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Such a lot of buzz about MOOC, a lot of hype but still a lot of promise that has yet to be realized.  Esther Wojcicki said to me over coffee yesterday, “All this fuss about MOOCs and it is just another version of distance learning.”  And we thought about that a bit as we sipped our respective beverages. Yes, in a way, it is another form of delivering course content remotely.  So why all this fuss?  The novelty is partly due to the very large numbers, and partly  due to the completely open access. There are differences of course, as in any Version 2.0 of something.  And yet, what is fascinating and a little irritating, is that the current versions are still far from being optimal, let alone perfect.

It is empowering to imagine the thousands of happy learners plodding their way through lectures and assimilating knowledge that was never accessible to them before.  The image of a teen in rural India, home from a hard day’s work on the family farm, listening to Sebastian Thrun’s voice emanating from his little tablet, by the light of a single bulb suspended over his wooden cot, is compelling. And then, it spoils the happy glow to read the complaints that only 15% finish, and that there is no interaction, no community, and then there is cheating!

So we have to refine the model.  There is nothing wrong with that.  This is a great new experiment and it will take a couple of tries to get it right.  The potential for empowerment and great impact is there, now we just have to go back to the basics and remind ourselves of what makes a great learning experience.

Its easy to forget that content is not everything.  Having pretty videos and stuff to read does not equal learning.  Neither does adding little quizzes at the end of five minutes of video.  Any educator worth his/her salt will tell you that people learn when they are actively engaged, reflecting, constructing their own understanding, articulating it.  You just have to read the dismal statistics on education, on high school or college dropouts to know that lectures and powerpoints alone will fail to get people to really learn new material.  Its the interaction, the collaboration, and  the exchange that drives engagement and ultimately learning.

So what do I like about the next version of the MOOC offered by  the combined creativity of MIT/OCW,P2PU,OpenStudy and Codecademy’s ?  I like it and here is why.  For one, it deemphasizes the importance of the content.  Yes there is content, but that is not what it is all about.  The content is reasonable, no one could call it “pretty” or “slick”!  What is remarkable is that the organizers, Steve Carson and Philip Schmidt realized that it would take more than passive content to make the learning happen.  So in addition to the content, there are three important aspects to this MOOC.

One is the Codeacademy platform to practice what you learned.  (As a Chemistry educator, I am deeply envious of this, we need a Codecademy for every subject on the planet and can we start with Chemistry please Zach?) The learner gets to try out their code and really engage with this material, in a friendly and nonthreatening environment.  Then I really like the weekly call-to-action emails that the P2PU team is going to send out will keep learners organized, on track and moving along.  And the finally, and by far the most important is the community that is already building up on OpenStudy study group for this MOOC. This learning community is going to make all the difference.

Relationships will build up as Gopal from Gandhinagar and Amina from Cairo and Erik from Helsinki ask for help and get help.  As the relationships build up, they will start to support one another and then keep one another motivated to keep coming back.  The best outcome of all, they will engage each other in active learning.  We have seen this time and again on OpenStudy and have measured increased learning outcomes for our NextGeneration Learning Challenge grant.  And I predict we are going to see it again in this MechMOOC.  Why, I predict we are going to see a >20% retention for this experiment!