#MOOCs: will losing the live be a loss?

Live discussion

I am currently doing some re-designing of the JISC RSC Scotland’s online courses, and with all the discussion around MOOCs at the moment, this has prompted some questions for me about the synchronous, live aspect of teaching and how / if it needs to feature in online courses.

In the JISC RSC Scotland’s courses, we include at least one live webinar and discussion session each week, providing an opportunity for topics to be discussed, areas of challenge to be debated in an immediate way by the group, feedback to be provided etc. We believe it is important to build up a strong group dynamic from the start (these are short 2-3 week courses) to help the creation of a learning community, in which participants feel comfortable contributing to the communication and collaboration elements of the courses, which are integral parts of them. So we start with a live session to get everyone on board, to help them feel that they aren’t alone and to hopefully encourage some motivation to engage. Some of the discussions in our online communication and e-tutoring course, focus on managing asynchronous and synchronous activities and the logistical challenges associated with synchronous communication in particular, have been considered. It can be tricky to get participants from the same time zone to participate in synchronous sessions, e.g. webinars, at the same time (the result being that we often schedule more than one webinar session), so in a MOOC, which might have thousands if not millions of participants from around the world, in different timezones, this would inevitably be even harder to achieve.

In the Mobile MOOC I participated in last year, there was some reflection at the time on how ‘formal’ learning will look a few years hence – would we still have the current quite rigid structures of time and place for learning or would we learn (and therefore teach) in more fluid ways? A possible answer to these questions seems to have arrived, with many ‘formal’ education institutions developing MOOCs (see George Siemen’s post on how use of the term MOOCs has become more loosely used and applied and so perhaps needs re-defining, MOOCs are really a plaform), with courses delivered via Coursera or edX. I wonder though, if a live element will be included in any of these? I have signed up to a 5 week course via Coursera and from what I can gather there will be no live sessions, it will all be asynchronous. Does this matter? I’m not sure.

If the structure of cMOOCs and xMOOCs (the tentative terms being applied to differentiate between the original MOOCs – cMOOCs, strongly underpinned by the theory of Connectivism, and the new raft of xMOOCs being developed by formal education institutions and hosted on edX or Coursera) become more widely used as a way of teaching, how will the flexibility that these forms of learning and teaching allow be managed? There were live webinars by subject experts in the MOOC I participated in which were often scheduled very early or quite late GMT but presumably at reasonable times for the facilitators for each given week, who were based around the world. Given that the MOOC was on mobile learning, part of the discussion focused on the mobility and flexibility of mlearners, which includes the ability to learn at anytime, anywhere. (I particularly appreciated some of the points John Traxler made during the week he facilitated, on the interaction between mLearning and a mobile connected society. See his paper The ‘Learner Experience’ of Mobiles, Mobility and Connectedness for some of his thinking in this area.) But will it only be the learners that will need to be flexible with the times at which they study (students have probably always kept flexible study hours) or will teachers need to be more flexible in their formal working hours too? With xMOOCs delivered by a particular institution based in a concrete geographical location and within a specific timezone, how will they manage any synchronous elements so that participants from around the world can participate at the same time? Will they begin to employ tutors based in different timezones or will synchronous elements, such as live debate on a topic or live feedback dialogue, be dropped?

A post by one of the Mobile MOOC participants, Michael Gallagher, on Traxler’s webinar, mobimooc-and-epistemological-revolutions, sums up well, I think, how knowledge can spread throughout a MOOC community even without joining in the synchronous events. The post demonstrates how, despite missing a live, thought-provoking webinar by an expert, knowledge can still be fostered and constructed from the discourse of the community, via things like the immediate articulations encapsulated in tweets made during the webinar and by more profound reflection in a blog.

I’m interested to find out what may or may not be lost by losing the live teaching element of a course and whether or not asynchronous communication can make up for, or capture, some of the immediacy of live debate and thought creation. Will it have an impact on the sense of being part of a learning community? I suppose my question is, is the live element needed? If so, what value does it really add?

Image by okfn (CC BY 2.0)

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