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What MOOCs Can Teach Us About Community Outreach

July 16, 2012

Lately I have thought more about my post on Massive Open Online Course or MOOCs.  Here is some follow-up:

I watched a six-minute Ted Talk by Peter Norvig, a pioneer in the MOOC field.  He began the presentation by noting “everyone is both a learner and a teacher.”  The obvious statement is in line with the current buzzwords of informal, lifelong and free-choice learning.  However, importantly his opening statement contextualizes the MOOC discussion within these broader public, beyond the limits of traditional academia.  The statement of this Stanford Professor expresses his desire to engage with the broader public, not just those with the over $13,000.00 in quarterly tuition at his University.

In the presentation Norvig notes that the first MOOC he taught on Artificial Intelligence had an initial registration of 209,000 of whom 20,000 completed the entire course.  On the one hand, a ten percent completion rate is not impressive.  However, I suspect that many of the 200,000 who registered, as with the first MOOC course I enrolled in but did not complete, were testing the MOOC waters.  I suspect further that completion rates will increase through time.  Regardless, 20,000 students completed the course, considerably more than Norvig’s total traditional classroom courses to date.

Norvig suggested the course was as interactive and engaging as many bricks and mortar courses.  Student feedback to MOOCs supports this claim.  Norvig reports some of the student response to his course in his Ted Talk: “this class felt like sitting in a bar with a really smart friend who is about to explain something to you” and “made to feel like one-on-one tutoring” and “now I am seeing Beyes Network and game theory every where I look.”

MOOCs also stimulate further in-person discussion among participants.  Coursera.org has a webpage devoted to these meet-ups.  Norvig concluded his presentation noting that the initial MOOC offerings are being assessed and modified to better accomplish the course goals.  As he notes “the most exciting part are the data that we are gathering . . . we are gathering thousands of interactions per student per class . . . and now we can start analyzing all of that . . . and what we learn from that . . . that’s where the real revolution will come . . . and you will be able to see the results from a new generation of amazing students.”  Norvig is clearly not phased by MOOC naysayers.  Instead of focusing on what is wrong with MOOCs he takes the approach of building on their strengths.

What do MOOCs have to teach those of us working in Museums or around public engagement in archaeology?  I see that a good bit the lesson has to do with giving up ultimate control along the lines of the Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World post I did a while ago.  MOOCs also bring to mind the interactive model for engagement I have blogged about previously.  At the C.H. Nash Museum when we surveyed our e-newsletter readers about volunteering, 40% of the respondents suggested that we offer on-line volunteer opportunities.  Max van Balgooy has blogged about possibilities for online volunteering.  In our same survey of readers, 60% of the respondents wanted to see more of our museum content online.  In the wake of new offerings such as the Google Art Project, The Giza Archives, Virtual Hampson to name a few, the previously outside-the-box possibilities are becoming more the norm.  MOOCs provide another way to look at the relevancy of these projects that make information available to everyone with an Internet connection.  Instead of focusing on what these technologies are not, we can embrace the use of these applications in museums, classrooms, and beyond for what they offer in expanding opportunities for the broad public that we serve.

Related – here is a bit of a news update as coursera.org announces the addition of 12 new universities to their online course offerings, including my alma mater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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