The Power of Decentralization in the MOOC

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four blogs on digital technology.

Nishant Shah’s Annotation: In the last entry, I had suggested that instead of connectedness, what we really need to think about, in connected and digital learning, is the idea of distributedness. I had argued that the role of technology in MOOC environments is that of consolidation, and it is the act of consolidation that allows for the distributedness of learners, teachers, and resources to be sustained. Building upon this conversation, my colleague Mariam Haydeyan at the Leuphana Digital School, uses the opportunity of the recently completed Online Open Course, “Managing the Arts,” to think about decentralized learning environments and distribution of affect and intentions. What remains powerful in Mariam’s reflection is the implicit idea that technologies of consolidation often reinforce the idea of the user/learner as disconnected and alone, and that it is crucial to pay attention to the learner as an affective learner, and installed in conditions of collectivity rather than connectivity.

I remember an exam in an arts class where we were given an A3 print of Albrecht Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” and asked to build a new motif from cuttings of the sophisticated woodcut. The task itself was, of course, not cutting edge. Nevertheless, both the process and product were exhilarating. Our teacher wanted us to do simple, material work. Without employing additional materials, the central idea was to imitate and further develop Dürer’s structures and patterns to make a new picture, our own picture — one that speaks our language through his symbols, bearing the hallmarks of the original creation.

The result was that this entity, separated in parts and thoughtfully reassembled, underwent a radical transformation and was enfeebled of being something completed and absolute. Furthermore, intent upon appreciating and preserving the work’s original attributes, we were able to take up Dürer’s hand and to slip in forms and structures of our own. Carefully implemented, it was not outlandish at all. Why did this simple task fascinate me so emphatically and what has it to do with this entry and to tackling the question of what constitutes learning in the digital age?

Oftentimes, one reads that we must understand what learning is and how it can be defined. But, let us put it this way: we must understand how learning takes place today and, thus, delve into its practical application. What our task is now is to disengage from preconceived notions of these reactions, stop delivering “predigested knowledge,” and look beyond the traditional notion of learning in which knowledge is a commodity delivered from the transmitter to the recipient.

The Rhinoceros-exercise showed the virtuality of a seemingly real and coherent entity. That is exactly what we need in digital higher education. We need to uncouple knowledge transfer and conferencing from the oftentimes still predominant rigid notions of “teaching” and “learning” as predefined educational constructs. This consciousness of an ever changing identity of the learner and the teacher can help to further develop digital and open and connected learning and teaching toward new and multilayered educational role models.

How would that be manifested in a MOOC? The emergence and developments of MOOCs are going the right direction approaching a new learning constitution, shifting learning experiences from individual to collective, from consuming to producing, from reactionary to participatory and chiefly founding on conversation and co-creation. But, we need a pedagogy reflecting that. Furthermore, we need to understand that focusing on the learner by targeting a learner-centered approach should not conduct us to the wrong way of averting the focus from the teacher. In the contrary, s/he becomes more important than ever, having to serve the manifold needs and demands of the individual learner. Taking this into account, teaching cannot be embodied in one person or type but in multiple.

This is where the unique approach of Leuphana Digital School’s MOOCs — Mentored Open Online Courses — exemplifies how the concept of MOOCs can be further developed on behalf of the idea of concentrating on the individuality of the learner by decentralizing and breaking down the teaching process in multiple components. Leuphana Digital School’s Mentored Open Online Courses facilitate the implementation of a unique didactical concept where, equated to the idea that there is not “the answer” but a multiplicity of approaches, there is not “the teacher” but scholars, mentors, tutors, academic directors, facilitators and administrators in one MOOC. Leuphana Digital School’s Mentored Open Online Courses include teamwork, emphasizing peer-to-peer assessments as well as mentor-assessments, realigning the learning experience through project-based working in the space of a case-scenario based method.

The Teacher is Not Alone — Teaching is Granular


We exposed that open education was supposed to commit to accessing knowledge to all, thus contributing to social progress and the transformation of the individual.[1] The values emerging from the modern education concept of openness led us to ethics and a philosophy founding on participation, cooperation, and mutual and reciprocal experiences. We cannot forbear to absolutely apply a method to digital education by challenging teaching in online education — a symbiosis of pedagogical implementation and assessment concepts. However, challenging the teaching does not mean that teaching is embodied in one instance, even in one person, but has to be multi-generated to tackle the learner’s experiences on different levels and through different responsibilities.

