Who are MOOCs for? Confused personal thoughts.

This post grapples with an idea that I’m still coming to understand, but that feels important: namely, who participates in open online courses, what are the elements of privilege that we overlook in planning and running course, who benefits, and why?

When we first opened up Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008, Stephen and I weren’t expecting the response that we received. We had to quickly scramble to organize the course to reflect, first several hundred and then several thousand participants. And the term massive open online course (MOOC) was born. We approached Dave Cormier to help us run the course, especially the live sessions.

Since that first course, we’ve run almost a dozen open courses with over 10,000 participants. I’ve often had the pleasure of meeting former course participants at conferences or, increasingly, other open online courses. It has been a great learning experience for me.

I’ve never really thought about “who are these courses for”. I always figured that they are for whoever decides to show up. Similarly, when I published Knowing Knowledge and the Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning, my goal was not to target a particular group, but rather to just open things up and share.

However, after several years of running open courses and meeting colleagues from around the world, I’ve slightly changed my mind as to the ideal participant that I hope will benefit from the course. Many educators are in an environment of embarrassing abundance. As much as I whine about closed journals, I can still access any article I want through the university library. If someone doesn’t want to take an open course with us, there are many others to choose from. Better yet, they can tap into their personal network and setup their own course. Lean on a few personal connections and suddenly you’ve got a reasonably well-organized course with at least some level of technical support. To promote the course, share it on educational listservs, online publications, and blogs.

We can move from idea to open course to promotion to delivery in a fairly short period. Underlying that process, however, is a wealth of support that is easy to overlook. And it’s easy to forget that even being able to run an open course requires a certain degree of privilege. We say “free, open, online” and forget that we host our own servers, have some degree of institutional support, have an existing network that we can tap into to develop and promote the course, etc.

Stephen Downes and I have had several chats about why connectivism seems to have a greater impact in certain parts of the world. For example, I receive a significant amount of correspondence from South America. Why? I haven’t a clue. This past week I was in South Africa and received numerous comments from educators on the value of the Handbook for Emerging Technologies for Learning in helping them to understand how to use technology. Apparently it is being used as a bit of a text at the University of South Africa (UNISA).

It has dawned on me that MOOCs, and openness in general, are not necessarily for those who are trying to work within the existing education system. Open online courses and resources seem to impact those who outside of the traditional education system and in countries that don’t have universities in the “global top 100”. For example, UNISA has over 374,000 students. Harvard has less than 5% of UNISA’s total. Who makes a greater impact in the world? Harvard and other elite universities conduct research that might well alter the course of human history. UNISA and other similar universities alter the lives of single individuals.

Openness in research, education, and scholarship may well have the capacity to alter society and universities. Big changes change big institutions. There is, however, something very gratifying about interacting with individuals, with people who have taken an open course and have been able to improve their teaching practices and their connections with students.

I’m not comfortable with how I’m communicating my thoughts on this. I had a long conversation a few weeks ago with Athabasca University colleagues – Terry Anderson and Jon Dron – about the value of informal publishing in contrast with traditional journals. Publishing an article with a well-regarded journal is important for gaining recognition with peers. Publishing on the open web is important for making an impact with people who might lack the privilege that many of us take for granted. Interestingly, this is often in parts of the world that are forecast to be major regions in future economies. These emerging countries are jostling for identity and place in the world. The ideas they encounter, at least the educators, are those that are open and accessible.

Perhaps it’s time to see the question of openness less from an economic perspective and more from a perspective of contributing, in a very limited but personal way, the shape of education systems in emerging economies. As much as I value positive comments from colleagues, the experience of a teacher shaking my hand and thanking me for posting something online is deeply rewarding.

But it is here that my unease increases. Do I actually think I’m making a difference? Doesn’t it seem very arrogant to proclaim “look, I’m helping people in country XX”? I’m well aware of the prospect of arrogance. I had this feeling several times at UNISA when someone was overly complimentary about my work. On the one hand, I didn’t mind the praise. But on the other hand, I certainly didn’t feel worthy of it. This post holds those same tensions for me: I want to influence those people who don’t have the privilege and access that I, and many of my peers, have. But, in declaring that “I want to help or influence”, I find that unpalatable sense of over-reaching and attempting to inject ideas into areas and regions that should be developing and exporting *their* ideas, not simply importing those from well-meaning, but largely clueless, people from other regions and contexts.

