The MOOC Tornado

European MOOC Summit: What looks tasty – for organizations thinking about transforming how they learn

Reda Sadki Events, Writing

This is a quick overview of what I found of interest for international and non-governmental organizations in the program of the Second European MOOC Summit – possibly the largest and probably the most interesting MOOC-related event on the Old Continent – that opens tomorrow at Switzerland’s MIT-by-the-Lake, EPFL.

The first interesting thing I found in the program is that it includes an instructional session, titled “All you need to know about MOOCs”. Indeed, the more I meet and talk to people across a variety of international and non-governmental organizations, the more it is obvious that the so-called “hype” has remained circumscribed to a fairly narrow, academic circle – despite international media coverage and a few million registered users. That makes it both smart and relevant to offer a primer for anyone attending the conference who is discovering MOOCs, before they get plunged into the labyrinth of myth, paradox and possibility that is the future of education. Where the most current knowledge about MOOCs changes too rapidly for any one individual to keep up, it’s now possible to break down the basics – never mind that it might all be very different a year from now.

Now, my beef is that the raging MOOC debates have been focused almost exclusively on higher education, and been restricted to academic and edutech circles. That is changing – just look at George Siemens’s prediction that “corporate MOOCs will be the big trend of 2014”. I’m still not sure what “corporate MOOC” means but I’m assuming we’re talking about workplace learning, which meshes nicely with what I’ve been arguing all along: continual learning in organizations is a key driver for organizational performance, and only the affordances of technology can make this strategic (ie, help to realize the mission). This is true for the humanitarian sector (where I’ve worked for 21 years, and where I’ve just started but really extends to any mission-driven, knowledge-based organization, irregardless of whether profit is the motive.

First, some blunt (and possibly caricatural) ideas. Traditional learning and development is dead or dying, one face-to-face workshop (or one behaviorist, compliance click-through e-learning module) at a time. In the United States, the majority of higher education students are already “non-traditional”, ie they are working or looking for work, adults with family and professional lives alongside the need or wish to learn more. In Western Europe, unemployment for under-30s is structurally high, with many twenty-somethings spending years as “interns”, exploding the baby boomer model in which affordable university leads to job security. Learning looks like it’s going to be lifelong, as the EU keeps proclaiming, but not necessarily by choice… Last but not least, in the BRICs and other connected countries in what was known a long time ago as the Third World  (sorry, nostalgia of sorts), educational opportunities and social mobility may not be uncoupled (yet), but most middle-class professionals see continuing education as a key to their development.

For international organizations  and NGOs, the stakes are high. We know that traditional higher education produces young people without the practical skills, competencies, or critical thinking capacity to do the work of 21st century humanitarians. Worse, most of our own organizations’ training efforts are still premised on unscalable, expensive face-to-face training – training as if it were 1899. And from educational technology we have, so far, retained only the most reductive, behaviorist kinds of click-through e-learning, using it to transmit information in “pre-work” before the “real learning” can start in the classroom. (Of course, there is a more optimistic story to tell, given the number of brilliant humanitarians leading innovative efforts around learning – just drawing the broad, pessimistic strokes here).

 These complex issues are most likely to be addressed at least implicitly in the Summit’s Business Track, where on Tuesday at 11h00 IMC’s Volker Zimmermann will moderate a session on MOOCs as “training instruments” for employees and partners. So that’s where I will go. Nevertheless, in the Experience Track, there is also a session on SPOCs (small, private, online courses – think Moodle on MOOCs) which could be useful to learning contexts where small-group work is a key to success.

I’m betting that Tuesday afternoon’s session on MOOCs for online external corporate training and communication will turn into a showcase for new companies trying to corner the corporate MOOC market. So off I will go to listen to Barbara Moser-Mercer’s talk on MOOCs in fragile contexts, which include refugee camps.

On Wednesday morning at 9h00, I will moderate a small-group discussion on MOOCs for international and nongovernmental organizations, hoping that MOOC providers and academics will attend in sufficient numbers to hear about how badly we need solutions to transform the way we do learning, education and training.  IGO and NGO online learning pioneers Sheila Jagannathan from the World Bank Institute, Dominique Chantrel from UNCTAD, and Patrick Philipp from IRU will be sharing their early experiences. Let’s hope that the folks who build, sell, research and think about MOOCs will be listening.

Reda Sadki

Corrected on 11 February: the session on MOOCs for IGOs and NGOs starts at 9h00!