Business and MOOCs

Jay Cross anchored a fascinating conversation on Google Hangouts recently. Thinkers and practitioners on both sides of the MOOC divide (x-MOOC and c-MOOC) such as George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Lal Jones-Bey, Jerry Michalski and Terri Griffiths came together. The purpose was to discuss how MOOCs could possibly be used by businesses.

Dave (at around 44 mins into the discussion) responded to my comment about how business regards MOOCs as being non-deterministic and thus non-reliable (the cMOOCs at least), by saying it depended upon the type of organization, really. If businesses want to survive and grow in the years to come, they must embrace uncertainty.

So let us look at what the past couple of years has taught us about online learning (or what it could be).

The first thing initiatives like Coursera have certainly taught us is that there is an audience out there that is serious about online learning and sees clear benefits from it – not just students, but also institutions. The second thing we have learnt is that this audience is global in nature (4-5% of Coursera’s 1 mn+ students are from India itself). The third, slightly implicit insight, is that this audience is ready to engage on learning that impacts them here and now. The fourth insight is that power laws are explicit here as they have been in the past, not just in online learning but elsewhere as well – so scale free networked behaviour is very visible in the interactions we see online. The fifth insight, key for many reasons, is that brands, institutional linkages and employer acceptance are external factors that have a potential to shape/alter the behaviour of the network and release both learning and commercial opportunities.

They haven’t taught us a whole lot about how to design for plasticity, resilience, reliability and growth, but that is because we have really not yet made critical breakthroughs, in any large way, on our understanding of how learning networks (and their environments) operate. This is partially the promise of learning analytics, of communities and networks of practice and the cMOOC experimentation, and partially the further development of the theory of Connectivism and the design of Connectivist environments.

So, there is an appreciation, but as I bemoaned back in 2008 in CCK08, there isn’t a direct connection between what business is looking for and what MOOCs are offering.  Dave’s response to my question seems to indicate that business needs to transform itself (to embrace uncertainty and chaos and to get away from the determinism it is so used to) to really appreciate the power of massive open learning. I think this is a tough ask because it needs some fundamental transformations in how business operates. Some, as Dave pointed out, have done it, but for the most that transformation is not on the radar. It is the same for educational institutions or the enveloping government policy, for whom it is the buzzword that they have needed to replace the existing one – ICT.

So, on the business side, as also most academic institutions and governments, the practice of MOOCs is really the practice of reframing MOOCs to situate them in current operational contexts. On the other hand it is clear that current operational contexts cannot reap the benefits of MOOCs without transforming themselves rather than the MOOCs. This is the status quo.

The two obvious ways that this status quo could end – existing businesses/academic organizations/government policy in need of transformations can transform or die and be replaced by institutions with the DNA that embraces uncertainty and chaos, or MOOCs can be marginalized or die a quick “bubble burst” death. Perhaps a not so obvious way in which both can survive needs to be determined.

I think that the way out is for business to quickly adopt cMOOCs as the underlying system of learning – as the system within which are embedded, and that governs, all “events of learning” (read traditional training courses and xMOOCs). In doing so, the notion of the “Course” in the MOOC moniker, must then be expanded beyond a single structured eventedness, to a larger “systemic” dimension.

What would that really mean? Businesses, academic organizations and government policy makers must live, breathe and eat the MOOC system by being embedded within it and treat existing traditional methods as legacy that will be replaced in future by something more meaningful. By doing so, these actors will build new practice, technology and theory, establish long staying resilient networks and become open to external influences.

In practice, the adoption of the MOOC as a system approach will resolve many things – reluctance to embrace new methods, determinism as key, inadequate training and lack of technology. As the system stabilizes, legacy or traditional xMOOCs will disappear since the system will start evidencing reliable and resilient networks and learning patterns. So today, what requires a 15 day face to face session or a certificate xMOOC program online, will simply become a pattern that the Connectivist system reinforces through certain systemic mechanisms (where that somebody to teach or that face to face experience may be one important, but not the only, factor in learning).

Even here and now, through informal learning, some of these mechanisms are at work in building great organizations and policy.

What organizations should do to adopt this system are the following things:

  1. Invest in designing the system – systems with emergent (aligned) outcomes can be designed with your business goals as the context
  2. Establish massive, open networks and relationships through your people
  3. Invest in technology and resources that will analyze, shape and feed the growth and trajectory of these networks
  4. Create networks of practice – a continuum of weak and strong ties around practice areas that may also potentially control information that is business sensitive to within a network strand. These networks will be the primary environment for learning.
  5. Phase-out traditional learning events – start with the less time and mission critical events, aim for building a network that is so reliable that it meets your existing time-based and expertise-led goals (serviced by current training modes), strategically demonstrate power of the network for learning in a few business mission critical initiatives (particularly at the leadership levels)
  6. Establish or conform to standards of system operation (you must look at it as you would look at any other complex system) and enshrine best practices

This, in my humble opinion, is what businesses should do with (c)MOOCs.

One thought on “Business and MOOCs

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  1. Having just completed a MOOC, I think there are still a few issues that need resolved before they can work well in a business environment. Additionally, I don’t believe that MOOCs can replace “traditional” learning events but that they need to come alongside it. Each has there pros and cons that makes them appropriate in different situations. I’m a pretty innovative person and I still don’t see how you truly teach certain leadership skills within a MOOC.

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