Open Sesame - Understanding Open MOOCs?

Let me try and explain ...

As we understand it, the crux of the great big M O O C phenomenon is the first O, for Open - but open in a completely new way; everything else, including 'massive', flows from the 'new open'.

So at the heart of MOOCs is an attempt to change learning; not, in the first instance, to change numbers or profits - that's has been a later bandwagon effect, and an unfortunate distraction. This means that the most important thing about MOOCs is to open up the way people interact with each other, i.e. to find a way that allows Stephen Downes' criteria: diversity, openness, networking (connectivity) and autonomy, to flourish, using the full range of affordances of social media. The rest of MOOCs (particularly the so called xMOOCs) are just M for Massive - scaled up versions of very prescriptive e-learning, with a strong deja vu flavour of programmed learning from the 60's, so they could usefully be called XXXMOOCs (i.e. extra-large MOOCs,but not much more).

If we are to understand open-MOOCs, at anything like an adequate theoretical level, we need to take Stephen Downes seriously, and expand and explore his four criteria: diversity, openness, networking (connectivity) and autonomy into a larger and more comprehensive range of criteria.

That is precisely what we have been doing for the past seven years (we happen to use 25 factors, rather than four, but the exact number is not important) based on research and practice dating back to 2007. We have taken those four factors, and the initial work done by Stephen Downes (and George Siemens), and we have gone back to the underlying theories in their work and in the work of others (affordances - from ecological psychology; social learning and CoP - from social constructivism; emergence - from complex adaptive systems theory), and expanded and explored them in empirical research - empirical research which tests (and 'proofs') the underlying theoretical constructs.

The theoretical underpinning and understanding of the principles of learning in social media, and the realisation of openness in MOOCs surely must fit into, and in fact be the foundation for any current review of the debate and the research and design agenda of MOOCs, no?

This has nothing to do with the particular tools that we are developing to apply this theoretical framework to MOOCs and many other instances of emergent learning (in 'footprints' as it happens), per se. It's about an attempt to understand the broader implications, and theoretical heritage and links of open-MOOCs (and many other forms of radically open learning spaces, from Montessori preschools onwards) based on developing autonomy, agency, networked learning, etc.

We are currently thinking through some of these issues in a prospective article on

Understanding learning in Open/Courses, such as MOOCs ...


CCK08 was called a MOOC, a massive open online course, by Dave Cormier. The M for Massive got everyone's attention (particularly in 2012 when the numbers got into 6 figures), but the crux of the matter was the combination of Open and Course - which at first seemed like a contradiction in terms, but turned out to be what Seymour Papert called a 'powerful idea' - one which has the potential to change everything around it. In designing CCK08, Stephen Downes, the 'Duke of MOOCs' as he rightly called himself recently, laid down a framework for MOOCs in 'connectivism', based on four threshold factors: diversity, openness, networking (connectivity) and autonomy. These are all crucial to understanding and designing open-courses, and they, in turn, need to be understood by exploring the heritage, and practice, of teaching and learning that they draw upon and build upon. The theory and practice is to be found in work based on affordances - from ecological psychology; social learning and social constructivism - from Communities of Practice and from self-organised learning; and emergence - from complex adaptive systems theory), in the work of JJ GIbson, Seymour Papert, Etienne Wenger, and Paul Cilliers respectively, as well as many others who have subsequently used their work. The thread running through and connecting all of these theories is emergence and emergent learning, which provides a coherent and comprehensive theoretical framework for describing, understanding and designing the new open learning - in MOOCs as well as in several other learning spaces and programmes. This paper / chapter will explore MOOCs and related learning spaces and programmes, to show how emergence functions as as a strong theoretical and practical thread that informs design, practice and research in MOOCs, albeit often only tacitly.