When Meta-MOOC Meets Wiki: Transforming Higher Education

Since May, I’ve been working just about nonstop on an intellectual and pedagogical extravaganza that I refer to as “Meta-MOOC.” It is “meta” in the sense that one part of this effort is a MOOC (massive open online course) partly about MOOCs. Starting on January 27, I’ll be teaching a six-week course, “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future,” through Duke University’s Coursera platform.

That whimsical subtitle is designed to signal “meta” ambitions for engaged, connected learning that extend far beyond a content-delivery model of the hierarchical, “doc on the laptop,” passive model of learning associated with MOOCs—or with the traditional university lecture hall. Those ambitions are being led by another “meta” effort that’s called FutureEd, a faculty- and student-led effort designed to spark an international conversation on the need for public investment in educational innovation as a public good. So far, MOOCs have stolen the show, as if they are the only innovation in town and as if for-profit companies are the only place to go for educational innovation. That is flatly untrue. We hope to showcase successful innovations in order that others may be inspired to change, too. And we hope the MOOC will extend our campaign on behalf of true learning innovation to thousands of participants worldwide.

The FutureEd Initiative is being organized by Hastac, an open online learning network with more than 12,000 members that several educational innovators founded in 2002. The program is inspired by the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of learning innovations our community has shared over the last decade. The rhetoric about the conservatism of higher education is simply not true. However, it is true that those making change often feel solitary within their departments, disciplines, or institutions. Approximately 30 courses offered by diverse institutions of higher learning, from community colleges to Ivy League universities, will be championing educational innovation and using tools, email lists, and other ways to connect students and faculty members across institutions.

Hastac is also hosting three wikis to which anyone can contribute their ideas: a bibliography of resources (books, articles, videos, websites) on educational innovation; a pedagogical and classroom innovations wiki, and, third, a wiki where anyone can describe a successful change that they were able to spearhead or participate in at their own institution. We have no idea if legislators or venture capitalists will rush forth to fund these ideas. We do know that students, parents, and the general public are hungry for meaningful transformation of education, kindergarten through lifelong learning. MOOCs are one response to this need. Meta-MOOC shows how many other ways of meeting it exist and offer pathways to leadership for those who want them.

Our method is about learning by doing, learning by connecting, learning by experiencing, teaching, and sharing. In medical school, the classic formulation is “See one. Do one. Teach one.” We extend that triptych to a fourth principle: “Share one.” The idea is that if the Internet extends our human reach and our need for human judgment in ways both heady and precarious, then our current educational system is doing it all exactly wrong. Learning content and being tested in standardized exams on the best answer from four or five items is exactly wrong in a world where content is massively available, easily remixed, potentially unreliable, and always changing. Learning how to learn, learning how to judge wisely, learning how to connect, and learning how to translate what one learns to situations that can improve lives (whether from the lessons of history or mastery of C++) are the real metrics of success in our world.

To that end, in addition to the MOOC and FutureEd, this semester I will be teaching a face-to-face graduate class on (you guessed it) “The History and Future of Higher Education.” Also starting this month, this class is made up of 16 Duke, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University students (graduate and undergraduate), some in the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge that I co-direct at Duke, some earning the certificate in teaching. They will be reading extensively in the history of higher education in what I call an “activist, purposive history,” one designed to help us see how the status quo came to be this way in order to help us to see a way to changing it. They will also work in teams of two or three and each take charge of one week of the MOOC and work to make that experience as interactive, participatory, and two-directional as possible. They will keep office hours, posing challenges on the forums, interacting with participants, and learning from this vast international community.

In the true “See one. Do one. Teach one. Share one” model, the students will also be communicating about their insights. They will be using the three Hastac wikis to post what they are learning, and they will also help (in the manner of Wikipedia) as editors, keeping the wikis in good, sane, professional, and useful condition (alphabetical order, for example, is notoriously hard to maintain when hundreds of people are contributing content; you need a “wiki wrangler”). And they will be publishing their insights on this entire process in weekly blog posts, right here at The Chronicle.

They will also be interacting with face-to-face students being taught at the same time in similar classes by Professors Christopher Newfield at the University of California at Santa Barbara and David Palumbo-Liu at Stanford. We will be teaching some of one another’s work, encouraging the students to collaborate on projects, and we will be using Google Hangouts for some collaborative classes that will also be open to a larger public.

The finale of all of this meta-MOOCing will be a posting of three models of what we are calling “Designing Higher Education From Scratch,” where the students, again working in teams, will design and post three radically different models of what higher learning might look like. They will think about higher education in the most profound and fundamental ways, asking: What is it for, who is it for, in what way does it serve society, and what are the best ways to deliver on our mission? Rarely do students have the opportunity to reconceive everything, on the deepest level and on the most practical, of what education should be. They will name their new university, make an online model of it, and provide as much detail as they can, right down to designing the T-shirts. And then they will be posting their models to the Coursera forum so that 10,000 or more participants can modify, participate, learn, and share.

That’s a very, very long way from the top-down, broadcast delivery model of education that seems to be preserved in conventional MOOCs or in the conventional lecture hall or in our outmoded ways of testing, accrediting, credentialing, grading, or keeping up our “standards.” If the standards themselves are outmoded, at what are we excelling? If the model of learning was designed for building Model Ts and not the next Twitter, who cares if you are top of your class? If as a teacher, you are still doing in the classroom what your teachers did in your classrooms, even as you see your own students or your children learning by themselves in astonishingly creative, inventive new ways, something is drastically wrong. It’s not easy to change. This is why the FutureEd Initiative invites you to learn, to participate, to find partners: See, do, teach, share. It works for educators as well as for those we educate.

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