Reflections on the value of MOOCs

A few weeks ago, Con Sotidis (@LearnKotch) asked me to contribute my perspective to a piece he was writing on MOOCs for a new L&D magazine (“LEO”). Aside from it being a fun thing to do – write a few words, record a short video intro – it prompted me to think a lot about my MOOC experiences, and how they’ve contributed to my professional practice.

I’ve since come across some more perspectives and online conversations on corporate MOOCs, which have further helped flesh out my initial reflections. Conversations on MOOCs definitely seem to be creeping from the domain of higher ed and into the corporate sphere. Some of the items on Corporate MOOCs that caught my interest lately were:

Whilst the IMC report includes some interesting ideas on using MOOCs as part of an organisation’s recruitment strategy, much of the current conversation on the use of MOOCs for learning and development within the corporate context centres on application of the (x)MOOC model for:

  • employee professional development
  • ‘off the shelf’ alternatives to complement existing training offerings and/or
  • incorporating as part of a broader formal learning program.

All of these are certainly promising, and potentially viable for immediate application within a corporate context. And where you have well defined learning objectives or aim to support the development of ‘foundational’ knowledge, highly structured, content driven (x)MOOCs may well be a good option. The (x)MOOC format is also very much aligned to the way formal learning / training is both used and designed in the corporate environment (i.e. specific, well defined learning objectives, structured, linear content-focused course with defined start & end points).

And if we’re talking about introducing MOOCs into (conventionally conservative) corporate environments, starting with MOOC models which don’t dramatically diverge from existing pedagogical frameworks is a sensible approach (or at least an easier pitch to the execs).

However: I am most excited about the possibility of what might happen if we took a (c)MOOC framework and adapted it for a corporate context – how & what it might look like, and what could be achieved. As Michelle mentioned in her post, the social and project aspect of the MOOC is usually the most engaging. But this is often peripheral (if present at all) in the xMOOC format. In contrast, cMOOCs have connection (with other participants, with ideas & concepts) at the core – pedagogy and structure is explicitly designed to support this: it’s primarily about connection rather than just content access and individual knowledge acquisition.

My MOOC experiences

I’ve actively participated in 3 MOOCs:

Whilst the Gamification MOOC via Coursera wasn’t bad – I found the content interesting, the assignments were designed to support real world application of concepts, I  completed all requirements as stated, and even applied some of the concepts in my work. But: I never felt deeply moved, challenged, or inspired. Nor did I connect with anyone in the course. Yes there were discussion forums, and I did visit them once or twice but found the sheer number of disparate conversations overwhelming and hard to follow.

cMOOCs as vehicle for inspiration, behaviour change & community building

In contrast, #xplrpln and #rhizo14 – both ‘c’ (‘Connectivist’) style MOOC experiences have primarily provided the opportunity to meet, engage with and be inspired by a bunch of unique individuals from a range of diverse contexts and backgrounds (higher ed, k-12 ed, academia, not for profit, corporate and more); people who are driven to continually question, challenge, disrupt, explore, change, and improve themselves, others and the status quo.

cMOOCs are usually smaller (not massive – 100s rather than 1000s) – so conversations tend to be more constructive, meaningful and stimulating rather than chaotic, disorganised and inaccessible as they are in the more massive xMOOCs. This combined with a generally low structure, connectivist approach, focused on exploring and reflecting on complex, ill structured problems, or issues with no single or clear answer (thus necessarily requiring collaboration and in depth discussion with others to make meaning of the ambiguity); and conducted out in the open web (rather than on closed, private platforms) – all helps to both attract people who thrive in these environments, and to support the rapport building that results in close PLN relationships which persist long after the ‘course’ ends (> since the MOOC is conducted on social platforms participants already use, conversations simply continue on those platforms after the course ‘ends’).

Although I’ve only participated in two cMOOCs, they may be two of the most impactful personal and professional development experiences I’ve had – not simply because they exposed me to a whole range of new perspectives – and changed my perspective, thinking & mindset on a whole load of things (which has had a flow-on effect on the way I approach what I do at work). But what has been absolutely critical has been the people I have met, conversations I’ve had, collaborations I have engaged in, and stuff I’ve made . Many of these connections have become close members of my PLN and led to number of ongoing collaborations after the event which have contributed far greater to personal and professional development than any conventional course. Many of these collaborations are focused on building networks and communities, bringing people and ideas together:


My cMOOC collaborations – click on the image for the interactive version via ThingLink with more info on connections and collaborations >

What I get out of the cMOOC experience is not necessarily practical strategies, ideas or actions that I can apply directly to my workplace (which I might get from say, an industry event, workshop, conference targeted to the field of corporate L&D that I work – or indeed, an xMOOC targeted to a domain of knowledge or skill I have a need to develop). Yet it’s something that actually has greater value than practical application: it’s the shift in mindset that results from engaging with people who are driven to continually question, experiment, explore and improve -> it’s that you start to adopt this mindset yourself too. Start to see challenges as opportunities to explore possibilities, become a little braver, make the leap from thinking about experimenting to actually doing it. No longer (as) afraid of being challenged, but open to it – inviting challenge rather than being defensive. It’s more than just being inspired. It’s inspiration + action to = change. Change in the way you think, learn and act – about life, work, learning, and yourself. It is the personal, human connections and inspiration that Clarissa speaks eloquently of in her posts on #CLMOOC and #Rhizo14.

It’s the type of engagement that most conventional courses and programs dream of achieving, and it’s the reason why I get so frustrated with the continual focus on ‘completion’ as a means to evaluate the effectiveness or value of MOOCs. It’s not about completion; it’s about engagement. And thought-provoking, behaviour-changing engagement can be triggered even through one conversation or experience – as long as it’s with the right people, at the right time, and at the right level.

cMOOCs as a framework to support workplace goals?

So: how might cMOOCs be adapted to add value in a corporate context?

I’m wondering if the MOOC framework could be set up such that it directly supports the workplace goals: by using a connectivist, problem based learning approach, where participants collectively work on a relevant, ill defined problem; where objectives aren’t always clear from the outset (or defined by participants rather than the instructor) – and where there certainly isn’t any single ‘correct’ answer to the problem >> much like in the real world. This was the approach used in the ‘Exploring PLNs’ cMooc and it was very effective. And if the experiences ARE actually open, there is the potential to support global, cross-organisational / cross-context, (as well as intra-organisational) collaboration and knowledge/experience sharing – which could be the most exciting of all > not just breaking silos within organisations but across organisations and contexts (e.g. institutional: where you might possibly have say ppl from higher ed, teachers etc collaborating with corporate). We know that innovation comes from taking ideas and applying them in novel ways or contexts – it commonly happens at the boundaries of CoPs or in open, diverse networks – thus this *could* be a way of pitching it to corporates who are generally pretty guarded about ‘sharing’ organisational knowledge. Sure we might be a little way from this and yes there may be barriers to getting there, but as Maha reminds us in her email signature:

“We must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.” –