The Resurgence of Community in Online Learning

This Journal Article published as The resurgence of community in online learning in Italian Journal of Educational Technology (formerly Tecnologie Didattiche) 165-172 Dec 31, 2014. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

In this contribution Stephen Downes addresses the question of how massive open online courses (MOOCs) will impact the future of distance education. The presentation considers in some detail the nature and purpose of a MOOC in contrast with traditional distance education. He argues that MOOCs represent the resurgence of community-based learning and will describe how distance education institutions will share MOOCs with each other and will supplement online interaction with community-based resources and services. The phenomenon of 'wrapped MOOCs' will be described, and Downes will outline several examples of local support for global MOOCs. The implications for the non-English-speaking world of distance education will be considered, and Downes will outline strategies and examples of the use of MOOCs to promote linguistic diversity.


What is a MOOC?


The objective of this paper is to address how the massive open online course (MOOC) will impact the future of distance education, and in particular, to describe strategies and examples of the use of MOOCs to promote cultural and linguistic diversity.  MOOCs give us a new way to understand learning, and hence, a new way to understand certain types of learning, such as for example learning that supports diversity in language and culture.

To be clear, when we talk about a MOOC, we are talking about a different kind of learning. Most readers will be familiar with the traditional online course, which is based on the presentation of content and information, and based on a clear curriculum which is to be learned. As well, the online courses offered though American universities such as Harvard and Stanford and MIT, these MOOCs are also examples of traditional online learning, with content and curriculum.

Our understanding of the term ‘MOOC’ is a bit different; it is derived from a theory of learning based on engagement and interaction within a community of practitioners, without predetermined outcomes, and without a body of knowledge that we can simply ‘transfer’ to the learner. It is based on five years of experience developing and offering MOOCs, from the very first MOOC, “CCK08”, created by George Siemens and myself in 2008, and run a total of four times in the years following, to MOOCs in personal learning environments, critical literacies, and more. (Siemens & Downes, 2008)

Massive – here we mean not necessarily the success of the MOOC in attracting many people, but in the design elements that make educating many people possible. And here we need to keep in mind that to educate is to do more than merely deliver content, and more than to merely support interaction. A MOOC is not the delivery of instruction or the management of learning resources. It supports, on a massive scale, those small-scale and personal one-to-one interaction that make up the bulk of an educations. It is this interaction that is the most significant in learning, but also often the most important, and for a course to be truly massive, it must enable, and even encourage, hundreds or even thousands of these small interpersonal interactions.

Open –  in the definition of MOOC employed here, something (a resource, a course, an education) is free and open if and only if:

  • the resource may be read, run, consumed or played without cost or obligation. This addresses not only direct fee-for-subscription, but also enclosure, for example, the bundling of ‘free’ resources in such a way that only those who pay tuition may access them
  • there are reasonable ways to share the resource or to reuse the resource, and especially to translate or format-shift the resource  (but not necessarily to be able to sell or modify the resource)

Online – The idea of ‘online’ entails use of electronic media, such as the internet, and would seem to be self-evident. For a MOOC to be ‘online’ entails that no required element of the course is required to take place at any particular physical location. This does not mean MOOCs cannot include or allow elements of real-world interaction or activity. Indeed, the best use of a MOOC does entail some offline real-world activity. In any online course there will be a real-world dimension; what makes it an ‘online’ course is that it does not specify a particular real-world dimension.

Course – A course is an event.  And specifically:

  • a course is bounded by a start date and an end date
  • a course is cohered by some common theme or domain of discourse
  • a course is a progression of ordered events related to that domain

Why insist on these? The creation of temporary and bounded events allows for engagement between communities that would not normally associate with each other. Courses are a way of stirring the pot. By creating a limited and self-contained event we lower the barriers to participation and hence increase accessibility.

MOOC Pedagogy

The core thesis of connectivist pedagogy is that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. (Downes, 2007) Knowledge, therefore, is not acquired, as though it were a thing. It is not transmitted, as though it were some type of communication. Something cannot be ‘promoted’ simply by assembling course packages and sending them out into the world. The things we learn and the things we know are literally the connections we form between neurons as a result of experience. It is these connections that constitute everything we know, everything we believe, everything we imagine. (LeDoux, 2003)

Traditional pedagogy speaks as though knowledge and beliefs are composed of sentences and concepts that we somehow acquire and stored. This is the basis, for example, of Moore’s transactional theory of pedagogy. (Moore, 1997)  However, it is more accurate -- and pedagogically more useful -- to treat learning as the formation of connections. This is the result of being immersed within a community of practitioners and introduced to ways of doing the sorts of things practitioners do, and through that practice, becomes more similar in act, thought and values to members of that community. We do not acquire knowledge; we become someone who is knowledgeable.

