The first image of the first talk by Professor Mayer-Schonberger, he of Big Data book fame (see my review here), was one word – MOOC. His point was that MOOCs currently offer the best chance of harvesting Big Data in education, as they’re massive and online. This was prophetic, as MOOCs dominated this year’s Online Educa. I gave a talk on MOOCs, chaired a MOOC session and watched 12 presentations on MOOCs, had innumerable discussions on MOOCs and the backchannel was MOOCsville. It was, as they say, a MOOCfest.
MOOCs are ‘doomed’ debate
Let me start with the MOOC debate, which I helped organise. We decided to go for a simple motion - this house believes that ‘MOOCs are doomed’. Now most Online Educa debates are well argued on both sides and pretty close on the vote but this was a wipeout. It was clear from the start that the two protagonists, arguing that MOOCs were doomed, didn’t really know what they were talking about. The audience and the opposition sniffed this out with questions on Twitter, and when they both admitted that they had never even bothered to take, even look at a MOOC, the debate was all but done. Strangely enough I had this same experience in the last MOOC panel I witnessed in Qatar, where neither of the critics had bothered to look at even a single MOOC. They quite simply lacked, the data, nuance and arguments to make any impression. It was like watching celibate priests debate ‘sex’.
Here, in Berlin, they completely misjudged the level of expertise in the audience, the majority of whom, on a show of hands, had taken a MOOC, many several. Once they had been shown up as uninformed charlatans, you could see their embarrassment and feel the mood turn. Interestingly, there were also comments (from women verbally and online) about the fact that they were all men, trussed up in suits and ties and it was true, they seemed so old-school.
The final nail in the coffin was a lovely Greek guy who explained how he loved his MOOCs and had actually cried when he had completed his first, a quite moving moment. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it’. The vote was so one sided, the audience and chair actually laughed.
We saw MOOCs from around the world. There’s coming on for 400 MOOCs in Europe, with Spain, UK, France and Germany leading the way but also Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Italy and Portugal also contributing (see this wonderfulmap)
Russia’s also getting in on the act as is Canada, South America, the Far East and Africa. This doesn’t surprises me, as the need for free (at least cheap) education is a global issue. Many of the more interesting examples I saw were not from the US but in different languages and flavours from around the globe.
We heard from the US, UK, Spain and Germany about the way in which MOCs had caught the imagination of HE but had moved well beyond this domain into the corporate (Adidas), not-for-profit (World Bank, Ufi) and even high school spheres. The liveliest debate was around drop-out, with one side seeing it as a serious problem, the other as a category mistake, as there’s lots of window shoppers, the curious, toe-dippers and others, so it’s not really drop-out. Better to be amazed at how many drop-in. The debate around pedagogy was interesting, as those who had taken MOOCs, and there were plenty, were very positive, with the criticism, curiously, coming mostly from those who had not. Most interesting of all was the sheer diversity of MOOCs, people taking MOOC, places where MOOCs were being built and the untapped possibilities. My own presentation, called the flipped university, was about the shifts from old to new that MOOCs were enabling.
I chaired an interesting set of presentations from MOOC builders in Belgium, Dubai and Russia, who were honest about how hard it had been but positive about the outcomes. Bert De Coutere explained how he had used an ensemble of tools including Canvas, YouTube, Dropbox, Surveygizmo and Openbadges, and provided some incisive insights into the problems he faced. Tamilselvan Mahalingam used Coursesites with very low cost video production. Marie was working with OpenupEd and gave us the strangest fact of the conference, that MOOC means ‘torture’ in Russian! Platform choice was a live topic which I touched upon this in my presentation and in this blog post. LINK
The debate simply confirmed the great majority in the room that this is not the time for negativity based on prejudice rather than experience. What was heartening were the many who were starting to see MOOCs through fresh eyes. The backchannel and discussions were, as usual, the most interesting areas to test out ideas and get a feel for the debate. Twitter was abuzz with MOOC talk and I felt that in this quite sophisticated audience, MOOCs had been tried, would be tried and had excited many. There’s always those, like armchair critics, who have for years yearned for onine learning to come of age, and when it does, globally, they shy away from the consequences, which is decentralisation and disintermediation.
I love this conference, Rebecca Stomeyer and her wonderful team do a brilliant job, in creating an atmosphere that fosters debate and discussion. Importantly, Berlin is the venue. This avoids the Anglo-Saxon dominance that occurs when it’s in London or the US. It’s also great at this time of year, all Christmas markets and gluhwien.