Hey, MOOCs: meet #LearningCircles

A new tool that addresses MOOCs’ most insisting problems: the lack of group interaction

The first time I knew about Coursera I was thrilled. As many, I was excited with the possibility of acquiring knowledge or developing new skills from world-renowned institutions… and all of this for free! What had seemed unreachable and distant was now here, accessible for everyone who had an Internet connection, free time to spare and inextinguishable curiosity. The news spread quickly and wildly and before anyone could fully digest the idea, more and more platforms begun to sprout: edX, Udemy, Udacity and MiriadaX (in Spain) soon became platforms with thousands, if not millions of registered users.

For an instant, MOOCs seemed to be an all-terrain educative solution, promising to build skills and provide continuous training for everyone. Time and discipline seemed to be the only tools we would require to become experts in any topic we desired. Education had become open.

The curse of Coursera (and every other MOOC)

We all know what happened next. Everyone got in, sure. Everyone filled their name, registered to a course, watch the first videos and even answered correctly some quizzes. But, after several weeks, all courses saw their active users reduce sharply, some even down to 10% of their original audience. This happened everywhere. Regardless of platform, provider or content, all courses followed the same pattern: they started with thousands upon thousands of interested students actively filling the forums with questions, but lost more than half of them within the next three to four weeks. The MOOC hype faded as quickly as it had ignited.

Detractors and critics of the MOOC movement soon targeted yet another important issue. MOOCs seemed a very open, very democratic method to transmit knowledge and build skills. Many people (myself included) thought and spoke about how these new courses could level the ground for those who had been (or were still being) left behind in the field of academic development. It promised some sort of academic equity. However, research on the demographics of MOOC students proved us wrong. The most popular groups were those who were already advantaged: holders of Bachelor or Master degrees and young males in developed countries. Research also showed that successfully completing a MOOC translated positively into educational and financial gains. Thus, the courses were widening (and not shortening, as many of us though they would) the gap between privileged and unprivileged.

When the MOOC phenomenon cooled down, new reflected perspectives started arising. The idea itself was brilliant, most people seemed to agree; but something in the experience was off, and students had quickly noticed. The general consensus was that the content was good and sparked curiosity, but the delivery failed to hold interest after a few weeks. People found it boring and tedious to spend hours a week watching videos and then answering questions. Many solutions were proposed: some platforms decided to grant Official Certificates as an incentive for students to continue their hard work in the platform, or evolved their offering to become more interactive and user-friendly, other new platforms like Stanford’s NovoEd sprung with the specific objective of addressing this same issue. And to some extent, all of these solutions have contributed to alleviate some of MOOCs hard-wired flaws. But people are still having problems to complete their courses, and drop out rates have only shrunk modestly. Moreover, the demographics of its users has not changed a lot, nor has there been many proposals to address it.

Enter the scene: #Learning Circles

Over the last couple of weeks I have been experimenting with Learning Circles, an interesting proposal for a study-group that is designed to work along and enhance the experience of any MOOC available. It was developed and refined jointly between P2PU and the Chicago Public Library.

Back in January, while working as an intern in a young and ambitious ONG named CREATURE, I was introduced to Learning Circles and met Grif Peterson, who was part of the P2PU team that tinkered this idea. Since then, I have become very passionate about the whole concept, and even started to facilitate a Learning Circle of my own.

What exactly are Learning Circles? I personally enjoy P2PU’s idea to describe it as a “book-club for online courses”. I am particularly fond of this simple definition because it involves some of the most attractive traits I found whilst working with my first Learning Circle:

a) they are easy to form and manage (both in terms of time and resources);
b) they are free (economically) to take;
c) they are easily relatable to those usually left out of the online education sphere; and also very importantly,
d) they help build a relationship between the participants.

The last two traits are what (at least for me) explains why a Learning Circle is more than just a bunch of strangers gathering to take an online class. It’s a group of people brought together by their drive to learn, that share a common interest in a specific topic and that are willing to work and discuss together to explore this topic more profoundly. In other words: a book club.

Learning in group is very different than learning alone. Where there is interaction, there is also feedback. Ideas are thrown, rebounded and treated. Where there is a relationship, especially one founded in the realms of curiosity and learning, there are always nurturing conversations that push the group forward. I’ve experienced this first-hand when facilitating my first Learning Circle in Paris. Discussions were the heart and soul of these sessions, and soon the online content shifted from being the guide to being an auxiliary tool to the learning experience. It was people, not information, who were at the center of this new learning environment.

“Learning Circles are study groups for learners who want to take online courses together, in-person. Learning Circles are peer supported, facilitated by non-content experts, hosted in publicly accessible spaces, designed to be taken with few prerequisites, and free for learners.”

Flex, adapt, hack: Learn

The importance of Learning Circles is that they directly focus on addressing the two setbacks mentioned at the beginning of this article: their universally-acknowledged low completion rates, and their uneven demographics. The concept is flexible and adaptable to the needs of any community. They can be democratic and open to anyone, or they can be tailored to target a group in need of professional development. I can easily phantom a Learning Circle that would help the unemployed to forge a specific skill, or school drop-outs to learn how to code, to help migrants improve their Academic Writing abilities. Of course, the purpose of Learning Circles is integration, not segmentation. But sometimes focused communities work better than open ones, especially where there are specific objectives to be achieved. In other words, Learning Circles can and ideally should be tailored according to the needs and petitions of the community, not to those of the facilitator.

Learning Circles are far from being perfect. As more and more people start to work with them around the world, new and unseen obstacles have arisen. Drop-out rates have diminished considerably, but it is still a problem, especially considering these are relatively small groups and each participant that stops attending is felt strongly among the group. There is also the problem of WiFi-enabled public spaces which are popular and numerous in many developed countries, but scarce to non-existent in the rest. Fortunately, there is a growing community of facilitators around the world that have started to gather feedback and look for solutions. Moreover, because they are so easy to set up and manage (and you really really have a good time), many of the previous participants have stated that they would be interested in facilitating their own Learning Circle. This is a truly promising advantage.

I will continue writing about Learning Circles as I learn more about them. I also wish to share my personal experience to illustrate how cool and inspiring they can be. For now, I am looking forward to starting my second circle. I am also thinking in tinkering and hacking the concept, to experiment with other tools, methods and communities. I will keep you posted.

If you are interested in facilitating your own Learning Circle or wish to learn more about them, you can visit the official website where all current courses are being showcased, download the free Facilitator Handbook, or check out any other resources P2PU has put online. You can also have a peak to the growing community if you have specific questions. Or you can check this SlideShare presentation, which I prepared based on the Handbook and where I include all previously mentioned links, along with a summarized version of the steps to forming your own circle. And, stay tuned!

Learning Circles announcement by P2PU