In practice connectivist teaching and learning consists of four major sorts of activities:

Aggregation - A course is composed not only of recommended readings but also articles, videos and recordings made by course facilitators, blog posts, images, videos and other recordings made by course participants, collected tweets from Twitter, bookmarks from Delicious, discussion posts, and whatever else authors and participants can think of. We tell people at the start of the course to pick and choose what they will read, watch or participate in. (Downes, How This Course Works, 2011) There is no central content to the course. Each person creates their own perspective on the material by selecting what seems important to them.  

It is important that there be a rich range of resources, open and freely accessible, that can be used by course participants. The key here is diversity. This includes diversity of format: texts, videos, animations, games, seminars, and anything else, because people prefer to use different media. It also includes different languages and perspectives.

Remixing - The idea is to associate the materials (or parts of the materials) with each other, and with materials from elsewhere. There are different ways to associate materials -- typically we look for some sort of commonality, such as a term, reference, topic or category. Sometimes we look for a fit, as though one thing follows from another. There are no rules to association, and part of learning is to get a feel for what goes with what.

We encourage especially a mix of diverse cultures. An ideal MOOC requires participation from different societies and different linguistic groups. The intent is not to create a blend, but to highlight the distinctive perspective offered by each. People often ask, for example, whether there are any French-language MOOCs and French-language learning resources. But the deeper question is whether there is any French-language culture attached to existing courses. We look for each cultural group to organize their own events, in their own language, online and offline, around a single open online course. Their perspective became an important part of our online course, and their ideas and culture became a part of the subject matter itself.

Repurposing - Learning is not a process of reception and filtering. It is important to create something, to actively participate in the discipline. It forms the core of the concept we now call 'apprenticeship', has been formally described most recently as 'constructionism' by the people like Seymour Papert  (Han & Bhattacharya, 2001) and informs the design of active learning websites such as CodeAcademy.

Creativity does not start from scratch. The materials were aggregated and remixed online are the bricks and mortar that can be used to compose new thoughts and new understandings of the material. Repurposing is often a process of translating – taking an idea from one culture and representing it in the forms and idioms of another culture. This may be as simple as translating a block of text into a picture, or as difficult as representing a complex idea in another language. People learn through practice, and so this practice forms the core of connectivist pedagogy.

Feeding Forward - We want participants to share their work with other people in the course, and with the world at large. Participants don't have to share. They can work completely in private, not showing anything to anybody. Sharing is and will always be their choice.

We want people to speak in their own language and to embrace the language spoken by others. Knowledge and culture go together. When we speak or write in our own language, in a public domain, about some topic or discipline, what we are saying is “my language encompasses that discipline.” It’s not simply that there is culture, full stop. It is that culture encompasses physics, and chemistry, and economy, and even political science. But more, it is to say that a part of the domains of physics and chemistry and political science are formed from, and informed by, culture.

The MOOC as Community

Just as a language is more than the words and sentences, and a culture is more than clothing and dances, education is not merely the acquisition of new information and skills. To become educated in a discipline is to learn the habits, patterns, ways of thinking and ways of thinking characteristic of that discipline.

Although we learn what we learn from personal experience, we usually learn what we learn from other people. Consequently, learning is usually a social activity, whether we immerse ourselves into what Etienne Wenger called a community of practice (Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning and identity, 1999), learn what Michael Polanyi called tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1962), and be able to complete, as Thomas Kuhn famously summarized, the problems at the end of the chapter. (Kuhn, 1962)

Learning is a social activity, and that is why the picture of distance learning wherein each person studies from their own home, supported by a personal computer and desk videophone, is wrong.

To be sure, there is room for home study, but people, and especially children, need community as well. It is because of this that MOOCs in the future will emphasize community much more than is perhaps imagined today.

It is the creation of this community, rather than the curation or transmission of any sort of content, that constitutes the core activity of a MOOC. The content is what we call the ‘McGuffin’ – it is an object of interest, that attracts our attention, but which could be anything.

For our discussion it is relevant to focus on two major types of community of significant importance to MOOCs. Both are relevant to MOOCs, but in very different ways. One is the ‘online community’, while the other is the ‘peer community’.

The online community is what we might call an interest-based communities. They are formed around a topic of interest, a profession, or a domain. They are similar to Etienne Wenger’s ‘communities of practice’, though I think that my own sense of the concept may be wider than Wenger’s.

Interest based communities are collections of people who, although they may be geographically dispersed, share a common location on the internet. This location is created and defined by the shared interest people have with each other.

