What is your MOOC’s Mood?

MOOCs have moods. I’ve participated in many MOOCs over the last five years. Sometimes I lurk. Other times I’m an active participant, a co-learner, even co-creator of knowledge. I always learn something valuable.  Right now, I’m signed up for four of them: The History and Future of Higher Education at Coursera, The Badges MOOC at Canvas, the New School Creation MOOC at High Tech High MOOCs, and the Gamification MOOC in Coursera. Taking multiple at the same time makes the feel of each MOOC that much more apparent.

As with every course, each MOOC has affordances and limitations. In terms of limitations, most have yet to discover the power and possibilities available when you have a massive group of participants, so I see very few MOOC makers who are engaging in serious collective knowledge generation activities. There are so many amazing possibilities on that front (like being able to produce book-quality collections of real-world case studies in a matter of days or weeks, crowd sourcing the content generation for central ideas in the course, and building a truly networked community of knowledge generators that spans the social media world and beyond). That will come with time. After all, MOOCs are still new, most do not have extensive experience in building courses rooted in models of connected learning, most who are designing and leading MOOCs are not designers and learning architects at heart, and traditional models like those promoted by Coursera and EdX have temporarily taken the spotlight from the more creative MOOC platforms and MOOC makers.  Even when the MOOC makers are designers and architects, many were trained in the instructional design models of the past, those largely connected with traditional educational frameworks (instructor led courses, computer-based instruction, training modules, etc.). That is why so many return to common schooling vocabulary like quizzes, assignments, and homework. It is with these common limitations in mind that I wrote Assessment Design Tips for MOOC Makers and What is the Center of Your Course Design: Content, Outcomes, or Social Interaction?

Many of the limitations that I see come form the influence and embedded values of traditional education trappings within certain Learning Management Systems. That is certainly the case with systems like Coursera. I commend Coursera for advancing the MOOC movement, but the LMS is limited, especially when it comes to tools for feedback, emerging models of assessment (multiple methods of peer assessment, self-assessment, digital badging, options for portfolio assessment, etc.), and possibilities for collective knowledge generation. Of course, Coursera is great at learning analytics. Since the system has limited functionality, what they do have become easier to track, providing wonderfully interesting findings about learner habits. The downside is that these habits are limited to a smaller number of instructional design possibilities.

In terms of affordances for existing MOOC designs, many of them come from the vision, insights, and expertise of the MOOC makers (and their teams). In fact, two of the four current MOOCs in which I am enrolled are led by people who have reached the status of academic celebrity: well-known and respected, a track record of excellence and innovation in their area, a contagious passion the subject, a loyal following that makes up a critical mass of participants, and a willingness to share of themselves and connect with others. In fact, such MOOCs manage to thrive even when/if there are significant flaws in the course design itself.  The reality is that you could take some of these people, put them in a giant room with 5000 others for a few days or weeks, and they could probably make it worthwhile and engaging…maybe even life changing for some of the participants. This is not to suggest that the course designs of my current MOOCs are bad. I’m simply pointing out the massive affordance of these MOOCs, namely the people who are leading them.

Now what about this idea of MOOCs having a mood? Every MOOC has a mood, as in “a temporary state of mind or feeling.” The design of the course influences the mood as well as the personality and voice of the MOOC makers, facilitators and/or instructors. However, I’ve noticed that the participants are among the most influential when it coms to mood. Some MOOCs are warm, welcoming, and inviting. It is easy to connect with others, and people are generous with their comments. People seek to include as many as possible. They don’t let posts or comments just sit out there for an extended period without comment or recognition.  They value each other as fellow co-learners and as people from who they can learn, maybe people with whom they can collaborate on the next big project or movement.

While I do not want to generalize too much, it seems to me that a positive mood in a MOOC often comes from a critical mass of participants who’ve had a formative McMOOC experience. Those who no nothing other than cMOOCs can be quite friendly and welcoming, but people who were “all in” with a previous cMOOC experienced the power of connectivism. They experienced the magic that happens when the MOOC leader becomes almost unnecessary for the class to flourish. People self-organize, connect with one another based on shared interests, blog and comment on other people’s blogs, share thoughts and experiences on Twitter, and sometimes even create follow-up MOOCs, Google Hangouts, and other learning events. These are the people I sometimes greet with a hug when I meet them in person at a conference.

xMOOCers, as I noted, can be warm and welcoming in the same way that some traditional classes have a warm and friendly feel to them. And yet, for me there is always something missing in an xMOOC. I don’t seem to build those connections that last for months or years like I do in cMOOCs. I learn good information and often appreciate the wisdom of the instructor, and I often use the knowledge gained for exciting and inspiring projects.  I don’t, however, get that sense that I am part of a something significant, even transformational. For that, I look for cMOOCs or a critical mass of cMOOCers in an otherwise xMOOC.