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How big is a MOOC? Double the number from one week to another

<< Online educators congregate like MOOCers to the eduMOOC light
Revised: 3/07/2011 by User:Mackiwg

"How long is the world's longest piece of string?". Some might answer: "Double the length from one end to the middle." So how big is the "massive" in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)? ... and does it matter?

There are some things which work because they are big. For example, Wikinomics alerted us to research about the economics of mass collaboration by studying encyclopaedias, operating systems, mutual funds, and many other items which are being created by teams numbering in the thousands. We know that thousands of editors don't necessarily collaborate on single Wikipedia articles, but that the functioning of mass open communities and their ecosystems enable things that are not possible with small closed teams. Similarly, MOOCs can register thousands of participants but active and visible participation is but a fraction of the numbers which sign up. What does this mean for teaching and learning?

It is important for the OERu to think about the "massive" in MOOCs and aspects of the model which could be implemented. The OERu eduMOOC study and planning group are considering these questions with the view to identifying the strengths and weaknesses for implementation in the OER university which will provide for-credit options for OER learners. If the OERu aims to provide free learning opportunities for all students worldwide, the requirement for scalable pedagogical approaches is an important consideration.

Large courses are not a new phenomenon. I recall early in my academic career been allocated the responsibility of coordinating the "Didactics" section of the first year course in Education at the University of South Africa which at the time had +12,000 students. Here I learned about the scalability of the distance education model. So it would appear that size is not all that matters but it is likely to be a contributing factor.

Michael Porter (and others), drawing on percolation theory have introduced the concept of a "critical threshold". This is the threshold at which a critical mass is summonsed. Below the threshold, the concept will abort but above the threshold the concept will grow exponentially. The critical threshold is the point at which there is a decisive and sustainable "competitive advantage" above alternate choices. I wonder whether there is a critical threshold of participants for a MOOC to facilitate connectivist learning? If so, at what level of enrolment do the unique characteristics of a MOOC operationalise to trigger the benefits when considering the high attrition rates? 100, 300, 500, 1000 or 2500 participants?

MOOCs are distinctive in that they are free, open, large and online when compared to costly, closed, small and usually face-to-face associated with the dominant form of delivery in the formal post-secondary sector. MOOCs integrate the connectivity of social networking. "Perhaps most importantly, however, a MOOC builds on the active engagement of several hundred to several thousand “students” who self-organize their participation according to learning goals, prior knowledge and skills, and common interests" (See McAuley, Stewart, Siemens and Cormier. 2010 in The MOOC Model for digital practice.)

Meaningful learning using social networking approaches can conceivably occur with small numbers of learners -- So do we need to worry about MOOC attrition rates? Paradoxically a large percentage of learning in the formal education context takes place in solitude and is very often restricted to student-content interactions in the absence of social networking. This is not too make a value judgement about the nature or quality of the learning, but there is something distinctive about the mix of attributes associated with a MOOC and the notion of a critical threshold of learners. Gaining a better understanding of what these may be will help us in designing better delivery models and options for the OERu.

Hopefully we can avoid the seductive allure of assuming causality between teaching approaches and learning. For instance, a constructivist teaching approach does not guarantee constructivist learning any more than the possibility for deep learning to occur with positivist teaching approaches. Perhaps David Ausubel was onto something all those years ago suggesting two learning continuums. One on the continuum of meaningful to rote learning and the other on the continuum of reception to discovery learning. While not intuitive, rote discovery learning is both plausible and possible.

Tags: oeru, edumooc

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