MOOCs, Transmedia & Learning

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a frenzy of hype focused on massively open online courses (MOOCs). Companies like Coursera, Udacity, and edX promised to revolutionize education; the New York Times declared 2012 to be “The Year of the MOOCs”. Venture capitalists rushed to pour millions into a number of start ups. A number of elite universities (I’m talking about you Harvard, MIT, Stanford, PennState, and a number others) suddenly discovered online education for the masses and climbed onboard.

Governments got interested when they saw a way to cut funding; private companies got interested when they saw a way to make money.

In institutions of higher education in the United States and around the world some faculty took a look at MOOCs and decided to give them a try. In many of the same institutions a significant number of faculty took a look at MOOCs and freaked out.

All parties involved declared the end of education as we know it.

As so often happens with new innovations, the hype eventually dies down, as has now happened with MOOCs. That means we can get on with a serious examination of how we can use MOOCs productively. There is a natural affinity between MOOCs and transmedia storytelling and those working in the transmedia field need to take a look at what is going on.

IBM Infowindow system circa 1986The concept of online education is not new; in 1986 I landed a job developing computer-based interactive video training materials. The equipment was state-of-the-art — a desktop IBM computer, a video disc player (playing 12 inch laser discs), and a 75-pound behemouth called the IBM Infowindow. The idea was to create interactive programs that combined text, computer graphics, audio, and video and control everything using a touch screen. This was in the days when CD-ROM was the hot new technology that would change the world and years before the World Wide Web and DVDs.

By 1991-1992 it was clear that Infowindow technology was on its way out and something new and revolutionary was on its way in — something called the World Wide Web. I still remember clearly the president of the small company I worked for at the time arguing strongly that this “Web Internet thing” was a fad and would soon pass. I argued (as much as one can with one’s boss) that I thought the Web was likely to have some sort of impact on computer-based training. (Of course, I had a freshly minted Master of Science in Studies of the Future that perhaps made me a little too sure of myself.)

full_howtoshootbettersmartphonevideosAs the web evolved so did computer-based training, moving from fairly simple online “educational games” to page-turning tutorials to increasingly sophisticated content. Today’s technology has come a long way over the past three decades. The interactive content that once took 125 pounds of equipment to run can now be played on a tablet or smartphone that weighs in at a pound or less.

So what does all this have to do with transmedia and MOOCs?

First, while both transmedia and MOOCs are emerging innovations, there is a long history of other innovations that they are built on. There is plenty we can learn from how earlier technologies were used. The Infowindow system I worked with so many years ago did basically the same thing that we currently do when we have integrate media and display it on a tablet or smartphone. Today’s technology does it quicker, cheaper, and easier but the underlying functionality is essentially the same. Many of basic storytelling principles I used to design interactive video content two decades ago are still applicable today. For that matter, so are a lot of publication design principles I learned in my journalism classes at Ryerson University in the early 1970s. This is particularly true as we move from the era of the computer-based web browser to tablet-based e-books and e-magazines.

The design priniciples of effective computer-based and online instruction have not changed significantly over the past 20 years. As someone who has designed and developed courses of all kinds since the mid-1980s, it was clear that a lot of the hype around MOOCs was just that — hype. A lot of people who had no clue about the history of online instruction lacked the perspective to see both the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. There was also a fair amount of hucksterism when it became obvious there was money to be made pushing a “revolutionary technology” that would “transform education”.

Second, there is a difference between the technology of two or three decades ago and what we have now. Cheaper, faster, and easier will have a significant impact on who will be able to develop MOOCs or transmedia projects. Less technical skills will be needed to program things, making it possible to put more emphasis on the content itself. That is a good thing. We have begun to see truly innovative examples of both MOOCs and transmedia project. This is a direct result of putting more and more capabilities into the hands of creators, and that too is a good thing.

So while it is important to look back at the design principles used in the past, it is absolutely essential that we also look forward, experiment, and develop new principles that will strength MOOCs and transmedia narratives.

Third, technology is converging. Henry Jenkins pegged it in 2008 in his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The convergence will continue. This principle of technological convergence is described in detail in my e-book Technology & the Future: Managing Change and Innovation in the 21st Century. That e-book itself is an example of convergence; it was designed specifically as a companion to a MOOC of the same name. Furthermore, the content of the MOOC is an integrated mix of the e-book plus web-based text, still images, animations, audio, video, and social media in the form of discussion boards.

Many of the principles I used in designing the MOOC are principles I learned hands-on over the past three decades of working with generation after generation of technology. However, creating an e-book that is integrated with this MOOC also revealed some new challenges and has required new learning. Over time the principles of how to do this most effectively will become clear as both the small and the grand experiments continue.

And while all that happens, I am looking forward to the adventure of it all.

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