What mostly distinguishes the formats currently described as “massive open online courses” (MOOC) from traditional openly available educational offerings is what I’d like to call their social event character. MOOCs strive to transform individual learning processes into collective ones that take place on a given site (or in a network) through a scheduled initiation of activities (watching, practicing, discussing).
Which scenarios work best in stimulating participation and learning, is still open for discussion and experimentation. The crucial question every project needs to decide upon deals with the degree of control learners retain on their activities: In what degree is learning bound to temporal and spatial structures set up on a learning platform? On the one hand, those structures are needed in order to constitute the event, and to create the social community where learners meet and find inspiration. On the other hand, those structures necessarily create constraints for learners with respect to the temporal organization of their learning, with respect to the social relations they can create, with respect to the tools they can use, and also with respect to the definition of the content of the learning experience.
The “open” in MOOC relates to the degree of control an environment gives to learners on all of these dimensions, and has been interpreted in very different ways. The public attention to MOOCs has concentrated on the simple fact that anybody can take part in them without control of financial or educational background. But as has been explained in numerous analyses, and has been repeated by Stephen Downes’ talk at the tele-TASK symposium (“The Connective Learning Environment”), when he and his colleagues used the expression for the first time in 2008, they meant “open” to refer to a pedagogy that instead of confronting learners with a closed body of knowledge exposes them to experiences that make them create their own path through potentially open and collectively constructed knowledge spaces.
While the massively successful MOOCs offered by Stanford, MIT, Coursera and Udacity have been opposed to this so-called connective model of learning, they all still offer one important locus of learner-controlled production of content: the discussion forums, which usually present an overflow of subjects more or less closely related to the immediate learning content. Another important dimension of control refers to the temporal limits of participating in the learning event. Interestingly, as mentioned by Jörn Loviscach (“Visual explanations with lean technology”), Udacity has moved from the fixed time schedule for courses to an “open” model where you can jump into the course anytime, thus diluting the event character of the “course”.
Technology-wise, openHPI started from a tool developed for rather “closed” learning contexts, a learning management system targeting school classes. While we needed to adapt the system for the delivery of the first course to a massive audience of currently over 12500 enrolled users, with respect to time and content, we were well served by the system’s concept of a course as a scheduled event with a start and an end, and as a weekly modules offering coherent sequences of learning material.
For openHPI’s second course, we plan to give users a new instrument for organizing their learning in a context collectively controlled by learning groups: Learners will be able to create group spaces for exchanging ideas through discussions and wikis.