The Massive Open Online Course

In the fall of 2008, George Siemens and Stephen Downes co-taught a course entitled ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’. Offered through the University of Manitoba as a credit course, it was also open to free participation to anyone interested.  2200 people signed up for the course, and Downes later estimated that 1870 persisted through the duration of the course. Due to its sheer size and scale, it came to be called the MOOC – Massive Open Online Course.

Participation was multilevel and multi-modal. 24 students paid tuition at the University of Manitoba and took the course for credit. The lifeline of distributed course communication was the daily newsletter, in addition to the official course weblog. There was a course wiki, and a Moodle installation for threaded discussions. Synchronous discussions were held on the proprietary Elluminate platform (with limited seating) and archived as publically available MP3 files. But given the sheer scale of participation, not to mention the orientation of the course itself, it should not be surprising that students themselves took significant control over the media of course delivery. More than 170 students maintained their own course blogs on multiple platforms, and an RSS aggregator and the daily newsletter collected and redistributed these efforts. Three separate Second Life communities were established, two of them in Spanish. (It should be noted that while the course was offered in English, Spanish speaking students took it upon themselves to translate core course materials.)  This considerable activity prompted significant activity even amongst online educators who were not formally aligned with the course.

The number of participants rendered traditional notions of “instructional support” meaningless. Instead, as Downes notes, “by combining participants from a wide range of skill sets, people were able to – and did – help each other out. This ranged from people answering questions and poviding examples in the discussion areas, to people commenting on and supporting each others’ blogs, to those with more skills setting up resources and facilities, such as the translations and Second Life discussion areas.” Similarly, the notion of “course material production” was upended, in place of a structure that owed much more to the commons-based peer production that marks Wikipedia and other initiatives that thrive in an era of unprecedented information abundance: “Materials for the course were not ‘produced’ in the traditional; sense – rather, the instructors created a framework, populated that framework with open materials already extant on the web, added some commentary and videos of their own, conducted open online sessions and recordings, and created the infrastructure for wide student participation.”

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