By Paul Glader, Managing Editor
BERLIN – Somewhere between the cookie cutter Prussian-style classroom model of education and the lone-ranger online learning idea lurks the blended learning ideal, where one can have concentrated individualized learning time balanced with work among a small community of like-minded learners. Plato and others had this figured out thousands of years ago. It’s coming back.
A few weeks ago, I signed up for a Coursera class a month ago and signed on to watch my first lecture this past week.
Then, I dropped out (or, more politely, “unenrolled.”)
It wasn’t the teacher’s fault, Coursera’s fault or the fault of the course content. Lada Adamic, who teaches the course on Social Network Analysis, did make the topic very interesting and had a very good teaching style in my opinion. I basically realized that the topics covered in the class would be helpful to some people but not me and, therefore, not worth the time I would put into the class. My feeling of isolation in the coursework also did not help.
I’m signed up for another Coursera class in the spring that I think will be more directly useful to projects I have underway. I’ll report back as I engage in the class. (Meanwhile, we love to hear from students about their MOOC class experiences and observations.)
But one thing caught my eye while tooling around the Coursera web site: the advent of MOOC Meetup groups. Last I checked, more than 11,000 students had signed up for meet up groups in more than 1,100 cities worldwide! I saw one formed in Berlin, Germany, where I live. So I joined. It’s mostly other tech guys so far. Coursera’s blog features photos from very dedicated students in far-flung parts of the world from India to Peru.
The whole idea is for Coursera students to find community and to discuss issues or problems in their courses with other like-minded people. This move is an important step forward in the mutation of MOOCs. It’s a function that could make MOOCs a more blended form of learning in the future. It’s also a model for how other universities – private, public and for-profit – can better orchestrate online classes in the future.
MOOC Meetups also breed accountability. That’s a needed virtue in online courses that suffer from one main, ongoing criticism: Isolation. It’s easy to procrastinate, to grow bored or to go through the motions of an online class. Gaining a peer group serves as a way to motivate one to stay on top of coursework and to feel excited to discuss what you are learning in a course – in person! Not just via online comments or grading others work online.
Another function of MOOC Meetups is networking. Early reports suggest that most folks taking MOOC courses are tech-savvy students who either work in startups, IT and related fields or want to work in these fields. It’s natural, then, that MOOC Meetups can and will function as regional networks of smart, talented tech workers and entrepreneurs. It’s reasonable to think that these 1,100 communities (and growing) that are forming can become important clubs, perhaps fostering ideas or startups in their own right.
Udacity has nearly 3,000 students meeting up in 450 cities worldwide so far. I googled “edX Meetups” and found one such group in the New York area, which provides support for all MOOC providers and gave a nice description graph to the group’s mission:
The learning revolution is here, MOOCs, such as Udacity, Coursera, Edx(future), OpenCourses. The focus of the group is quantitative and computational, of course, all dedicated learners are welcomed. We can work on some problems together over beer. I am very excited about MOOC and want to create a “support” group here. Of course, the most important investment in life is time. MOOCs are great way to learn, this meetup is here to help each other to maximize returns and minimize costs. This is not a study group. This is a support group for a life style, The life style of a knowledge seeker.
Starbucks, love it or hate it, actually contributed to a culture of coffee drinking in America and led to the opening of more mom and pop coffee shops along with corporatized ones like Starbucks. And these thousands of coffee shops added an important “third place” in American life, a place outside of home or work where people can meet, interact and discuss things over a cup of coffee.
That’s the kind of long-term impact MOOCs could have if they begin to be connected and blended with in-person groups – meetups, libraries, community center learning centers, school study halls. Adding a “third place” for MOOCs goes beyond beating the isolation of online learning. Such a practice could also provide natural places for monitoring and proctoring of MOOC courses and exams, meaning MOOC-participating institutions could go a step closer to granting college credit for the courses.
This past weekend, I was driving my parents around the Thuringa region of Germany visiting old university towns such as Jena, Erfurt, Weimar and Wittenberg. I was struck by the importance of place and the power of getting a few bright people together in the same location. Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon were the intellectual Batman and Robin at the University of Wittenberg during the protestant Reformation. They had regular “Table Talks” about theology over beer in Luther’s dining room. Similarly, over in Weimar, the wide-ranging intellect of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe needed company. He was a super-nerd of his time, writing plays, novels, observations about science and art in his impressive Weimar home. He teamed up with another German intellectual, Friedrich Schiller, on many projects.
Goethe collected many, many artifacts in his house – from rocks to art to skeletal samples. I was struck by pictures Goethe had framed of Plato’s Academy, which depicted dozens of men on the steps of the famous Academos, located in a suburb outside of Athens, Greece. The pictures showed men in small groups discussing topics, doing experiments and quizzing each other. My thought bubble was that this ancient university resembles MOOC meet-up groups – small batches of self-directed interested learners – more than it does most modern universities today.
Great, bold minds of the past – Goethe, Luther, Plato – aimed to create self-directed thinkers, bring down the costs of education and to widen the access of knowledge, particularly for the poor. That’s what MOOCs and other edtech startups and projects have the potential to do. That’s the direction they should be going.
Back to my excuses for “un-enrolling” from Social Network Analysis: My plate is full with projects. I can’t see myself using these skills from the class right now to justify the time in the course. But such a topic – or any topic – would be even more exciting if I wasn’t watching the first lectures in a silo of my own home but, rather, discussing with in-person peers. Now I’ve got a meetup group in Berlin to remedy that when I attempt to take my next MOOC course in the spring.
Honors Programs housed inside state universities (such as The University of South Dakota, where I attended undergrad studies), have been a hidden gem for many years. They allow motivated students (often with higher than average ACT / SAT scores) to enroll in advanced, smaller classes from some of the best faculty on campus. It can create a special, more personalized, higher quality, Ivy-league like atmosphere within a large university.
Meetups may be one initial answer to MOOCs short-comings – by providing an in-person social network where only an open online course existed before. That’s my social network analysis right there. So join a MOOC meetup in your region or city. If there isn’t such a meetup now, start one. And let us know how it goes.
Glader is managing editor and co-founder of WiredAcademic.com. He’s also a European Journalism Fellow at Frei University in Berlin for 2012-2013. He’s written for numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Spiegel Online and FastCompany.com.