A couple of weeks ago I entered a room listed on my course schedule for a seminar called “The History and Future of Higher Education” with little to no idea of what to truly expect. I read the syllabus and course explanation before the first day of class but could not wrap my head around what a MOOC was or what it had to do with me. As part of our course, we were going to be “community leaders” for a MOOC titled, similarly, “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” My colleagues seemed very confident and eager to tackle the role of community leader, yet I felt a little underprepared.
After the first class and introductions, the first thing I noticed was how diverse my colleagues and I were. To be accepted into this small seminar of 15 students, we all wrote Professor Cathy Davidson about ourselves, and it was clear she chose a group with complementary skills, part of Hastac’s methodology of “collaboration by difference.” We all had something unique to offer. For example, I am a returning veteran, and I am able to contribute that perspective to our discussions.
It wasn’t until the second class meeting, though, that I began to really grasp what a MOOC was and how I was going to help shape it during the semester. During that class, we took part in a Google HangOut with our “partner” classes at Stanford and the University of California at Santa Barbara. I had never participated in a Google HangOut before. In fact, before this class, the only video chatting I’d engaged in was FaceTime over my iPhone so I could see my sister’s new puppy. Once we worked out some technical glitches, the students in the three classes were able to talk together about the future of higher education, led by Professor Christopher Newfield of UCSB. I felt excited to be a part of such an interesting group of people with diverse backgrounds learning from each other via the Internet. It was during this hangout that I began to understand the point of a MOOC. If we were able to learn so much from a video chat, surely thousands of others could benefit from their conversations online.
After the hangout, my colleagues and I discussed our own roles as community leaders in the MOOC. We would help to make the videos into a true conversation. We were given the task of drafting a community manifesto, a constitution that bore the ideals, principles, and guidelines for participating in this MOOC. Once again, we used an online tool, in this case a Google Doc, for our collective editing. Over the course of a few days, my colleagues and I worked together to create a document that would help us and the online MOOC community interact in the most positive, productive, and civil ways possible.
It was clear from the different ways we contributed to the manifesto that our diverse backgrounds and skill sets would all come into play as community leaders in our MOOC. Due to my military service, I am familiar with working in a group. While not as dangerous or intense as my military experience, working on the constitution gave me a similar sense of self-satisfaction and camaraderie with my colleagues. The manifesto also supported us in a greater mission: contributing to a quality education for anyone who wanted to register, for free and without prerequisites, for our MOOC. That’s a mission I truly believe in.
Overwhelmed by all that had happened, I left class still wondering about my own role as a community leader. Then it hit me: I was not to shape this MOOC. Rather, I was part of a community that, together, would shape the experience in the MOOC. The teachers, TA’s, and the community leaders aren’t the only ones involved. It is the participants in the MOOC itself who contribute to the greater mission of learning together.
As I have discovered in my small group of colleagues, diversity helps us learn in ways we wouldn’t have thought of before. With over 14,000 people with different backgrounds, I anticipate a semester in which we will all learn from one another in ways that we cannot begin to imagine.