When someone talks about actually having several thousand people come to class, I’m all ears—as I was again last weekend while serving on a panel discussion on the closing day of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC) 98th Annual Conference here in San Francisco.
The conversation, built around the question of how massive open online courses (MOOCs) are changing universities, gave moderator Amanda Sturgill (Elon University School of Communications) and the four of us serving as panelists a wonderful opportunity to explore, with session attendees, some of the pleasures and challenges of designing and facilitating these still-evolving learning opportunities. Each of the four of us—my colleagues on the panel included David Carlson (University of Florida College School of Journalism and Communications), Daniel Heimpel (University of California, Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy), and Bozena Mierzejewska (Fordham University Gabelli School of Business)—has had hands-on experience with designing and facilitating MOOCs. Each of us, with little discussion, agreed that we see MOOCs augmenting rather than posing a threat to higher education. We acknowledged that preparing for a MOOC is a time-consuming, intense experience requiring plenty of collaboration and coordination of efforts. And we seemed to be in agreement that a MOOC can be means to an end: a MOOC on journalism for social change, for example, engages learners as journalists whose work has the possibility of being published, and a MOOC on educational technology and media engages trainer-teacher-learners in the act of learning about ed-tech by exploring and using ed-tech while ultimately (and unexpectedly) leading to a sustainable community of learning that continues to evolve long after the formal coursework ends.
But perhaps the most meaningful observations were those that took us to the heart of why we are engaged in designing, delivering, and promoting MOOCs: we became teacher-trainer-learners because we want to help people, and MOOCs are a great way to achieve that goal if learners have access to the content and if they are supported in learning how to learn in our online environments. Furthermore, MOOCs provide additional ways to meet the ever-growing lifelong-learning needs so many of us encounter. As each of us discussed projects in which we have been involved, we and our audience members gained a deeper appreciation for the variety of explorations currently underway.
Heimpel, for example, brought a couple of his own somewhat overlapping worlds together to the benefit of learners in his solutions-based journalism course, Journalism for Social Change, earlier this year. Combining the platform he has through UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy with his role as publisher at The Chronicle of Social Change, he was able to nurture course participants in their explorations of a specific social issue (child abuse) while providing publication opportunities for those whose work reached professional levels.
Mierzejewska, in her position at Fordham, had an entirely different opportunity: the chance to work with colleagues at four other academic institutions (Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Simon Fraser University, and Stanford University) in an Open Knowledge: Changing the Course of Global Learning MOOC while creating something that another of my colleagues (Jeff Merrell, at Northwestern University) has been exploring—a MOOC that has its expected online presence along with onsite interactions among some of the learners. Her preliminary report online is a fabulous case study of what this type of blended learning produces; it includes her up-front observation that being involved in the MOOC “was actually very inspiring and eye-opening to what students can learn online only and how you can enrich those experiences with classes that are flipped.”
Carlson was our resident rock star with his description of what went into the making and delivery of his Music’s Big Bang: The Genesis of Rock ‘n’ Roll MOOC that attracted 30,000 registrations and brought several thousand of those potential learners into his virtual classroom. He mentioned challenges that many of us face—producing engaging videos, having to coordinate his efforts with a variety of colleagues to bring a massive undertaking of that nature to fruition, and the attention to detail required while making videos (e.g., if videos shot on different days were later edited together, obvious discontinuities such as the fact that he was wearing different outfits or had hair that changed in length from shot to shot became obvious).
But while all of us in that room last weekend might have laughed together over the small challenges of clothing changes and changing hair lengths, few of us could have walked away thinking MOOCs were any less than an important and still growing part of our learning landscape—one with tremendous potential to augment our short- and long-term learning opportunities for willing and able to explore them.