC-By licensed slidedeck on is an easy way to share content from your course. The “By” ensures you get credit for your work. However, there is nothing ensuring that your ideas and the information you provide will be understood by people who download and share that slidedeck. It is an open resource that is completely open to interpretation (and misinterpretation).

Suggestions for making something as simple as a slidedeck more effective OER:

Include a document providing some background information about the slidedeck: why it was created, the intended audience, recommended background knowledge to fully understand concepts. This information would help people understand more about the slidedeck and might influence their decision to use it or not.

Provide a resource list and some suggestions on what to do to help reinforce lessons expected to be learned. You created the slidedeck — What was your aim? How would you know the content was understood and could be applied? What should be done next, to apply the information and further develop new knowledge? This might be in the form of suggested activities or micro-lesson plans a teacher or self-directed learner could use in conjunction with the slidedeck.

Once content is removed from the “course” it loses it’s context. We can easily provide context for digital materials. It requires more time, attention and effort but increases value for the end user. Participants from the community college sector in attendance at the #LWMOOCS event explained that having access and license to use MOOC content is only a step in the process. Translating that content for a new audience and fostering sensemaking for learners through activities in the classroom or online is a challenge. OER meta data shouldn’t be limited to author name and creation date. We can help teachers teach and students learn by giving them a little bit of insight and a few suggestions along with the content. After all, we don’t serve lobster tails without butter, do we?

The conference was better than expected. The conversation more valuable than I could have hoped. I enjoyed meeting MOOC celebrities. It was a treat to visit the Kennedy museum. I loved nerding out on MOOC research and technical jargon on my birthday.

If you have read this far, thank you. And congratulations! You completed the blog post. I don’t have a digital badge to offer you but I commend you for your attention and commitment. You’d make a great MOOC participant.


*Author is the lead instructional designer and technical consultant for Canvas Network