The brave new world of online courses

“Glorified correspondence classes”.

“All the drawbacks of sage-on-the-stage, Professor-based teaching.. but without the warmth of human contact.”

“The latest fad.”

“Nobody ever finishes them.”

“Isn’t it just e-learning with a few more bells and whistles?”

All accusations levelled at the new generation of online courses – whether you call them MOOCs, xMOOCs, cMOOCs or guided digital blended learning pathway journeys (GDBLPJs – no, it’s ok, I just made that up).

So why are we looking, in the Diplomatic Academy, at the potential of online courses?

An obvious starting point is that we want to provide central learning opportunities for a workforce scattered around the globe.  And then there’s the attractiveness of connecting colleagues from different continents who will never, ever find themselves in the same country or even timezone at the same time – let alone the same classroom – and yet have a lot to talk about.  It’s also about helping our experts to share their knowledge with 2,000 people globally, rather than 20 people in the same building.

Maybe it’s because I quite like doing things via an app on my iPhone as I commute into work on the Gatwick Express, and believe that others do as well – I mean, whatever their equivalent of the Gatwick Express is – the Bogota metro, or the Viennese tram.  I’ve been dipping into the Future Learn MOOC on Blended Learning, and enjoying it, especially the comments (didn’t quite expect that).

It’s dangerous to extrapolate from personal preference.  But we know our staff are already out there experimenting with MOOCs – on Future Learn, Open Learn, Coursera – and that we’ve had a great response to our own experiment with online content at Foundation Level.  That’s 41 units of “static” content, which can be accessed at any time, in any order, and brought to life locally.

It’s got to be worth a go.

We’ll start by deconstructing the acronym.  We don’t want M for Massive, we want to start with S for Small.  We’ll start with C for Closed.  We’ll keep the O for Online, but instead of calling it a course – which suggests a one-off event – I’d be happier calling it a Programme, as the classic pattern is four or five weeks.

So we’ll pilot a couple of SCOPs – Small Closed Online Programmes – and see what happens.

Any advice or thoughts? – including on..

  • should people be encouraged to form small groups locally, even if they are already joining a wider global community?
  • what about countries which are de facto excluded because of poor bandwidth? (we have colleagues who find even simple e-learning impossible to access)
  • what are the best ways to mark the “beginning” and “end” of a programme which has no physical presence?




14 thoughts on “The brave new world of online courses

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  1. Sounds like a great way for your organisation to get learning content & opportunities out there. Will be very interested to hear how younger on.

    Thinking about your questions, I wonder how virtual action learning groups or mini-communities of practice could help? To my mind these don’t have to be dependent on great internet connections, more common comfort with how the group(s) stay connected. Just a thought.

  2. Virtual groups by timeline, region or role is a great way to share and communicate but I think people need to ‘meet’ first. What about using more video connections or something like Skype. Also, it’s nice to have a community manager or someone that keeps the enthusiasm up.

    1. I had this view and I am still not sure about it – but I was challenged on it by a young person who works for Accenture. He said this view is less an issue for people who are more ‘acclimatised to online life’ (He meant young people!) than for those who are less acclimatised. He claimed that he and his peers have no problem at all becoming a ‘bonded online group’ despite never having met in real life, if the group conditions are right.

      It depends on whether we can build the sense of the other person as someone we can connect with. I think that photos are essential and video clips also help. A faceless person is hard to relate to.

      I also notice recently that I now almost have something approaching ‘relationships’ with many diverse people I have met online in common interest groups, ranging from a young man with body piercings in Brighton, who is a great crafter, to a 90 year old white haired lady in LA. who makes lace.

      When I am in touch with people for a period of months, I feel interested enough in them to turn on the computer to see how things are going with them…I am in one global online group for a couple of years (craft related) and nobody in the group ever met in real life. One member of the group died and the outpouring of grief was just amazing to behold. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who died.

      1. I think that’s why ‘meet’ is written like that. Face to face meeting is the obvious one – but ‘meet’ could also be via a managed interaction and a photo exchange. It probably wouldn’t happen quickly overtime without a process of check-in points and conversations.

