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You either love a good dichotomy or you don’t.

This is about online learning, mostly in higher education.

Especially in the wake of the UVA fiasco, I’ve been pondering online learning and the term “MOOC” (massively open online course), which I believe has been co-opted from folks like George Siemens, Dave Cormier, and Steven Downes. Those guys taught the Connectivism MOOC in 2008 and, most recently, the Change11 MOOC. Here’s a bit of a history of their courses. Dave Cormier made the video below in December 2010:

In a similar vein, though clearly with their own spin and innovations, Jim Groom et al. have been offering ds106 (digital storytelling) as a MOOC in recent years.

Then, along came the folks at Coursera and Udacity and Udemy and… It’s unclear if the founders of these entities explicitly adopted the MOOC terminology or if the “mainstream” media applied the term to those outfits. What’s clear, though, is that these extra-university courses have become nearly synonomous with MOOCs in the MSM (see e.g. this article in Inside Higher Ed. on MOOCs).

So, what we have, essentially, are two VERY different kinds of MOOCs. David Kernohan points to an article written by Steve Carson, which makes the distinction between the Stanford & MITx-ish MOOCs and the “Siemens-Downes-Wiley” variety. Kernohan writes,

But fundamentally there are two kinds of MOOC because there are two competing cultural conceptualisations of the learning process, both of which have value and relevance but which have become politically (small P) polarised. The first, I guess, is easier to monetize as it treats the idea of an expert as a saleable resource.

Hence my categorisation, drawing on Stallman’s legendary “free as in freedom/free as in beer” (libre/free) dichotomy.

Some courses are open as in door. You can walk in, you can listen for free. Others are open as in heart. You become part of a community, you are accepted and nurtured.

So, that’s our first dichotomy…

The second dichotomy comes from Mike Caulfield who writes about “residential online.” Caulfield sees two possible futures for higher education, driven by online learning. He writes that “[w]e can let online evolve outside the residential college experience” or “[t]he other vision is that residential colleges aggressively pursue building online capacity and integrate online seamlessly into the residential experience.”

Maybe these dichotomies are, instead, ends of spectra, in which case we could put them together to create a set of axes like this (my artwork is exquisite, I know…):

[NOTE: I’ve labeled the endpoints on the x-axis as “community” vs. “content.” IMHO, that’s what’s at the heart of the MOOC dichotomy. That is, the Stanford & MITx-ish MOOCs are about content mastery whereas the “Siemens-Downes-Wiley” MOOCs are about knowledge construction in community.]

So, maybe near-future learning experiences can be placed somewhere on this set of axes. Or, maybe not… (See what I did there?)


UPDATE: Immediately after posting this, I realized the overlap with something that Roger Schank and Kemi Joma wrote in 1999 (not even in the 21st Century!!!). Extracurriculars as the curriculum: A Vision of education for the 21st Century imagines a future somewhere in the top-right quadrant of the set of axes. It’s noteworthy that Schank & Jona wrote about the role of teachers shifting to something more akin to camp counselors, especially considering that the crazy kids running DS106 this summer have framed it within a camping narrative.

UPDATE #2: A tweet from Jennifer Dalby pointed me to David Wiley’s post on The MOOC Misnomer and to a post by Debbie Morrison about what MOOCs are and aren’t. These are good reads, but I want to add that my set of axes are about online learning more generally, and not just about “MOOCs.” I think, ultimately, we’ll have lots of different varieties of Web-based learning experiences (I’m purposely using the language of “learning experience(s) instead of “course(s), BTW). They will vary by enrollment numbers, degrees of “openness,” etc. One additional characteristic of learning experiences may be whether or not there’s some form of accreditation attached (i.e. university credit, a badge, etc.). I do believe the term MOOC will ultimately disappear from our lexicon.

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