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The most provocative aspect of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, is how massive they can be. Last fall, several Stanford professors drew nearly 200,000 students to a series of free computer science courses, an experiment that spawned two companies. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened its first massive online engineering course this spring to the tune of 120,000 registrations.

But for Jim Groom, an instructional technologist and adjunct professor at the University of Mary Washington, open online courses are not about scale and efficiency. They are about imagination and anarchy.

A year ago, before MOOCs became so widely discussed as to be baptized into the lexicon of The New York Times, Groom decided to take his course on digital storytelling, DS106, into the open waters of the Web, inviting anyone, anywhere, to create, submit and comment on assignments. The reins have been slipping from his hands ever since, and Groom says he could not be happier.

There is no textbook in DS106. Groom and instructional technologist Alan Levine, who teaches the other DS106 section at Mary Washington, do not lecture or teach media editing skills. In Groom’s section of the course, in-person attendance is optional. The instructors consult with students about the design of the course and its website. Two of Groom’s students are building out a new section of the DS106 website where students can vote up each other’s work. Levine and his students are in the process of planning another area where students can remix each other’s work.

“The students are in many ways running and designing this as it goes,” says Groom.

The weekly assignments, which make up 30 percent of the final grade, are created by the students themselves -- the 75 enrolled at Mary Washington and the hundreds of others participating free on the Web -- and aggregated in an assignment bank on DS106's website. For the students enrolled at the university, creating assignments, along with tutorials to guide other students through the skills required to complete those assignments, account for 20 percent of the final grade in DS106. But Groom estimates that the majority of the weekly assignments were created by participants who were not taking the course for credit. About 1,300 such learners, who receive no credit, have participated in the course since last year, Groom estimates. (Meanwhile, credit-bearing duplicates of the same course have sprouted up at other bricks-and-mortar institutions, including Kansas State University, Jacksonville State University, the State University of New York at Cortland, York College of the City University of New York, and Temple University in Japan.)

Like a lot of user-generated Web media, the assignments are often quirky and brief. One assignment challenges students to tell the story of a relationship in three captioned photographs. Another invites them to turn the entire audio track of a film and turn it into a 10-minute radio show. Another tasks them with condensing the theatrical trailers from the three films of a trilogy into a single trailer.

Each assignment is rated, by a group of DS106 veterans, on a scale of one to five stars based on difficulty. Rather than pointing his students toward specific tasks, Groom directs them to do a certain number of stars’ worth of work on their own free blogs each week. Their work is aggregated to the DS106 website, where anyone can view and comment on it.  

The decentralized model is no accident. In short, the goal of DS106 is to teach students how to be creative, capable Internet citizens, able to consciously shape their own identities and narratives online. Minus the modicum of structure and authority exerted by the instructors, the course operates much as the Web does. “DS106,” says George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University and one of the early pioneers of open teaching, “is itself an expression of its content.”

Groom and his DS106 cohort are not the first ones to imagine open learning this way. Before celebrity professors in MOOCs at Stanford and MIT began developing systems for broadcasting tutorials and assessing and ranking student populations more than twice the size of the total enrollments at the largest state universities, the more obscure harbingers of open learning -- Siemens among them -- conceived MOOCs as relatively modest, intensely community-focused affairs.

In a video primer created in 2010, Dave Cormier, a Web projects coordinator at the University of Prince Edward Island, describes MOOCs as “a way to connect and collaborate while developing digital skills.” Everything that students create is immediately public, and it can rarely be found in a central location. “There’s no ‘right way’ to do the course, no single path from the first week to the last,” Cormier explains.

Ideally, a MOOC “re-inspires the online space with imagination, and actually allows us to understand that the [learning management] box we’ve been living in for the last decade is just the beginning” of what is possible when teaching and learning move out of the classroom and onto the Web, Groom says.

In Cormier’s conception, the word “massive” seems to exist only for the purposes of the acronym. Assessments, rankings and credentialing, formal or otherwise, play no part in it. “Only you can tell, in the end, if you’ve been successful,” says Cormier. “Just like real life.”

This model would barely recognize the more recent, famous examples that have pushed MOOCs into the narrative of technology-driven “disruption” in higher education. “The MOOCs at Stanford and Udacity are instructivist,” says Siemens. “Learners largely duplicate the knowledge base of the educator or designer.” Which does not make them bad, Siemens and Groom say; just different from the earlier species of MOOC that persists, in relative obscurity, at Mary Washington and elsewhere.

But massiveness, on the order of six-figure enrollments and eight-figure venture investment, is not on Groom’s agenda; his checklist is “community, collaboration and coordination.” And for those purposes DS106 recently proved its mettle.

DS106 needed a new server. Instead of asking his department for the money, Groom and Tim Owens, an instructional technologist at Mary Washington who met Groom through DS106 before he was even hired at the university, took to Kickstarter, a “crowd-funding” website that has become a popular destination for students and professors who want to raise cash in a pinch. “We wanted the people who were invested in it to help us… so they own it and we own it, it doesn’t belong to any one institution,” Groom says.

They set the fund-raising goal at $4,200, hoping to hit it within three weeks. They eclipsed it within 24 hours, with donors coming out of the digital woodwork. The campaign has now raised $12,000 from nearly 150 backers.

With excess money beginning to flow in, some of it from the developers of those "LMS boxes" from which he hopes to help online learners escape, Groom's next move was predictable: he asked the Internet what he should do with it.

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