I decided to do this summative view on MOOCs early, so it can still be part of the LAK11 course which now enters its final week. My impressions are based on LAK11 and CCK11.
The good things first: I really benefitted from the course. The keynotes and peer interactions were superbly enriching, thought provoking, and knowledge building. The organisational structure and curriculum topics were well chosen and, together with commitment and enthusiasm, definitely worth imitating (apart from my complaint about the length of the live sessions). So a round of applause is due to George Siemens and his team!
Apart from these personal feelings, what I identified as a clear strength of MOOCs is that it focuses a world-wide community of practice (CoP) on a particular scientific field for a specified periode of time. In this situation, a lot of knowledge is created and shared between people from different cultures, backgrounds, and levels of expertise. A dense cloud of knowledge emerges, and, best of all, it’s preserved as manifestation on the web for later retrieval. This by far surpasses any Google search on the topic or Wikipedia browsing.
The density of the network is a real benefit, as we get much further in our pursuit of knowledge when we pool resources simultaneously around a common task or theme, as opposed to our usual world-wide-web ramblings here and there. The web connects people, but its powers to amplify knowledge are limited to hyperlinks and drawn out conversations. MOOCs have the possibility do achieve more. Density as a dimension may, therefore, well become a future determinant of digital scholarship.
Additionally, a MOOC creates connections. Participants are free to connect from sparsely to intensely, depending on their social preferences. In any case, there is tremendous social currency floating about in the network. In connectivist terms this leads to new strong (or weak) links between participants that might not have found a reason to connect before.
In both these strengths – knowledge building and connecting – lies sustainability, i.e. something that participants can take away and repurpose. Even people who were not part in the original run, will be able to exploit the MOOC as the knowledge and its creation processes are preserved and further continued.
Now the downsides: knowledge from the MOOC is dramatically fragmented, which despite its preservation would pose serious challenges to reassemble it. This fragmentation leaves things at the mercy of search engines. Try looking for LAK11 on twitter in two months time, what will we find? And on Google? With del.icio.us maybe disappearing from the face of the earth, even shared bookmarks may not be save, or anything that’s stored in the cloud.
CCK09 on twitter.com: older posts unavailable!
Another weakness, but not necessarily a weakness of the MOOC, is lack of referenceability. In (traditional) scholarly publishing practices, we want to reference knowledge sources, but as the debate on digital scholarship showed, referencing to the MOOC knowledge cloud is at least difficult.
Then there is the education aspect: MOOCs are restrictive. They are not intended to be, but, in spite of their openness, they depend on connectivity, skills and time that not everyone is guaranteed to have. Apart from obvious technical literacies, they assume self-motivation, evaluation, and learning-to-learn skills. Developing a personal strategy to get you through the amount of connections, platforms and content is not everybody’s cup of tea, neither is sorting the wheat from the chaff. Stephen Downes would argue that there are no wrong things to learn, but there is at least the strong possibility that you’re wasting your time.
Overall, though, MOOCs have much to offer as an educational model, and in a world of diversified learning, I see a rather bright future for them – provided that free committed facilitation can be upheld.