17 Responses to “Who are MOOCs for? Confused personal thoughts.”

  1. Luz Pearson says:

    Hi George, brave post. I thought on this too.
    MOOCs help me to learn and inspire me on my work, I design online courses on connectivism and other topics using the base of the moocs model, from what I experienced as a participant.
    I dont know the stadistics but I really think that countries like mine (Argentina) and others that don´t have a strong economy -but yes strong and constant crisis-… we are used to “change”, we need it to survive. MOOCs are a good platform for that.

    A MOOC experience and the design of courses of this kind teach that is allowed to think another way of learning, let knowledge to grow, to imagine different organizations for education. The clue is sharing. For love or because you need it, you can´t make it alone.
    Thanks, Luz

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Luz – I appreciate your comments about your familiarity with change in Argentina. I had a similar sense at UNISA. The motive and desire to change is high and the capabilities of individuals to enact that change is equally strong.

  2. Pamela Ryan says:

    Hi George. I’ve been thinking about this since you visited Unisa last week and as one of those who expressed joy at experiencing the “privilege” of listening to you speak. While I picked up that you were uncomfortable, I was in no way being disingenuous but let me reflect on what it really meant to have you with us for a week in South Africa. unisa hosts multitudes of visiting scholars in many different disciplines so it wasn’t just that you came from “the north”. No, the sense of specialness was the timing of your visit to coincide with that teetering moment of imminent change as Unisa stares its online future in the face and reaches out to touch it. Like it or not, you are a scholar who embodies the future in your thinking, your research, your blogs and your MOOCS and when a relatively small percentage of Unisa staff heard your ideas last week, it brought our future a little bit closer and for that I, for one, am grateful.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Pamela – what a lovely statement! “No, the sense of specialness was the timing of your visit to coincide with that teetering moment of imminent change as Unisa stares its online future in the face and reaches out to touch it.”

      As I mentioned several times in the conference, I was very impressed with the energy and enthusiasm for experimentation and change with conference attendees. When you confront people with that level of passion, you (or at least I :) ) feel a burden of responsibility in making sure that I don’t over speak, over promise, the prospect of change or over identity the direction needed to make that change a reality. Several years ago I was speaking at a conference in Ohio and tried to communicate that the expertise needed to make the changes they envisioned existed within their institution, not with so called external experts that fly in, proclaim the way to the promised land, and then leave. Similarly, the expertise within UNISA is fully capable of meeting the transition challenges needed. Us speakers need to know our place :) .

      Thanks for your kind comment, Pamela. I’m glad I was able to be part of an outstanding conference. It was motivating to see the passion and enthusiasm within UNISA!!

  3. Lisa M Lane says:

    Sounds a little like an examination of imperialism as being altruistic or exploitative.

    I wonder whether one could frame this without reference to the content. In other words, you may or may not be “helping” people with the content of what you say or write. In some places, that content may be inappropriate or offensive, but in others it may be inspiring and informative.

    Rather, through MOOCs you’re creating an opportunity for an exchange of ideas. And in a world where differences of ideas can lead to bad results, a safe place to exchange them is, in itself, valuable, particular in that the overarching topic is simply education. You create a place for a conversation about the future.

    So the content may or may not be “helpful”, but the forum you provide most certainly is.

    Now if you were saying that, even though you’re coming from a place of privilege, your ideas are simply superior to everyone else’s and should be applied worldwide, that’s a whole different thing. There are people like this, who don’t change their mind when they encounter new ideas, or who don’t think those ideas are valuable. You aren’t one of those.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Lisa – good point about moocs as opportunities for idea exchange. I’ve found since our first offering that participants take things in directions that they desire. This corrective or feedback loop is important in making sure that one voice or perspective isn’t injecting into a context where it is not helpful. The value of openness is more than only about accessibility – it’s about the ability for individuals to contextualize the discussion and the content to reflect their needs and circumstances.

  4. Hi George,

    I think there is an interesting dynamic at work here, between the work you are doing to open up education and the desire for the developing world to be educated.

    You are coming from a privileged position, in some parts of the world you are lucky if you make to your thirties! So why shouldn’t you share? I am drawn to the wonderful possibilities of turning the less fortunate on to learning. Illiteracy is poverty, there are over 100 million young people world wide that can’t read, let alone tweet.

    The people that are interested in changing education may see a future when their children will have access to an education and a path out of the slum. In any case you are educating their educators.

