CMOOCs with a Mandatory C!

“The most powerful experiences in peer-guided learning at scale tend to be deep, collaborative, sustained, and interest-driven. These characteristics, however, are at odds with the pedagogical approach of most schools, which usually require that learning experiences are experience individually, not collectively, along a set of mandated curriculum guidelines, not determined by students’ interests, and for uniform time-spans – the class period, the marking period, the semester – not sustained over time.”

Justin Reich, Failure to Disrupt

Throughout the book Failure to Disrupt, I was constantly struct by the recurring theme of community, connectedness, and lack thereof. The proponents of learning technologies (in the broadest possible sense of the phrase) seem to always espouse the possibility of connection. We’ve all heard how the internet was going to connect us across the globe, and knowledge would be shared openly and freely to one and all. And yet somehow, that has not happened on its own. There are people furthering this utopian vision in their own corners of the word, and yet there are people using the same technologies to sow division and distrust. Whether either extreme is intentional or not, technology alone does not create or break connections. It is how people use the technology that matters, and it is up to us as educators to guide this usage.

As Reich outlines in his book, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have generally followed the same worn pathways as traditional education, with the idea that just making them “available to all” will somehow magically make them engaging and worthwhile for all. Reich specifically mentions that ‘the standard MOOC in 2019 looks remarkably like the first MOOCs in 2011.’ – that is to say not much has changed, despite millions of dollars and research-hours. The most promising variation of MOOCs is the idea of CMOOCs, or Connected-MOOCs. In these courses, students are bound to each other in various ways – through peer-tutoring, peer-learning, peer projects (collaboration), or a combination of all. As connectivists will tell you, making connections to peers, to teachers, to prior knowledge, to the community, and to the material itself are all vital to deep learning. While it is extremely difficult to create curricula that can address all of these connections, I would like to propose a CMOOC system which would scaffold much of the effort: the “Mandatory C”-MOOC.

In this version of a MOOC, students must consent to work with a partner constantly. There are no units that a student can do alone, and no unit is complete until both partners have finished. Students may sign up for the course with a pre-arranged partner (a friend), or they may sign up with the knowledge that they will be matched with someone else who meets certain criteria. Whether that is similar GPA, similar interests, similar backgrounds, or some combination with a little randomness sprinkled in remains to be seen. The one immense benefit of a MOOC is that enormous amounts of data could be analyzed to see what kind of partnerships work and which ones don’t. The system might even recommend you not work with that particular friend….

If a partnership is not working out, students can request change at any break between units – but they can not drop out of a unit to change partners. Of course, in reality there will be exceptions, but that should be the general rule – you signed up, you need to finish (at least) this unit so that you don’t let your partner down.

I believe this system presents several inherent benefits. First – the obvious connection with a peer. As research into pair programming shows, there are some great benefits to working with a partner, and there is additional overhead. Reich spends several chapters of the book extolling the virtues of connecting with peers during learning. A well-designed course could facilitate the interaction and integrate tools the partners are already using or are familiar with. Similarly, those tools could be used to connect with a teacher. I use Discord with my classes, and it allows me to connect with students at any time of the day or night, but only when I decide to turn it on. It also allows students to connect with each other in help forums without the embarrassment of raising their hand in class, or feeling judged by their peers.

Finally, and this could be the most powerful aspect – if students do choose to participate with a friend, or someone from the same community, the course could be designed specifically around their prior knowledge and communal goals. Currently, MOOCs are almost exclusively completed by high socio-economic-political-status students, which simply increases inequity. This would be the first time a MOOC does not center agentic, self-driven goals and instead allows students to bring their own funds of knowledge and existing support networks into the online world of education. Changing these could change the culture of the MOOC and vastly reduce outcome inequity (Lewis et al., 2019).

Fundamentally, the idea of a “Mandatory C”-MOOC is to provide a support network and culturally sustaining pedagogy by requiring students to work together to succeed. While it may not work perfectly for every student, no system ever does. That being said, it might just work better for the students who need it the most.

Lewis, C., Bruno, P., Raygoza, J., & Wang, J. (2019). Alignment of Goals and Perceptions of Computing PredictsStudents’ Sense of Belonging in Computing. Proceedings of the International Computer Science Education Research Workshop.

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