The Incremental Disruption of MOOCs

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) are running a-mooc during the summer, allowing teachers to snag professional development on their own time. I spent a bit of time recapping the history and unfortunate stereotypes associated with MOOCs during a technical writing seminar, and I was left thinking about the growth of these supposed Neocolonialistic environments (Altbach, 2014). MOOCs have grown up since they first started at the University of Manitoba, Canada, in 2008, with an obscurely titled online course, “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.” MOOCs aren’t talked about with a disgusted tone anymore. MOOCs are (perhaps?) a more accepted form of distance learning. And even more exciting is the emergence of pedagogical pioneers that steadily push the boundaries of MOOCs’ limitations.

Incremental Disruption

Pioneers of MOOCs continue to modify and adapt the form for pedagogical perfection. Even after the founder of Udacity, and the supposed “Godfather of MOOCs,” Sebastian Thrun lamented on the early mistakes made with the platform and he immediately highlighted the present possibilities, declaring that “We’re improving. We’re much better than we were a year ago…It’s about advancing education, filling the skills gap, and reinventing education for the 21st century” (Deamicis, 2014). Thrun suggests incremental disruption and using the best of MOOCs in conjunction with traditional, hybrid, and distance education. In this manner, the non-disruptive changes productively disrupt not only higher education, but also open education.

Connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs)

One such pioneering adaptation of MOOCs includes the development of small, task-oriented connectivist MOOCs, or cMOOCs, which address the pedagogical limitations noted by early critics. cMOOCs focus on small groups and encourage learner autonomy, diversity, openness, and connectivity. The activities within these smaller, focused models are repurposed and aggregated for collective contribution; therefore, participant activities include heightened mentorship and observation (Mackness, Waite, Roberts, & Lovegrove, 2013, p. 141). cMOOCs are “based on philosophy of connectivism and networking,” which are, interestingly, elements the first MOOC creators emphasized too (John, 2012). cMOOC instructors and participants alike have noted that the smaller, yet open form “may be a better option for higher education institutions committed to opening their courses and promoting open academic practice” (Mackness, Waite, Roberts, & Lovegrove, 2013, p. 155). In this manner, the massive element would be re-appropriated to apply to smaller groups yet with recycled and re-imagined content. Although a massive group would not engage in one course at the same time, the course could be adapted limitlessly to, ultimately, reach the masses. Therefore, the focus on massive academic identity becomes more pedagogically sound than massive academic practice (p. 155).

MOOCs and Rhizomatic Learning

Possibly another exciting, albeit uncertain, outcome of the pioneering, pedagogical shifting for MOOCs is the emergence of rhizomatic learning. “Rhizomatic learning is about embracing uncertainty” (Cormier, 2012, par. 3). Although rhizomatic learning itself is not a new educational concept, the emergence of the concept as a considerable disruptor has been enabled by MOOCs. Because the MOOC platform is always evolving, the uncertainty becomes a learning opportunity. For example, the expectations established for a traditional course, such as instructor-driven content and static environmental surroundings, can create a learning space which stifles uncertain learning from emerging. When the unknown is presented in the unknown, a new unknown becomes a possibility. The complexity of rhizomatic learning continues to evolve, taking on the forms of student-driven MOOC-making and cMOOC adaptations, mirroring the ongoing process of growing which MOOCs themselves engage.

Dropping Out of the Drop-Out Debate

In regards to the retention conundrum of the form, as more sources of information become open, a shift in critical analysis of whatopen learning means undermines the importance of retention. One such advocate for throwing retention rates of MOOCs to the wind include Audrey Watters, former academic and blogger with “Hack [Higher] Education.” Watters sarcastically addresses the focus on retention rates, noting that pundits are missing the point of MOOCs in general when dismissing the experimental format and only focusing on participant success. Watters notes, “perhaps as these are all just experiments – hyped experiments, but experiments nonetheless – we can shrug and say it’s great folks want to learn and, alas, it’s a pity when they don’t” (Watters, 2012, par. 5). To this end, Watters places the focus on participant autonomy, not MOOC deficiency. Therefore, instead of questioning if the form is successful, the focus should shift to the unsuccessful participants that fail to learn, not, necessary, failed by the form.

MOOCs as Disruptive Innovators – Here to Stay

Despite the continued evolution of MOOCs, the most important rhetorical understanding of the form exists in the perceived disruption for education. Early proponents declared extreme positive disruption but quickly faded into encouraging incremental disruption; whereas, early critics warned about negative disruption and slowly acknowledged the more positive possibilities. This phenomenon is indicative of disruptive innovation theory which “denotes innovations that deliver a physical product or a service to consumers in such a way as to go against market expectations” (Yuan & Powell, 2013, p. 12). Disruptive innovation has the ability to quickly evolve and change current models in innovative ways, and when MOOCs are considered as disruptive innovators, a current development of MOOCS in higher education unfolds (p. 12). For example, the early broad promise of MOOCs included open, affordable access to education for everyone, and indeed the platform did deliver this promise to a considerable segment of a population in order to be deemed disruptive and innovative in regards to disruptive innovation theory. Interestingly, they have sustained most fad technological trends to continue to disrupt by creating new platforms for learning. In this fashion, the future of MOOCs will probably mirror the past, in which uncertainty in innovative approaches to distance education will be produced.

Regardless if MOOCs will or will not be as disruptive as disruptive innovation theory implies, the platform encourages uncertain opportunities and adaptations. The specialized functionality and conceptualized theory for open, massive learning has the same underlying pedagogical boundaries of other platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. Transformation will occur with experimentation, and in order to heed Thurn’s advice, researchers should not dismiss the unknown for the platform. The impact of MOOCs on education continues to be questioned, as it should be, and only until significant results are reported should MOOCs be dismissed for a fad method of delivering information. Of considerable importance is the need for thorough case studies which explore the multiple facets of MOOCs, including the opportunity for mass globalization, certainly as the world becomes more connected. Growth and demand for education should also serve as an independent variables of analysis, perhaps placing MOOCs in a position of priority for education delivery. And just as markets fluctuate and politics create varying societal limitations, MOOCs could fill the gap for nontraditional learners who could not otherwise overcome their socioeconomic situations. Lastly, albeit perhaps the most important room for exploratory research, is the role MOOCs can play in addressing the moral consideration of access to information for all. All of these research possibilities elicit growth potential for both learners and researchers, and without declaring MOOCs as a stereotyped platform with many challenges, the opportunities for disruptive innovation would be best suited for the field of education.

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