Are MOOCs the new LEGOs?

LEGOs are lockable bricks to a personalized prototype. So are MOOCs for knowledge.

Every minute, more than a thousand pieces of LEGO are manufactured and sold in the world… and I’ve used loads of them. As a kid, I was surrounded with Playmobile and LEGO pieces. In latin, “lego” means “I assemble” and as a child I would indeed spend days and nights assembling sometimes awesome — sometimes dubious - constructions that I had in mind, lock countless bricks altogether. When I was stuck, I would ask my sister and brothers to help me: it was quick, it was limitless, it was accessible… and that’s pretty much the way Massive Open Online Courses (or “MOOCs”) could be described today. How could we then leverage the LEGO pattern to go further with low-cost education?

From plastic to legend.

LEGO was born in the 1930s in Denmark. Last year, it became the second biggest toy company in the world and those colourful bricks are now distributed in more than 130 countries. Praised for engaging children in a team-building activity, LEGOs push them to think big and build whatever they have in mind. They allow fast 3D prototyping and foster experimentations: when it’s wrong, you can just try again — no one will see your mistakes! LEGO bricks are micro tools to your imagination and let you appropriate the world around you in your very own creative way.

Based on LEGO’s experimental and prototyping power, many inspiring education initiatives were launched. One of them is LEGO ZOOM , a Sao Paulo-based company that built a whole methodology to help kids experience science in class. As its vice-president Victor Barros says, “Education is service. Service is people”, so the company targets the teachers and schools with comprehensive methodologies and know-how. LEGO is a cheap and low-tech material that LEGO ZOOM twists to hack science and mechanics. You first learn about Robots and straight away build them yourself with LEGO bricks, often in a cooperative activity with other children.

LEGO bricks are standardized pieces that can be combined and now enriched : crazy creations will help you design a 3D printer or a color-based brick separator. Those legendary plastic bricks are a good reflection of what MOOCs can help you build: you can play with knowledge courses (bricks) and assemble your own education (LEGO construction). Let’s see how far we can go with this.

Build your very own knowledge construction, mostly for free.

Today, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are as equally accessible ressources as LEGOs. From Coursera, edX, Udacity and Iversity, the internet offers packaged classes with a specific syllabus sanctionned by the best (connected) universities in the world. They are designed to be more interactive than traditional classes and ‘gamified’ so users can find them sticky and finish the courses.

Once completed, MOOCs stand as knowledge bricks: discovering one course will lead a student to an interest in another. Students enrolled in different MOOCs will therefore ‘lock’ concept together the way they might lock different colored LEGO blocks. Acting so, they build their very custom-made knowledge & skills wall & structure. This ‘block’ also fits in with one’s prior experiences, as seen when you add your MOOC certificate (here Coursera’s) to your Linkedin profile.

Nevertheless, there is no system of credit recognition between different MOOC platforms the way we know it for instance when you’re on an exchange program with a foreign university. So far on the ‘LEGO knowledge’ wall, each brick colour is a different educational content provider. Such a system would enable students to bring their educational structures to the next level. Here’s a simple example to illustrate it.

Duolingo will let you obtain a Portuguese certificate and Brazilian Vedua platform will give you a certificate for one of its course. However, if you want to show your proficiency in Portuguese-speaking business environment, no cross service will today validate a track of both platform (from different platforms Duolingo & Vedua). This synergy would nevertheless make a lot of sense as those two courses totally reinforce each other — their content “lock” as LEGO bricks!

The case for a curated low-cost education.

Massive content digitalization fully reorganizes the way education is distributed and its market structured. Since the margin cost of each extra user is null (if one million people use the video, your watching cost as an extra user is zero), those competing platforms mainly end up free for users. Low-cost education is then enabled and pushes us to create on top of it.

What this trend reinforces is the need for a curation system of MOOCs to guide students through this vast online education offer. In the same way that LEGO bricks were copied, fake and low quality MOOCs will probably emerge, hence the necessity to bring transparency on what adds value to your education structure and what doesn’t. The labellisation of transplatform ‘paths’ should be a dynamic way to highlight which MOOCs mix well for specific jobs — both changing & yet-to-be-invented ones. Education is more a flow that you update with a relevant mix of new tools than a stock that you have for all your life.

As LEGO ZOOM hacks the LEGO bricks into education tools, what would be the magic service to turn MOOCs into updatable skills you (will) need?