So much more than MOOCs: hello modern learning systems

Darcy Nicholson

Darcy Nicolson is a learning and technology expert at eWorks. Passionate about lifelong learning, Darcy focuses on improving the use of media and technology to enable better personal development and learning outcomes. Here Darcy considers the popular trend of Massive Open Online Courses in educational technology, the history of this movement and the impact of online learning acronyms.

The pre-internet 90s and CBT

From the moment you could type a document and distribute it to as many people as you would like with little or no cost, computers were seen as an opportunity to deliver better training to more people. In the pre-internet 90’s we had computer based training (CBT). It was delivered on a CD-ROM and was generally employed to provide content (often text based) and then test the user on a simple set of questions. Along came software (often Flash) providing simple multi choice, matching and fill the blank questions. The feedback on score results was immediate, and the opportunity to print a certificate of completion or compliance would be the end result. Computer based – tick. Training – tick. Fun and engaging? I’m not so sure. Instead the software and content were thought of as an advanced book. After all, you could still hold a CD in one hand, and like a book it was tangible. From my numerous discussions with organisations looking to start online course delivery, I think many people still struggle to separate the components of modern online learning systems because of this history. It’s almost as if new terms get associated back to the physicality of a CD-ROM, whereas the scope, structure and function of educational tools today are limited only by the creativity of the designer – not much of a limitation.

Moving on now to the post-internet 00s

Computer based training evolved into e-learning. I think the e was borrowed from email and therefore it became electronic learning. The CD-ROM content went online, meaning that even the cost of duplicating and distributing CDs was gone. Results could be kept in a central database, and could trigger an alert or email to managers on compliance topics that had gone out of date. This was the same era where those that were using the technology retained the power to make updates or changes to the material, often dubbed Web 1.0, when the term Web 2.0 became popular. This meant that many learners could access the content, but it was often delivered via flash and similar tools and required a web-developer to deploy it. If the system stored data on learners and their results you might also need a database administrator. Better content yes, but increasing complication in the delivery of it. Not surprisingly this era is also where the billboard in the desert term arose to describe websites that had infrequent or no changes.

eLearning, e-learning, e-Learning or just plain learning!

Moving on to more recent years, e-learning (or however you want to write it) was still a thing and people associated it with content delivered on a computer screen. I think that even in discussion with clients today the term LMS (learning management system) is merged with the term e-learning, which can make it difficult to discuss successful deployment. Compounding this is the organisation’s need to carefully control what educators are teaching and keep good records on learner results. Especially in terms of an Australian Quality Framework (AQF)/Registered training organisation (RTO) relationship.

And then there were MOOCs

The internet gave us connectivity but the true power was the change to user generated content, provided by services like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook. In other words, the crash of uni-directional control of media. Now we have the term MOOCs – understandably abbreviated from massive online open courses – and like those options before it, MOOCs come bundled with a set of preconceptions from its predecessors. You will find many articles on what a MOOC is – I even wrote one too. Lots of fun for educational technology players. Now we have xMOOCs, cMOOC, OOC, and a whole range of other ways to put edtech acronyms together like SPOC (Small Personal Online Courses).

MOOC and e-learning interest over time graph

Learning systems

My point? It seems that the term MOOC, together with the recent endorsement of this approach to learning by large Universities like Stanford and Harvard, has energised organisations to revisit or refocus on online learning. It doesn’t matter what technology or model we use, learning is an ecosystem of learners, educators, platforms and content. As more portable and connected technology pervades our everyday life, acronyms, trends and concepts like computer based training (CBT), e-learning and MOOCs will come and go. Rather than focus on the latest thing in digital education, I encourage you to think more holistically about getting great learner outcomes. When looking at your modern learning systems ask questions like:

  1. Can you openly release your content – or is it considered intellectual property by your organisation?
  2. What role does social media play in you delivery strategy?
  3. Do your educators have the right skills to adopt online delivery?
  4. Are you using your current online tools to their capacity?

Answering questions like this should help to highlight whether your program will be massive, open or something else entirely. And once you have a clear understanding of what your program is, you will be in a better position to select appropriate technologies to enhance it.

What do you think about all of this? Darcy loves chatting (and ranting!) about educational technology. Why not join in?

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