Week 11, MOOOCS – Massive Opportunities to Overcome Organisational Catastrophes, by Gilly Salmon

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Professor Gilly Salmon is Pro Vice-Chancellor, Learning Transformations at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne , Australia. Previously, she was the Executive Director and Professor (Learning Futures) at the Australian Digital Futures Institute, based in the University of Southern Queensland, Australia and was Professor of E-learning and Learning Technologies, and Head of the Beyond Distance Research Alliance and the Media Zoo, at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. Previously at the UK Open University Business School.

The third edition of her seminal book E-moderating was published in 2011. The 2nd edition of E-tivities is just published!

Web and social media sites:
Twitter: @gillysalmon

I’d love to have a go at the pedagogy of MOOCs but I acknowledge the excellent blogs by my esteemed crowd-wizards that have gone before in this project. There’s a recent piece from me about learning design and the like at MOOC News & Reviews if you’d like some of my ideas on learning with MOOCs.

But, today, I’ve been visioning along rather different lines. What if… we judged the quality of MOOCs by their capacity and capability to create positive and successful change for universities of the future? Hold that thought…

So, I’ve been thinking about supertankers. Well, to be truthful, I’m thinking about universities as supertankers.

There are some similarities, don’t you think? Supertankers are very large oil tankers; at their biggest, their fully laden dead-weight capacity exceeds 500,000 tons. They are the largest vehicles in the world. If you’re on the deck of a supertanker, there is a forest of masts and cargo booms which make it very difficult to look ahead. Supertankers’ mass creates momentum. (Momentum is equal to mass times velocity… you knew that from your Introduction to Physics MOOC, didn’t you?). That means momentum is increased if the mass (weight) or velocity (speed) or both are increased. A supertanker has much more momentum than a smaller boat even if they were both moving at the same speed – because the super tanker has more bulk. More bulk (even if that bulk is dead weight) means more momentum. Momentum is associated with continuously moving forward unless it is acted upon in some way. Therefore, supertankers take an exceptional amount of time and distance to alter their courses. Inflexible, difficult to change organisations are often compared to supertankers. For me, supertankers conjure up and evoke many experiences of trying to innovate within universities.

Some universities appear to be locked on autopilot, on pre-determined (probably previously well travelled) courses,  possessing enormous mass, energy and momentum as a result of some strategic decisions taken in the past; insensitive to the potential perils that may materialise in the short term that were not envisaged when the long term aims were translated into directions and destinations.

Our ‘supertankers’ can’t stop suddenly nor can they veer onto a new course or heading without a great deal of time and consumptive deliberation about the choices. Meanwhile the supertanker thunders along, buffeted perhaps by the storms in its external environment but still heading on its pre-determined course. (Will building another new lecture theatre solve this problem?).

Supertankers are difficult to control. Many have automated systems which aim straight and true. When the place they were aimed at is no longer appropriate, or a manual override attempts to cut a corner or find a new channel, they can become most difficult to handle. Have you noticed… in a university, if you want to change anything, there is an organisational energy component? It’s derived from the university’s size and velocity towards its chosen goals.  These goals are often well embedded and socialised into the culture and beliefs. Much effort may be put into reinforcing them within a span of the institution’s corporate planning period - to get it from where it was to where it thought it needed to be.  A mid course correction may become necessary to deliver the tanker (organisation) to a new port (destination) that was not recognised when the journey began could represent a massive effort… many burn out trying. We know that unless challenged by the reality of some newly acquired information, evidence or external force sufficient to deflect them onto a new heading, universities will tend to continue on pre-determined, often much loved, sometimes sluggish and clumsy journeys.

Are you getting the idea? If you can stand it… let’s go with this metaphor for a bit! Enter the TUGS – the DISRUPTERS:

Tug boats are essential to supertankers. Tugs are much smaller than supertankers yet possess enormous power as direction changers. They have attributes similar to the disrupters to organisational stasis. When appropriately employed, they can apply course changing dynamics and forces to manoeuvre the supertanker onto a new heading. If applied diligently, accurately and logistically for sufficient time, they can invoke a change of organisational direction despite its previous headlong rush into possible danger and destruction. So the tug boat, applied at the right point to the supertanker, diverts the ship. The science and mechanics of this phenomenon are understood at sea – but very much less so in Higher Education. Could we think of a MOOC as a tug boat?

Even the smallest of external forces can eventually change the direction of the organisation – though for some it may take too long. The supertanker may run out of ocean, or fetch up on some uncharted shoals, or collide with another vessel in the murk and fog of an unclear horizon. The bigger the force that the tug can exert, and the more accurately that force can be applied to the supertanker, the quicker the required course change can be achieved.

Tugs have enormous power, control and influence, and yet a form of delicacy and intimacy. They are based on legitimate scientific principles and have to be extremely reliable. Those are the qualities by which I’d like to judge my MOOCs.

Of course we need to have some idea of the new destination and the amount of force required. It’s about geometry – too much and you’ll arrive in a different place than intended; too little and you’ll never arrive. Could the MOOCs be our pathfinders? Already we see there are different types and destinations.

It’s pretty difficult to measure the ‘masses of a university; and demanding to work out the direction of travel. At present there’s a great move to the middle, well travelled channels- we all want to be ‘world class’ now don’t we?

So what to do? Well for supertankers, the solution is the tug boat. By comparison with the supertanker, tug boats are very small, but they are powerful. Physics tells us that even if a small amount of energy is applied to a mass, the momentum of that mass can be altered.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

So learning innovators and change agents everywhere… use your little, powerful MOOC-tug boats and judge their quality by the signs of a change of direction in your supertanker. The quality lies in the tugs’ potential to constructively disrupt. Many tugs have fire fighting equipment on board – this might come in handy, especially in campuses that are so proud of their physical resources. The tide of change will help you. Your tugs might prevent a catastrophe. Sure, a few MOOC-tugs might get run over as your supertanker reverses, but such is the innovator’s dilemma.

What might the qualities of this disruption be? Well, for me the constructive ones are pointing to the fuller development and deployment of open education resources, of the appreciation of the potential and reach for huge scale learning, addressing and solving challenges of very large numbers of participants, global reach, accessibility and participation and the enormous advantages of flexible, entirely digital learning provision. There’s also something about learners and participants determining their own choices and pathways, and following their own rather than the providers’ motivations, outcomes and determinants. But business cases and credentialing… well they are still in the murk, with only the odd lighthouse shining. Probably not clearly enough to turn the supertankers yet. The serious negative disruptor for me is the strange and mysterious view of the pedagogy of the many MOOCs based on face-to-face knowledge transmission. As others have pointed out, it’s not as if we don’t know some of the key qualities of learning online… truly we do. Clearly the right tug hasn’t arrived for that one yet.

So throw me a line… have I captured some qualities to which we can aspire?

For me, at Swinburne University of Technology, we are partners with Open Universities Australia (OUA) who have developed a nice, safe tug boat for us. They have provided a direction and a route for the first set of Australian-based MOOCs (www.open2study.com) and we’re happy to be providing five MOOCs based on our science and innovation expertise.

By the way – more than one tug boat applied to different points of the supertanker is a good idea. So other than MOOCs, we’re also working out how to collaborate to compete at the intersection of ideas and practice:

2 thoughts on “Week 11, MOOOCS – Massive Opportunities to Overcome Organisational Catastrophes, by Gilly Salmon

  1. Pingback: What would be the relationship between MOOCs and Higher Education Institutions? | Learner Weblog

  2. Pingback: MOOC Evaluation & Disruptive Technologies | OER Research Hub

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