Leuphana Digital School recognizes that teaching an online course consists of different roles and processes one person or type neither would be able nor would want to perform. Starting in 2012 with the pilot course, “ThinkTank – Ideal City of the 21st Century,” they have been giving their Mentored Open Online Course concept a try by gathering the participants in one platform around a strong faculty, a team of experts, undertaking the functions of different teacher types. The concept has proven to be successful, particularly on the example of the latest course, “Managing the Arts,” around marketing of cultural organizations, to as many as 17,000 users.

Chris Dercon was the course director and moderator — publicly introducing the course, internally introducing the students to the assignments and the course phases. The academic director and the MOOC facilitator built a strong duo, hosting the community during the course having curated its design and scenarios. The MOOC director, giving input in the forums, defining leading questions and managing the community on an individual and collective level, worked hand-in-glove with the MOOC facilitator, providing organizational information on the platform regarding course structure and processes. Scholars — experts in their specific fields — give input and impulses through short keynote lectures and contribute to discussions in the community during the course. Teams are assigned to mentors and tutors. Mentors accompany the teams throughout their learning experience on a content-related level, provide feedback on drafts and evaluate final submissions after a course phase ends. Tutors provide administrative and technical support. All these activities are bundled by a core project management team at Leuphana Digital School.

The Learner is Not Alone – Learning Through Affect

Leuphana University gives out ECTS certificates after successfully completing the courses, thus it is useful to gather all user activities, tasks and assignments on one learning platform. In doing so, they are enabled to formalize feedback processes and consolidate peer processes in one virtual environment. In this environment the learning experience extremely differs from the experience in a physical classroom. The learner finds himself in a space, where time and place collapse and collaboration and cooperation stand in the absolute foreground. I keep Jonathan Worth in mind. The professional photographer and instructor of #phonar (photography and narrative), an open course on photography and storytelling to as many as 35,000, raising one important question during Leuphana Digital School’s #FutureU workshop, that stands above everything else when creating an online course: “How do we create an experience in which we add value for the learner when learning with the digital?” [2]

My answer is affect. What Leuphana Digital School does is to organize the participants in working groups — during the course of the MOOC, they work collaboratively on a submission, based on assignments that are complexity deepening with every phase of the course. Every member of a course’s community, be it the teacher or learner, is driven by the atmosphere and dynamics predominating the course. Acting in a team or group does not mean that the sensibility of the individual does not stand in the foreground. The development of a MOOC very much depends on every singe, silent or loud mind, contributing to its success. So, what we have to do is to build a learning instance where we create emotion. Teachers as well as learners, in their particular roles, have to ask themselves certain questions, whose answers are determining the learning experience: Why are you part of this event? What is your intrinsic motivation? What do you love and where do you want to go? How do you define your goals and how can you turn the learning of a MOOC into strategies that help you to achieve them?[3]

What learners and teachers can do to affect each other is to foster provocation, encouragement, enthusiasm, success and failure. Marginal experiences, the belongingness to a group or community, the responsibility to contribute and the identification with the task or the goal create a strong commitment to the learning experience and enable an enduring learning outcome. Through sharing of information, resources and knowledge and synergy, conversation and discourse, common value is created, ideas generated and an intellectual home can be established.

Going back to the rhinoceros, it becomes obvious, why this task is still in my mind as an impressive learning experience. The teacher could have asked me about Dürer’s life, his oeuvre, about humanism and reformation, about the particular artworks’ history and background — dry reproduction of the information. But, what she actually did was to create emotion — she allowed me to converse with this piece of art and contribute to it, whereby, I took all the information she could have asked automatically into account, describing my derivative of this masterpiece.
type-sculptIf I would teach a class and give this rhinoceros or maybe a typewriter to a team in a MOOC or a whole community and then ask them to create something new of its components, they would start to learn facts about the products’ origin, history, attributes and identify, its composition and mechanics before starting to work on the task. Not only would they learn more about its “theory” if the only task would have been to learn all key data, but because they would decide to do so on their own, seeing the necessity of knowing the product before “destroying” it. Above everything, that’s how I imagine it to be. They would start to discuss, go toe-to-toe with each other, start to find strategies for agreement and find themselves in a complex circle of design thinking and creative problem solving.

What would the outcome be? What about a robot…?

Image credits: Banner image, Albrecht Dürer’s “Rhionceros”; Image 2, Old Typewriter (Things Come Apart) by Todd McLellan; Image 3, Typewriter Assemblage Sculpture by Jeremy Mayer