Knowledge is ubiquitous on the Internet.
It is open and shared: there is a forum for about any subject you can dream of –and within it, you’ll find narrower topics called “threads”; similarly, blogs such as the ones you find on this site are ideas woven together, fabric made with hyperlinks.
It is constantly recombined and organized: besides forums and blogs, social bookmarking, wikis and hashtags are a staple of the semantic web.
In the education sector, MOOCs are certainly exemplary in harnessing the capacity of the Web to share and organize knowledge.
Of course, from my own experience, I know that MOOCs are unevenly social: the Gamification course I took on Coursera a while back was… mildly social. The forum felt optional rather than central to the course, and I soon skipped it altogether.
On the other end, the multiple forums in EdX’s Introduction to Game Design felt very much part of the learning process. Taking part in the various forums was regularly “the assignment” in a section. Students used them as a way to discuss, present and test ideas. Since the whole course aimed at producing a game using rapid prototyping, forums were a blessed source of testers. Not just a place to hang out, they were part of the process we were learning, and much learning emerged from them.
Moreover, those forums were summarized and commented by the two hosts of the MOOC in their weekly intro video.
People have mixed feelings about forums in MOOCs: “Get to the point! What are we supposed to learn from these conversations? Do we need all this half-baked ideas produced by peers that don’t know more than we do?”
Because of its social, peer-to-peer nature, a forum is likely to start of by muddying things up.
So… should a MOOC encourage confusion in students? Is it not counter-productive?
In his PhD, Dereck Muller , creator of the physics channel Veritasium , shows that effectiveness and clarity are two different matters : especially when you tackle misconceptions in students, an effective explanation will be confusing to the receiver because it goes against their former belief. If it is not, it means that deep understanding isn’t taking place, thus no knowledge is acquired. You will need to experience a state of unbalance, and exert mental effort to reach a new and more accurate conception of the world.
In the case of misconceptions, we’re talking about “known knowledge”. But can forums help producing new knowledge?
Let’s start by understanding Stephen Dowes’ vision –after all, he is the co-founder of the MOOC movement, and of connectivism : “Online resources are not “content”; they are the words of a new language whose grammar is : “sharing, connecting, exchanging, giving and receiving feed back, debating”. It is the ongoing re-organization and re-combination of what we know which produces new knowledge. In the knowledge network, “Teachers are nodes, students are nodes. Both teaching and learning consists of sending and receiving communications to other nodes.” ( How to Organize a MOOC, slide 20)
So, simply put, a large number of students and teachers is feeding the knowledge network. Because those MOOC are so “Massively Open”, what we are witnessing in the knowledge network is Pierre Lévy ‘s“Collective intelligence”: “The knowledge of a thinking community is no longer a shared knowledge, for it is impossible for a single human being, or even a group of people, to master all knowledge, all skills. It is fundamentally collective knowledge, impossible to gather together into a single creature.”
With the current state of human knowledge, no one can call themselves a true polymath. Networks, both physical and virtual, allow learning to happen spontaneously, and new knowledge to emerge.
This concurs with findings from Education scientist Sugata Mitra: “Dr. Mitra’s team carved a “hole in the wall” that separated the NIIT premises from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use. This computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum dwellers, especially the children. With no prior experience, the children learnt to use the computer on their own.”
15 years on, the experiment is still running, and the children’s spectacular achievements led Mitra to speculate that in the age of the Internet, “Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”
How does all this impact the way we currently teach?
The bad news is, schools won’t stay relevant in the information age, if they don’t become much more deeply connected: use the networks for “sharing, connecting, exchanging, giving and receiving feed back, debating”, and not just as a one way encyclopedia.
The good news is, knowledge has never been so democratic.