Sunday, October 4, 2015
Can closed support open?
Can closed or restricted learning environments actually complement and enhance open learning? I've been thinking about this for a while and see a clear connection. I believe firmly in openness in education but there are problems with everything being wide open. In an open course, especially a massive one, there is a lot of noise (comments and discussions everywhere and hard to find any structure) and many learners who are unused to online learning simply give up in the face of the overwhelming volume. In all this noise what on earth can I contribute? If I ask a simple question will they ignore me or laugh at me? In order to start learning we all need to feel comfortable and secure in a place where we can ask "stupid" questions, test ideas and find support. In the noisy environment of an open course full of strangers, some of whom seem to be almost over-qualified for the course and are already discussing issues I don't even understand, it's hard to find a quiet area for smaller discussions. If the course is in English maybe I would like to discuss the content in my own language and be able to clear up misunderstandings.
I see a future for creating more closed groups as part of an open course to provide safe havens for discussion, language support and academic support. I suspect that many drop out of open courses because they feel inadequate, overwhelmed and confused. The opportunity to step aside into a more closed environment to get support and build confidence can enable learners to re-enter the open course with more confidence. This group could meet face-to-face once a week at a local library or cafe, hold regular online meetings and share a closed group on Facebook or Google+. They may not know each other at first and it takes a week or so before a comfort level is reached but once established the mutual support can be crucial for the learners' participation in the open course.
Of course it is not possible for MOOC-providers to offer such safe havens, their job is to offer the course and the learning environment. The closed spin-off groups must be arranged by a wide number of organisations who see a need to support open lifelong learning. Some study groups can be spontaneously formed by learners themselves but I also see a role for libraries, vocational colleges, community centres, learning centres and suchlike to organise local or regional groups of open learners who can meet regularly, face-to-face or online, to discuss course content and assignments, preferably in the learners' own language. This may already be happening and I would be interested in getting any links to examples.
An open course (I use the term to include those that are not covered by the term MOOC) can thus be developed into a whole ecosystem of open and restricted communities that are mutually supportive and that may continue to thrive long after the official course has ended. The original idea of a collaborative MOOC was to create a learning community to investigate a topic and hopefully continue to develop outside the scope of the course. The question is how open courses can facilitate the establishment of these safe, restricted environments and see them not as a threat to openness but as a natural complement. Communities within the community.