Sunday, February 10, 2013

MOOCs for Learning and Mobilizing


  • Globalized schooling expands the opportunity for global action research and discovery. 
  • Digital tools and social media are making documentation of social behavior, political movements, and scientific discovery part of everyday life.   
  • Nano technologies are developing to track all sorts of social and biological phenomena as evidence of learning and the impact of social interventions.  
  • Online learning platforms and mobile technologies are transferable to social action research and opportunities to expand the reach of economic and political change projects. 
  • New career paths at all levels of education will emerge for guiding the critical use of these tools, fields of study and age integrated courses where credit and not for credit students study side by side are likely to proliferate. Or, at least that is a best case scenario since the technologies remain more or less ideologically neutral.

Common Themes

Community organizing and mobilization for social change have much in common with strategies for effective instruction. Theories and research pertaining to communication and learning are applicable to social action research and political advocacy.  In each case similar principles for student and citizen engagement pertain and in each case telecommunications, social media and nano technology are driving convergence between research and action, theory and practice. The convergence resides in the affordance of rapid feedback and real time documentation.

Imagine a Massive Open Online Course on Adaptations with Climate Change that integrates project based learning and student collaboration to collect data and explore the implications of different interventions for changes in daily life.  Students from urban and rural areas in countries across the globe work with others in close proximity and/or at a distance to frame a project around a particular research question or social intervention.  The content of the course can provide relevant prior research and knowledge and the primary instructor(s) from multiple disciplines, with a cadre of mentors or coaches, can guide and provide rapid feedback to students engaged in “authentic” problems emergent in their “own” contexts.  Here the work of Mike Cole, et al (
on situated learning and ecological validity are rich resources for understanding the effectiveness of the student projects generated within local contexts.

 Accelerated Change

  • Nano technologies that enable seamless collection of video and audio data as well as devices to detect physiological changes under different levels of stress can provide a panoramic scope hitherto unavailable for field research.
  • Global accessibility to the data can accelerate rates of change across settings and provide clues to pitfalls and risks associated with a spectrum of interventions.  
  • The feasibility of adaptive interventions to effect expected and unexpected outcomes can be assessed quickly and perhaps in time to prevent catastrophe.

Volatility in the Academic Workplace: Challenges of Online Learning

Digital media and global telecommunications are driving new forms of schooling at every level of education across age cohorts. Competency rather than “seat time” is becoming the standard for assessment and achievement.  The American Council on Education recently announced that four Coursera courses are worthy of college credit if anti-cheating measures are enforced.  (,0,573675.story)

In 1999 I wrote that like workers in many fields, academics worried whether their skills would be needed and whether their best would be good enough for the emerging world of digital media and telecommunications. (Knowledge in a Learning Universe: Collaborative, Recursive, and Digital)  Today, globalized higher education is upon us and professional anxieties are experienced as personal emergencies about career and livelihood.  The future contours of higher education institutions are unclear as the job insecurities of faculty and administrators coexist with the challenges to business models and historical claims of the academy to exclusive rights to generate and husband “knowledge.” Faculty resistance to online innovations is frequently expressed in terms of concerns for accountability and student access to faculty. These are often the same faculty who lecture to hundreds of students in a large hall and defer to teaching assistants to carry on direct conversations with students.

The debut of MOOCs such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity presents new opportunities and challenges for students, institutions, and faculty. Global access to courses taught by faculty at one university and accessible to students at other institutions creates opportunities for institutions to target funds for focus on particular fields at the same time such “sharing” obviously threatens jobs, career paths and many if not most of the conventional values and norms of autonomous liberal arts colleges and universities.