When George Siemens and I created the first MOOC in 2008 we were not setting out to create a MOOC. So the form was not something we designed and implemented, at least, not explicitly so. But we had very clear ideas of where we wanted to go, and I would argue that it was those clear ideas that led to the definition of the MOOC as it exists today.
There were two major influences. One was the beginning of open online courses. We had both seen them in operation in the past, and had most recently been influenced by Alec Couros’s online graduate course and David Wiley’s wiki-based course. What made these courses important was that they invoked the idea of including outsiders into university courses in some way. The course was no longer bounded by the institution.
The other major influence was the emergence of massive online conferences. George had run a major conference on Connectivism, in which I was a participant. This was just the latest in a series of such conferences. Again, what made the format work was that the conference was open. And it was the success of the conference that made it worth considering a longer and more involved enterprise.
We set up Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008 (CCK08) as credit course in Manitoba’s Certificate in Adult Education (CAE), offered by the University of Manitoba. It was a bit of Old Home Week for me, as Manitoba’s first-ever online course was also offered through the CAE program, Introduction to Instruction, designed by Conrad Albertson and myself, and offered by Shirley Chapman.
What made CCK08 different was that we both decided at the outset that it would be designed along explicitly connectivist lines, whatever those were. Which was great in theory, but then we began almost immediately to accommodate the demands of a formal course offered by a traditional institution. The course would have a start date and an end date, and a series of dates in between, which would constitute a course schedule. Students would be able to sign up for credit, but if they did, they would have assignments that would be marked (by George; I had no interest in marking).
But beyond that, the course was non-traditional. Because when you make a claim like the central claim of connectivism, that the knowledge is found in the connections between people with each other and that learning is the development and traversal of those connections, then you can’t just offer a body of content in an LMS and call it a course. Had we simply presented the ‘theory of connectivism‘ as a body of content to be learned by participants, we would have undercut the central thesis of connectivism.
This seems to entail offering a course without content – how do you offer a course without content? The answer is that the course is not without content, but rather, that the content does not define the course. That there is no core of content that everyone must learn does not entail that there is zero content. Quite the opposite. It entails that there is a surplus of content. When you don’t select a certain set of canonical contents, everything becomes potential content, and as we saw in practice, we ended up with a lot of content.
Running the course over fourteen weeks, with each week devoted to a different topic, actually helped us out. It allowed us to mitigate to some degree the effects an undifferentiated torrent of content would produce. It allowed us to say to ourselves that we’ll look at ‘this’ first and ‘that’ later. It was a minimal structure, but one that seemed to be a minimal requirement for any sot of coherence at all.
Even so, as it was, participants complained that there was too much information. This led to the articulation of exactly what connectivism meant in a networked information environment, and resulted in the definition of a key feature of MOOCs. Learning in a MOOC, we advised, is in the first instance a matter of learning how to select content.
By navigating the content environment, and selecting content that is relevant to your own personal preferences and context, you are creating an individual view or perspective. So you are first creating connections between contents with each other and with your own background and experience. And working with content in a connectivist course does not involve learning or remembering the content. Rather, it is to engage in a process of creation and sharing. Each person in the course, speaking from his or her unique perspective, participates in a conversation that brings these perspectives together.
Why not learn content? Why not assemble a body of information that people would know in common? The particular circumstances of CCK08 make the answer clear, but we can also see how it generalizes. In the case of CCK08, there is no core body of knowledge. Connectivism is a theory in development (many argued that it isn’t even a theory), and the development of connective knowledge even more so. We were hesitant to teach people something definitive when even we did not know what that would be.
Even more importantly, identifying and highlighting some core principles of connectivism would undermine what it was we thought connectivism was. It’s not a simple set of principles or equations you apply mechanically to obtain a result. Sure, there are primitive elements – the component of a connection, for example – but you move very quickly into a realm where any articulation of the theory, any abstraction of the principles, distorts it. The fuzzy reality is what we want to teach, but you can’t teach that merely by assembling content and having people remember it.
So in order to teach connectivism, we found it necessary for people to immerse themselves in a connectivist teaching environment. The content itself could have been anything – we have since run courses in critical literacies, learning analytics, and personal learning environments. The content is the material that we work with, that forms the creative clay we use to communicate with each other as we develop the actual learning, the finely grained and nuanced understanding of learning in a network environment that develops as a result of our working within a networked environment.
In order to support this aspect of the learning, we decided to make the course as much of a network as possible, and therefore, as little like an ordered, structured and centralized presentation as possible. Drawing on work we’d done previously, we set up a system whereby people would use their own environments, whatever they were, and make connections between each other (and each other’s content) in these environments.
To do this, we encouraged each person to create his or her own online presence; these would be their nodes in the course networks. We collected RSS feeds from these and aggregated them into a single thread, which became the course newsletter. We emphasized further that this thread was only one of any number of possible ways of looking at the course contents, and we encouraged participants to connect in any other way they deemed appropriate.
This part of the course was a significant success. Of the 2200 people who signed up for CCK08, 170 of them created their own blogs, the feeds of which were aggregated a tool I created, called gRSShopper, and the contents delivered by email to a total of 1870 subscribers (this number remained constant for the duration of the course). Students also participated in a Moodle discussion forum, in a Google Groups forum, in three separate Second Life communities, and in other ways we didn’t know about.
The idea was that in addition to gaining experience making connections between people and ideas, participants were making connections between different systems and places. What we wanted people to experience was that connectivism functions not as a cognitive theory – not as a theory about how ideas are created and transmitted – but as a theory describing how we live and grow together. We learn, in connectivism, not by acquiring knowledge as though it were so many bricks or puzzle pieces, but by becoming the sort of person we want to be.
In this, in the offering of a course such as CCK08, and in the offering of various courses after, and in the experience of other people offering courses as varied as MobiMOOC and ds106 and eduMOOC, we see directly the growth of individuals into the theory (which they take and mold in their own way) as well as the growth of the community of connected technologies, individuals and ideas. And it is in what we learn in this way that the challenge to more traditional theories becomes evident.
What we’ve learned – at least to me – is that cooperation is better than collaboration, that diversity is better than sameness, that harmony is better than competition, that openness is better than exclusivity, and that understanding complexity is better than reduction to simplicity. These are, to my mind, the opposite of the bases on which traditional education is designed. Does that make connectivism a theory? In a real sense, that question is irrelevant. ‘Theory’ implies principles and abstraction; connectivism is, in practice, the opposite of that.
If that all we’ve learned, that’s enough. But I think, as we read what follows in this series, that the learning is just beginning.