MOOCs are ecologies not episodes

There are two ways one could think of the life-cycle of a MOOC. MOOCs could be thought of as one-time and episodic. They could also be thought of as ecologies, sites or environments for continual learning (for example, a series of MOOCs on the same topics, such as CCK), not use-once-and-throw episodes of learning. I prefer the latter, although some may say the MOOC itself may not be likened to an ecology.

I like the idea of MOOCs as ecologies because communities and networks get created at the site of a MOOC and their value extends beyond the lifetime of a single occurrence of the MOOC. When MOOCs are run as a series of continuously or discretely evolving episodes, they act to extend these communities and networks, each addition bringing fresh insights and diverse experiences into the mix.

This extension is one of the things that really bring the distinction between MOOCs and the traditional courses to the forefront. MOOCs leave a trail of learning experiences, of conversations, that are visible to learners that participate in each succeeding episode. In traditional settings, this knowledge is stored and refined by teachers only who use it to make their teaching more effective over time. However, these are distilled insights, not visible to the learner.

Why I also like thinking of MOOCs as ecologies is that they are shaped by the behavior of agents within them. The agents (instructors, students, administrators, marketing agencies) actively engage with each other. If they collectively succeed in building engagement and value, the ecology thrives. If they are not, we see more skewed participation rates, and the ecology disintegrates quickly.

MOOCs as ecologies also imply that students can remain connected to every episode. So they learn incrementally with every episode they participate in. This has not been addressed clearly and explicitly by MOOCs as yet. In many ways, students who have participated in one or more episodes learn how to stay abreast of the developments in the field of study through their ever-expanding network presence.

Within the MOOC ecology, focus shifts from the content and instructor to the degrees of interconnectedness and interaction in the networks that constitute the MOOC. Conversations become the key to successful learning. Modeling learner interactions and measuring efficiencies at learner, network and MOOC levels becomes very important to gauge the state of the ecology. Each MOOC series contributes, in a dynamic manner, to the understanding of these group dynamics and efficiencies.

For MOOC designers, this should become an important component of your design. Thinking of MOOCs as ecologies allows you to focus on the learning experience and how you can garner insights into how participants want to engage, over successive episodes of learning.

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