Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MOOCs: Forging Diversity and Innovation

The world of education, workplace learning, talent development – in short anyone and everyone connected with learning in some way – are talking, debating, evaluating, exploring, and generally trying to wrap their brains around this phenomenon called MOOCs. It’s now a given that MOOCs are here to stay. It’s becoming evident that despite the high dropout rates, critiques of being elitist and accessible to only a handful, and other similar drawbacks, MOOCs have becoming firmly entrenched in the collective psyche of the academia as well as workplace learning.

IMHO, MOOCs, apart from opening up a much-needed debate around the current structure of education and giving the academic world a good shake, has untapped and unexplored potentials. MOOCs by virtue of being open and online bring together a diverse set of people around a common topic. And as we have been seeing time and again, diversity is the cornerstone of innovation. If society and educators can get the model right, MOOCs have a very high potential to forge connects and facilitate collaboration among widely diverse sets of individuals at a global level.

Here’s an illuminating article by Scott Page called Diversity Powers Innovation. There’s a paragraph that talks about diversity, not of color and language, but of thought: “Diversity usually calls to mind differences in race, gender, ethnicity, physical capabilities, and sexual orientation—social or political differences that at first glance have little to do with innovation. Yet the key to innovation, in economic terms, resides inside the heads of people, the more diverse the better.”

MOOCs with their core course supported by a discussion forum offer a unique opportunity for diverse minds to come together around a common theme. While the current focus is on how many individuals are completing the MOOCs they enroll in, how many are being certified and if organizations are willing to recognize and reward a MOOC certification, what if the focus was to shift. How would a discussion forum in a MOOC evolve if participants were asked to share their individual perspectives on the topic, to think as widely as possible? I agree that for discussions to have both width and depth in any meaningful manner, the facilitators would need to be skilled at conducting debates and discussions online, encourage participation and cull out hidden voices; but that lies in the realm of implementation.

Right now, I am thinking “what if”...

Given that MOOCs have the ability to bring together global participants, can they move to the next level to induce and inspire innovative thoughts and discussions? MOOCs break down – at least to some extent – the economic and regional barriers. Unlike universities where strict entrance criteria filter out aspiring students, MOOCs do not have such filtering mechanism. Moreover, because the filtering mechanism in most universities operate at a cognitive level, they automatically filter out learners with different abilities thus moving a step closer to removing diversity – maybe not of color, race or religion – but of thought. Unless we consider the access to technology or lack thereof as a filter, which it of course is. Would it be too much of a stretch to say that many universities, unless consciously aware, can become an echo chamber and foster homophily instead of diversity?

Devoid of specific filtering out mechanisms, MOOCs have the advantage of being more democratic than most universities. And as such, welcoming to a wider variety of individuals. Can MOOCs then lay the ground for innovation? If the fear is that online communities can’t innovate, and individuals must be in the same space to have truly meaningful discussions and work together, the creation of Linux by denies that claim. It showed how passionate people can come together online and make innovative breakthroughs. In this context, The Art of Community by Jono Bacon is a must read.

I believe MOOCs have the latent possibility to create strong communities, not only individual learners. Rather than only exploring how MOOCs can benefit individuals, if the focus were to shift to how MOOCs can cultivate communities across various disciplines, get people to create together, and bring to bear the power of diversity, we would perhaps see a dramatic shift. MOOCs are an outcome of the post-industrial era and are a representation of a profound shift in outlook. MOOCs, empowered by the principles of Connectivism, came into being to leverage the power of ubiquitous connectivity, the collaborative capacity, and to offer individuals a way to customize their own learning experience through participation, sharing and peer-to-peer learning. All of these laid the foundation for a democratized, pull-based learning model with the learner at the center. 

These same qualities can be used to enable communities to flourish. Such communities will be based on cognitive diversity and passion for learning. Scott Page distinguished between cognitive and identity diversity in his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Cognitive diversity is a necessity when dealing with complex problems. And in a world beset with complex challenges and a need for innovative and creative output, fostering and enabling cognitive diversity to flourish is critical.

MOOCs offer a great platform for fostering, engendering and enabling cognitive diversity

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