In the spring of 2013, everyone was talking about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Startup companies like Coursera and Udacity were offering free courses from distinguished professors. MIT and Harvard joined forces to create EdX. Everyone was promising a revolution in education, in which high-quality learning experiences would be available to anyone with a computer and Internet connection, anywhere in the world, from Boston to Bogota to Bangalore.
We were skeptical. We certainly recognized that MOOCs could play a role in the educational ecosystem. Watching a video lecture by a university professor can be an interesting and rewarding experience. But we doubted whether MOOCs, at least in their current form, could support the types of learning experiences that we felt were most valuable. We worried that MOOCs were focusing too much on delivering content to students – and not enough on engaging students in creative and collaborative learning experiences.
Instead of simply complaining about MOOCs, we decided to create our own. Our goal was to create an online course more aligned with our own educational sensibilities and style. We were not opposed to “massive” but it was not our first priority. Could we bring our interest-driven, project-based, peer-oriented learning approach to the world of MOOCs?
In developing the course, we brought together expertise and experience from two different organizations. Mitch and Natalie are researchers in the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, where they develop new technologies and activities to engage children in creative learning experiences. Philipp is co-founder of Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), a grassroots open-education project that designs and organizes online learning experiences, with special focus on people learning with and from one another.
When Philipp came to the Media Lab in 2012 as a visiting fellow, the three of us decided to join forces to experiment with MOOCs. In particular, we decided to create an online version of a course called Technologies for Creative Learning, which Mitch had been teaching at MIT over the past decade. The course had been organized as a project-based seminar. Throughout the semester, students worked together in small groups, designing technologies and activities to engage people in creative learning experiences. During the weekly meeting of the class, students discussed readings and provided feedback on one another’s projects. The course typically attracted about 25 graduate students each year, mostly from the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
For the spring 2013 semester, we decided to open up the course so that people around the world could participate online for free (with no credit or certification), in parallel with the in-person course at MIT (where students were receiving academic credit). Our goal was to engage more people in exploring and discussing ideas related to creative learning, so we renamed the course “Learning Creative Learning.” In a recursive twist, we wanted the course itself to be a model of creative learning, so that course participants would be experiencing the creative-learning process at the same time that they were learning about it.
At first, Natalie expressed hesitation about whether the online experience would work well, and if we could preserve the hands-on character of the Media Lab course in the online environment, but she agreed to join the design and planning. Philipp worked with the P2PU team to create a playful and inviting website which clearly stated that the course was “a big experiment.” We sent out some tweets and emails about the course, but had no idea what type of response to expect. Word about the course spread rapidly, as the announcement was picked up by a few prominent blogs and websites. Within a week, about 25,000 people had registered to participate. In the end, about 10,000 people joined the discussion forum for the course, and a few thousand people actively contributed.
We were happy that so many people were interested, and particularly pleased at the diversity of the participants – including not only educators (which we expected), but also parents, librarians, designers, lawyers, and technologists from around the world. At the same time, we were worried. Could we provide a meaningful learning experience to such a large group of people?
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