    I’m a noob to MOOCs but if they inspire people to think about the possibilities, and give a voice to others, then they are something to get excited about.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Brett – your mention of education as a way out of the slum resonates with my experience in South Africa. I saw an excellent video – Testing Hope (not online, but a dvd can be purchased) – about how many families in poor communities turn to education as a point of release from their circumstances. The burden for older children is enormous. Failure to succeed academically is to resign their family to continued poverty.

  5. [...] not be able to afford the time or money to attend such an in-person conference. In a recent post, George Siemens wonders who MOOCs are for. As he suggests, it’s difficult to target any one group narrowly for a MOOC, but this type of [...]

  6. Paul Prinsloo says:

    George – I am scared that if I compliment you on the post, that you may feel (again) ‘unworthy’ :-) .

    Tim Harford (2011:37) in his latest book “Adapt” quotes H.R. McMaster who said (referring to the war in Vietnam ” It’s so damn complex. If you ever think you have the solution to this, you’re wrong and you’re dangerous”.

    Sharing resources freely and openly (like you and many others do) is not arrogant. It is for those of use who encounter them to decide whether and how these resources can be used.

    Though there are claims that such sharing is neo-colonialism and imperialistic, I suspect if we consider all content (whether open or not) as ideological; then the playing fields are relatively level?

    Personally I have come to realise that the change we wish to see happen are often (if not mostly) outside our locus of control. But we increase the number and quality of feedback loops.

    Lastly, though the act of sharing is mostly well-meaning; it takes place in the context of power-relations and socio-economic realities.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Paul – thanks for assisting in my public counselling needs!

      Love that McMaster quote.

      You make an important point about the role of the recipient in resource sharing. Obviously, they decide what to use and what not to use. And you are right – all curriculum has some ideological orientation. The relationship between producer/sharer and recipient/user is more nuanced that I detailed in my post.

      Thanks again for an outstanding event, Paul! A true privilege to have connected with you, Pam, and UNISA!

  7. Ana Chavez says:

    Short and friendly comment from South America:

    We find connectivism and all of your ideas very interesting, as well as Stephen and Dave’s ideas. There is a big and growing interest for what’s new in education around the world, and some are trying to make the most out of the content all of you share even when specially in our country (Venezuela) the topics still fall into the ‘new’ category.

    I’m a teacher and I try to engage in as many courses and information as I can, through twitter and reading as many blogs possible, discovering and learning many new things that I am able to apply to my own way of teaching. So I think is important for me to say that definitely, all of your ideas are making an impact.


    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Ana – I appreciate the South America view! You are absolutely right about the growing interest in “what is new” in education globally. It’s a fascinating and exciting time to be in this field! Thanks for your positive comments…

  8. Good post, George, and you tap into many of the thoughts I’ve had on the subject as well.

    There is an incessant pressure to serve the Harvards and the academic journals of the world. The base motivation is money: supporting these will result in better jobs and better pay. And there’s also an appeal to an intellectual elitism – supporting these will influence the minds of people who really do make a difference in the world.

    The sad part is not that it’s a lie, it’s that it’s true. You can have a lot more impact, and live a much better life, by accommodating the rich and powerful. And yet… and yet… they won’t allow you to change things beyond a certain point. They won’t allow you to create real change in the world. When you publish an essay on OERs in a locked-down journal, you get a good feeling for this restriction.

    The demographics of popularity and support get pretty simple after that.

  9. Nicola Avery says:

    Hi George, this might be totally irrelevant but it kind of struck a chord
    “physical clarity cannot be achieved in a form until there is first some programmatic clarity in the designer’s mind and actions and that for this to be possible, in turn, the designer must first trace his design problem to its earliest functional origins and be able to find a pattern in them…

    …the form is the part of the world over which we have control and which we decide to shape, while leaving the rest of the world as it is. The context is that part of the world which puts demands on this form; anything that makes demand of this form is context. Fitness is a relation of mutual acceptability between these two”

    Alexander C (1964), pp15, 18, 19, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notes_on_the_Synthesis_of_Form

  10. debseed says:

    We are an outcome of our cultural backgrounds. There is nothing we can do to change that. What we can do, and what you are doing, is to share knowledge and experiences.

    Whatever our backgrounds, its in the human nature to learn. Open it up and people will seek.


    [from a caravan in a field in Lancashire, UK)

  11. I think this is an ivory tower vs. public library debate. In an ivory tower you may influence a lot of the movers and shakers, but its in the public library that you are likely to encounter those who, (like Carl Marx) will change the world.