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The primary function of most MOOCs today is the dissemination of knowledge to the world. What would it look like if the opposite were true? What if MOOCs convened communities and individuals to focus on co-creation rather than dissemination? This fall Davidson College partnered with Middlebury College and OpenIDEO, a collaborative platform where people come together to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. We came together to pilot what I call an “Inverse MOOC,” where the MOOC is flipped from a content delivery platform to a community of inquiry.

Over the past six years OpenIDEO has hosted a dynamic set of  challenges in partnership with large stakeholders such as USAID, The Clinton Global Initiative, Mayo Clinic, The White House and AARP, among others. 

Each challenge starts with a broad question, such as: How might we all maintain well being and thrive as we age? Or, How might communities lead the rapid transition to renewable energy? These challenges engage thousands of people from communities around the world, sometimes leveraging interactive voice response (accessible with a basic cell phone) to get stories from all over, even from places without access to the Internet.

A New Challenge

After 18 very rewarding months spent creating MOOCs on the edX platform, I was given the opportunity to dive into an alternative method of digital learning at scale when Davidson piloted a 10-week human centered design curriculum in conjunction with an OpenIDEO Challenge. The question: How might parents in low income communities ensure children thrive in their first five years? A small group of Davidson students — the Davidson Design Fellows — worked through three phases, including Research, Ideas and Refinement, with a focus on the City of Charlotte.

1. In the Research phase, students experienced the value of getting out of the classroom to talk to people, of humanizing these complex issues through face-to-face experiences. They learned to conduct interviews and focus groups with parents, stakeholders, innovators and experts. They shadowed organizations working with parents from low-resourced communities, such as childcare centers, home care providers and ESL adult education centers. They developed global context for the challenge through formal, peer-reviewed research. And through weekly workshops, students reflected on how to develop empathy — how to listen without judgment and avoid assumptions based on intuition.

Throughout the process, students shared insights, case studies and success stories on the OpenIDEO platform where the global community could comment, applaud and upvote the most useful posts. Meanwhile, thousands of participants from around the world were doing the same in their communities. Collectively, the community created — and curated — a collection of empathy building stories and resources to be leveraged by both the local and global community.

2. In the Ideas phase, the students generated specific questions unique to the opportunity areas they discovered in Charlotte, such as How might we use community spaces to connect parents to pre-existing resources? In response, they generated “moonshot” ideas (locally relevant digital index of parental resources) and adapted existing ones (educational pop-up festivals in local parks), again sharing them on the platform for the community to collaboratively discuss and refine.

3. During the Refinement phase, the students broke down their big ideas into bite-sized pieces that could be quickly prototyped for feedback. They built physical models and created digital mockups using tools such as balsamiq to uncover insights. Students then facilitated sessions with end users for feedback, focusing on testing assumptions and generating insights to inform future iterations of prototypes. They learned to fail safely, receive (and facilitate!) criticism for their ideas and value iteration as a prerequisite for innovation. One student noted that failure is only failure if it’s an end point, but as part of the process, failure is a tool for testing assumptions and building greater empathy for an end user. The prototyping provided an opportunity for students to celebrate their creative works in action. They also learned to bypass traditional metrics of success— how much content you know, for instance—and instead measure success by their ability to co-create a solution that solves a real problem. And, again, they were engaging in the giving and receiving of feedback within a global community of participants online.

While the question of whether centralized MOOC platforms will democratize education is still up for debate, it is a mistake to take a defensive posture toward MOOCs. We must continue to experiment with new ways—perhaps inverse ways—to leverage the technological affordances of digital learning environments.

At Davidson we consider diversity a requisite for academic excellence, precisely because our experiences influence the questions we ask and, subsequently, the knowledge that is produced. As an example, Davidson’s President Carol Quillen, a historian by training, will sometimes pose questions such as these: What would feminism look like now if, when gender was emerging as a category of analysis, women from different backgrounds and around the world had engaged collectively to pose questions and exchange ideas?

In our globalized world, the community that constitutes the object of study may be increasingly as important — or more important — than the dissemination of information about the object itself. MOOCs could be a democratizing force still by facilitating this participation.

Allison Dulin Salisbury works in the President's Office at Davidson College on Special Projects (new partnerships and initiatives around entrepreneurship, K12 education, and education technology.) 

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