MOOCs as Participatory Culture

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged a few first impressions of the open, online education platform Coursera. One aspect of the Coursera learning experience that grabbed my attention was the formation of location-, language-, and medium-based study groups. If you’re taking the Coursera cryptography course and (a) live in London or (b) speak Greek or (c) prefer to discuss course content via Google Hangouts, then there’s a study group for you.

The idea of ad hoc, location-based study groups as components of open, online courses had occurred to me. I hadn’t thought about the need for language-based groups, but that’s obvious in hindsight. Medium-based study groups definitely didn’t occur to me, but they’re a great example of students taking ownership of their learning and building what they need to learn more effectively.

Similar student-created course structures emerged during MITx’s first open, online course, one on circuits and electronics. In this news item from MIT, professor Anant Agarwal describes a few such structures. Some of the circuits-and-electronics students didn’t want to stop learning at the end of the course, and they organized an online version of the follow-up course, one on signals and systems, using materials already available through MIT’s OpenCourseWare program.

“They’re now a bonded community,” Agarwal says. “They asked us if there was a way they could keep the community alive. So we agreed not to take the [6.002x] website down. All the students who had previous accounts could continue interacting on the discussion forums and so on.”

Imagine that, students who valued their learning community enough to continue it after the end of the course! I remember hearing a talk by Gardner Campbell several years ago in which he described something similar happening through his course blog. Since the blog didn’t go away at the end of the semester, some students kept contributing to it even though the course was over. In fact, former students of the course interacted with current students through the blog platform. As Gardner says, platforms that are “public and persistent” make possible some valuable student interactions.

The MIT news item goes on to mention other student creations:

Students also wrote their own programs to augment the MITx platform, which the edX team made available through the wiki dedicated to 6.002x. An online text viewer that made the course textbook easier to read from mobile devices was one example; a program that allowed students to queue up several videos to play in sequence, so that they could watch lectures while performing other household tasks, was another.

How often do your students build things (digital or otherwise) that enhance their learning experiences in a course?

I’ve written here before about social pedagogies, approaches to teaching in which students construct knowledge by representing that knowledge for authentic audiences. Students can be each other’s authentic audience, and, when they are, a course becomes a community. Social motivations, such as the desire to part a part of a community and to share with that community, are powerful motivations, and the MITx course seems to have tapped into these motivations to become an example of what Henry Jenkins calls participatory culture.

It’s easy to see a MOOC (a massive, online, open course, like the ones offered by Coursera or MITx) as a digital-age version of a correspondence course. An instructor posts some lecture videos, students watch those videos, and then students submit homework for grading. And some MOOCs probably work that way. But that simplistic view of a MOOC misses the kinds of community interactions described above. And those interactions, ones where students continue learning after a course is over, ones where they build things to contribute to the learning community, are signs that some MOOCs are much more than correspondence courses.

Image: “Barn Raising,” Kelly Ida Scope, Flickr (CC)

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