  3. I enjoyed my first MOOC experience last year for the quality of materials and range of views from outside my organisation. It was a six week discussion for specific learning. It was timely, accessible and encouraged engagement. Increasingly learning will be short term and specific – MOOCs work well for that. If we use smaller closed groups how can we encourage a wide range of opinions to be expressed as opposed to group think? Are there ways to stimulate high levels of repeat engagement over a six week period (prizes,acknowledging input)?

    1. Really good point. Global diversity should help with different perspectives, IF we can get the right mix (including quantity – as only ?10% comment at a time..) I think one of the answers to repeat engagement is to develop a strong sense of cohort, maybe including regional groups.

  4. Hi Jonathan,

    Way back in 2005 I took a great one year programme at Dublin City University that consisted of twice weekly live learning group meetings (not formal classes- but the facilitator was present to support and helped structure) – the rest was via an online environment (Moodle) which was prepared by the facilitator and moderated (lightly) by the facilitator.

    The secret of its success in my view was that the facilitator had shaped a great learning experience ‘scaffold’ . She structured our learning experience into short activity blocks (weekly) and posed excellent group and paired learning assignments weekly which were timebound, and capitalised on the benefits of working together online. It was an ‘Action Research’ learning philosophy, so it was all real world action oriented.

    Material generated in a long discussion thread could form the basis of the next weeks assignment with some added challenges to push our thinking further and get us to try things out. The assignments encouraged us to challenge one another, to bring in diverse feedback on ideas, to try our thinking out in our very varied real world environments and report back.

    We supported and questioned and challenged each other all year and we were exposed to many worlds and perspectives that we could not have experienced otherwise, via our co-learners, all through skillful assignments and interjections by the facilitator.

    I was always struck by the variety of inputs and the advantage of so many people having a voice, and the experience of reading everyone’s different perspectives and trial and error experiences. In classes there is no time for that kind of sharing. But we had all week to comment and share

    Another feature of the online environment was that each learner was required to keep an ongoing online learning journal, which was shared with the facilitator, and could be shared with other students also, I think. This grew into something quite amazing for me. The facilitator offered helpful comments on it as far as I can remember.

    We also used structured wiki pages to co-create creative content – again amazing things emerged when everyone’s perspectives were added to the co-creation.

    I really missed the online space when it closed! That must be a sign of a real learning community! I’m convinced that its success was down to brilliant learning design and skilled facilitation, so well done we barely noticed. Everyone remained highly motivated and results were excellent.

  5. Digital learning adds a layer of complexity to reaching and engaging an audience, but also clearly offers great opportunity.

    With all of this new possibility, however, it is fundamentally important to understand the people we are designing learning for. Who are they? What do they need (and think they need)? What environment are they learning in and what constraints do they face (time, digital literacy)? What are their learning ideologies (the metacognitive framework of deep values, beliefs and experiences that inform their attitudes to learning)? etc, etc.

    To put this a different way, if we think of the online courses we are designing as products (none of the Academy’s learning offer is mandatory btw), how much market research should we be doing as a part of the design process? And how much do we actually do?

    Do we know for example, how many people commute daily and have a device they can browse? How many have already done a MOOC or other on-line course? How many are “acclimatised to on-line life” (love the euphemism Annette)? How many have been through education systems where they haven’t been required to develop autonomous learning skills? How willing and able are they to engage with and embrace the products we are designing? What other material and psychological constraints might hinder their ability to learn from the resources we create?

    My point is in any learning enterprise we should always put the learner at the heart of what we do. The better we understand the learner, the better we can design for them. Good design always starts with good research.

  6. Loads of food for thought there! I think we have to take massive diversity of learners, in all respects, as a given – as well as our lack of resources to produce tailored experiences for every subset. But I think we’re producing ingredients rather than recipes- the recipes are likely to be generated much closer to the learner- and as for the meal and how nutritious it is, that may be down to the individual.. I’ll stop before I extend the metaphor to death. Question of market research is great one for discussion at Academy level actually, and evaluation is part of that.

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