Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Makes a MOOC a MOOC?

MOOCs have taken the world of higher ed and corporate learning by the proverbial storm. When George Siemens, Dave Cormier and Stephen Downes came up with the concept in 2008, they had a vision of how a “learning design” based on Connectivism could change the face of learning and collaboration. The OER movement was the trigger for the MOOCs then. The MOOCs evolved and morphed as all things new must going through its various avatars of cMOOCs, xMOOCs, with more to come.

None of this is new information or insight. Then why bother writing about it you may ask.
As a learning designer in the workplace learning and “performance” space, I encounter this query quite often —“how can we design learning/training programs for employees that are cheaper and yet more effective”—often enough to realize that corporates are desperately looking for a learning model / methodology / format that will enable new skill acquisition, just-in-time learning, and provide employees with the skills required to perform better. Most organizations (hopefully) have accepted that learning is crucial to their strategy for growth and performance, and if done right, has a direct impact on the bottom line. However, the flipside is that training and other forms of structured, top down learning—the pillars of organizational learning so far—are tottering. They are no longer cutting the ice. Employees are rejecting them; L&D is desperately trying to prove the ROI of these programs while employees are finding their own means of acquiring the required skills and knowledge.

Added to this is the relentless pressure to do more with less – both on organizations and on employees. Many smart employees who have invested time and effort in building their own learning networks are turning to their PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) for help at the point of need. They are using various tools for PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) and taking onus of their own learning. Refer to Harold Jarche’ blog for a deeper understanding of PKM.

However, not everyone comes with the skills of knowing how to learn and require support. L&D needs to be – no, actually MUST BE – in this space enabling employees “learn how to learn”, facilitate networking and knowledge sharing skills, and help to connect the edges of the organization to its center such that all can benefit.
Into this space enters MOOCs! MOOCs, apart from being massive, open and online, has certain underlying characteristics that – if tapped into – can lay the groundwork for building a learning organization.

I will try to define what I mean by a learning organization since definitions abound. For the purpose of this post, this is how I choose to define a learning organization. 
  1. It’s as flat as possible and even if hierarchies exist, they do not interfere with knowledge sharing, empowered decision making or trust. Trust, respect, and sharing are the mantras. 
  2. It encourages – no, celebrates – diversity, and not only the obvious ones of gender, race, and religion, but the more subtle and hidden ones of thoughts and opinions, approaches and skills, experience and background. 
  3. Knowledge sharing is actively encouraged, facilitated, and rewarded. Knowledge hoarding and hoarders are weeded out. 
  4. Everyone is encouraged to build their own PLNs – both within and outside of the organization. 
  5. The organizational walls are porous such that the outside can flow in without too much of a challenge while sensitive information is protected. 


Looks like a tall order but not impossible for certain!

How does all of this relate to MOOCs? The nature of the MOOC model has the potential, IMHO, to trigger some of the movement towards enabling organizations becoming a learning organization, and I have expanded on some of the thoughts below.
MOOCs, based on the principles of Connectivism, comes with aspects of collaboration included. One cannot put up a set of courses on a platform and call that a MOOC unless the following also exist: 
  1. The employees can access any course at any point of time 
  2. The courses are curated and updated regularly to keep the content current and relevant 
  3. The employees have the ability to form groups, discuss and learn from each other, i.e., the principles of Peeragogy is applied. The learning is not restricted to only the MOOC content. 
  4. User generated content is encouraged and feeds into the courses keeping them contextual and current 
  5. L&D dons the hat of community managers, curators and connectors enabling employees to find the right course, access the right discussion forums and reach out to expertise when needed


All of this implies a MOOC philosophy that is not course-centric but learner-centric. Access to good quality courses via a technologically sound platform is the bare minimum—the hygiene factor for starting a MOOC. What will make MOOCs successful in an organizational setting is the philosophy driving the whole endeavor.

My concern is that organizations will jump onto the MOOC bandwagon gunning for a platform with a set of courses, much like when organizations tried to become social businesses by putting an enterprise collaboration platform in place and claiming to have become an E2.0 org. The philosophy behind a MOOC is very different. The word Open can imply much more than access to all employees. For successful MOOC implementations, organizations must re-visit the word Open from the aspects of transparency, collaboration and cooperation.

MOOCs designed around relevant content should act as triggers for collaboration and social learning. Hence, the role of an enterprise community (learning) manager could become even more imperative in the success of a MOOC. Participating in a MOOC is not only about going through a series of courses; it is more about the forming connections, making sense of complexity and enabling each other see new insights in the same course. Hence, the discussions or context will be more important than content. This is what will differentiate a MOOC from any old course running on an LMS.  

The allure of reduced cost and wide dissemination of courses with the help of technology can blindside organizations to the actual requirements. However, alert and knowledgeable L&D departments will realize that going the MOOC way requires 1. a comprehensive change management strategy, 2. a sound content management plan, and 3. a focus on community management.    

While MOOCs have the capability to make learning more effective at a reduced cost, the approach requires a fundamental shift in how we typically think of learning. While the “C” in MOOCs stand for courses, a MOOC is much more than a course. Learning cannot be and shouldn’t be controlled and managed the way it used to be during the LMS era. 

Organizations will have to trust that employees will cherry pick what they need to and want to learn as and when they need it. Rather than tracking course completion, it’s time to track performance output. Measures for evaluating the impact of a MOOC on employee performance will need to be thought through and directly linked to the organizational goals and vision. 

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