The Web Is Your MOOC, and Portfolios To The Rescue

5 min read

I'm getting ready to head in to DrupalCon, where over the next few days I'll be talking education and open learning with anyone who is interested.

And as I'm heading in, I have MOOCs on the brain - not because I'm particularly a fan of MOOCs, but because of the tendency to take a great thing (in this case, information and interpersonal exchanges distributed broadly over the web) and reduce it into something that feels more manageable, but is ultimately something lesser (in this case, MOOC platforms). More on this later.

The Web Is Your MOOC

Part of the reason that I'm thinking these thoughts prior to heading into DrupalCon is that I've long held the notion that open source communities have been engaging in effective peer-supported learning, even while many for-profit companies and academic communities have been struggling to distill the process of peer-supported learning into something resembling a replicable product. From having participated in and built many types of learning communities over the years, simpler is often better - many open source communities have done amazing work with listservs and issue queues, and many more feature-rich platforms have withered because, over time, a site owners "must-have" feature is the post launch usability nightmare. There's a moral in there about user-centered design and user testing, but that's a subject for another post.

But getting back to MOOCs, the early MOOCs - the ones run by Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier, George Siemens, (and yes, I know I'm forgetting people - please fill in the gaps in the comments) etc - encouraged participation from anywhere. If you had a blog with an RSS feed, you were in. Participants remained in control of their work (depending, of course, on the publishing tool they were using. Open source platforms generally offer more options for data ownership and portability than their closed brethren). The MOOC was like a marauding mob of information, with the potential to sprout anywhere.

It's All About The Portfolio

In the post-lifestream, post-MOOC era, it's been rare to see much excitement about portfolios. This doesn't surprise me, because like all good ideas, portfolios have been around for a while, and thus lack the shiny newness that generates great marketing copy. However, the need for the concept hasn't diminished - any time you see a site that promises to collect the sources of your learning into a single location, so you can show your employers what you know! - you should think, "portfolio." All of the sites that promise to simplify collecting and curating your digital footprint? Portfolios. A lot of the conversations around documenting and receiving credit for informal learning have their roots (and possibly solutions) in portfolios.

In the conversations we have had about portfolios over the years, we have seen three main barriers, or areas of misunderstanding:

  • Distinguishing between a working and a presentation portfolio: simply put, the working portfolio is a running collection of just about everything you do. The presentation portfolio is a selection of elements from the working portfolio selected for a specific purpose. Portfolios can serve different purposes for different reasons, and the relationship between the working portfolio and the presentation portfolio is key.
  • Portfolios need care and feeding over time: as mentioned before, the working portfolio is messy. Periodically, the working portfolio needs to be pruned and cleaned up. But, messy is great, and if it's not messy, that could be a sign that things aren't working as they should.
  • Ownership and control of the portfolio: because most portfolio implementations are paid for by an organization, the organization usually controls access to the portfolio and any information in it. Organizational control is also seen as an essential element to assessment. However, this flies in the face of learner control and ownership of the means by which they learn. Ultimately, this is a data portability issue with implications for the learning experience. More on this later.

Concluding Thoughts

One of the things that has been particularly underwhelming about the corporate MOOCs that have cropped up is their uncanny resemblance to an LMS with an open enrollment policy. While there are many differences between the platform-style MOOCs and the original versions, the lack of learner control is a key element. Like Vegas, work in a MOOC stays in a MOOC (unless, of course, a company pays money to study student data).

In the platform-style MOOCs, the open web is missing. From a learner perspective, the portfolio is MIA. For a learner, throwing the evidence of your learning into a space that someone else controls isn't a viable long term strategy.

So, if you're at DrupalCon and want to talk open learning, let's make some time and sit down together. Open source, and the methodologies that support sustainable open source development, have a lot in common with open learning. I'd love to hear what other people are doing in this space.

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