For the last three weeks, I’ve been a student again. I’m following a MOOC offered by FutureLearn, an offshoot of the Open University in partnership with a number of other institutions. And I have to report that so far, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience.
Most of the pleasure comes from following a subject in which I am interested, but I’m also deeply interested in how a MOOC actually feels on the receiving end. The flexibility is highly impressive: I can study a little segment as and when I have the time, and I can do it wherever I want. I am not going to list all the places where I have MOOCed, but suffice to say that they include the kitchen and my car – anywhere that involves waiting, or an activity that doesn’t involve my conscious brain. And it is reasonably sociable too; the discussion space is busy and noisy and very friendly.
So far, so predictable. I’ve also learned some things I didn’t expect. The very flexibility of a MOOC makes it easy to wander off and do something else. The fact that I can walk around studying on my iPad also means that my MOOC has to compete with email, Twitter, Facebook and other digital distractions – it is so easy to flick the screen, and forget that you were supposed to be studying for another 20 minutes.
I’ve also discovered that MOOCs offer an extremely furtive form of learning. Although I tweeted about the MOOC, and mentioned it to several friends, I didn’t tell my partner about it. She can hear that I’m listening to something or viewing something on my iPad, but presumably she thinks I’m catching up on the News Quiz or haltingly working on my Portuguese. And now it’s become a sort of experiment, where I keep quiet about the MOOC and wait to see whether she’ll notice how fabulously well-informed I am on everyday life in medieval England.
MOOCs are not necessarily anonymous, but they do allow you to manage disclosure in a way that most other forms of organised learning to not. The course designers have clearly tried to draw on adult education practices of group work and create a community of learners, but they have little control over how the masses participate. A participant can lurk online, reading the debates but not contributing. Or they can invent a new name, and for that matter a whole new identity, as part of their studies. No one will ever know. Meanwhile, their most intimate friends and family can be completely ignorant of why their loved one is suddenly spending time on the iPad.
Does this furtive possibility matter? I think it probably has some influence on the pedagogic relationship, but I’m not sure how. And it presumably shapes the ways in which learners are co-creating knowledge as they work their way through their MOOC. Either way, I find this all very interesting, and am looking forward to the next hour or so on my tablet.