Now, to be clear: this shared interest may have to do with an offline interest. Indeed, most of them are. So online communities form around offline activities such as hockey or baseball, real-world pursuits such as business or biology, around hobbies and crafts, and even around a town, village or high school.

We see these everywhere. Gardeners hang out at gardenweb. Computer geeks hang out at Wired. Educational technologists have found a home in the Google+ Ed Tech group. Across the internet, thousands of topic-specific communities have been formed, some around websites, some in social networking services, some using tools like WordPress or Skype.

With today’s focus on MOOCs and social networking sites (such as Facebook and Google+) the discussion of community per se has faded to the background. This perhaps resembles the way corresponding community networks have been swallowed and anonymized by these branded commercial services.

Online educators will find themselves building interest based communities whether they intend to do this or not, because the mechanics necessary for the creation of an online topic based community are present in the structure of almost any online course.

In order to create an online based community, one only needs a topic, a group of geographically dispersed people interested in that topic, and a means of shared communication, such as a discussion list or online chat.

What will change in the future is that online educators will better learn how to foster and nourish online communities.  They will want to do this because, the greater the dedication to the community, the greater the dedication to learning, since learning is the shared experience which defines this community. This is what connectivism brings to the table. This is what MOOCs bring to the table.

The factors which contribute to a successful online community are to some degree known, though that said much more empirical data needs to be collected. But in general, one of the keys is ownership. By that, what I mean is that the members of the community play a key role in shaping the community. For a community is not a broadcast medium.

It is not a place where the organizer provides material and the members consume it. It is a shared and constructed environment, where the members along with the organizers play roughly equal roles in content creation.

Wenger’s characterization is informative. Communities form around a topic of interest – the ‘domain’. They engage in community activities – as he says, “members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information.” And they share a practice – a repertoire of resources, a vocabulary, common stories, common methodologies, common ways of approaching a problem. (Wenger, Communities of practice: a brief introduction, 2004)

Learning in the community of practice takes the form of what might be called ‘peer-to-peer professional development activities’. Rather than formalized learning, members help each other directly. We discovered this in Alberta when we studied how professional town managers learn: we discovered they call each other up on the telephone. (Stefanick & Lesage Jr., 2005)

In an educational context, what this means is that a lot of the learning - and learning materials - will be those constructed by the students themselves. We begin to see this with the use of discussion lists in online courses, but also in the creation of topic-based web pages (and other resources).

MOOCs – at least the way we create MOOCs – build on this. The MOOC is for us a device created in order to connect these distributed voices together, not to create community, not to create culture, but to create a place where community and culture can flourish.

The peer community by contrast almost by definition cannot be formed over the internet. These are the communities that form in our neighborhoods, at church or schools, or in the community centre, the tavern or the grocery store.

They will exist because people need a pat on the back, a (physical) shoulder to lean on, a drinking buddy, an opponent to play squash, somebody whose physical presence, for one reason or another, matters.

And they need a physical environment, which may include sports facilities, an industrial arts shop, a gym, a golf course, or even just a field with four bases and a baseball or flat sheet of ice and a puck.

They are first created through proximity, being composed of people who live in the same neighborhood or who go to the same school. Over the longer term, we may say, they are just people who meet by happenstance, and find an affinity for each other.

While online communities depend on a topic or area of interest to exist, peer communities can be topic neutral; even if members share an interest in sports or science, it is physical proximity which causes the community to exist.

While online communities are topic-based, peer communities are activity based. An online community may convene to talk hockey, while a peer community will convene to play hockey. Online community may consist of your friends. Peer community consists of your neighbours.

This creates great variety in membership. One person may be a scientist while another may be an artist. While online communities consist of geographically dispersed members, peer based learning communities exist in some particular geographical location.

A peer learning community will be that group of people attending a particular school or learning centre. People become members of the community because of a shared location, workplace, cultural background, religion, or language, and because of shared experiences in online learning.

While people in a topic based community, for example, will discuss this or that monograph or expert in the topic, people in a peer based learning community will discuss this or that institution, interface software, or community events.

Peer learning communities are vital to learning because they provide a safe environment in which to learn. A person does not feel adrift on the internet when working in a community of people facing similar needs and challenges. Though each may be pursuing a different educational goal, their overall objective and means of travel is the same, and thus they offer mutual support, encouragement, and reassurance.

At university I may have studied philosophy, but like so many other university students I obtained my real education through social interaction. In my case, it was at the offices of the Gauntlet, the student newspaper, where I spent more time than I ever did in the classroom.

My most direct interaction with peer learning communities as an educator came when I was working in the Canadian north - the learning centre in Fort St. John, in northern British Columbia, or the fishers' retraining centre, a block away from the urban aboriginal training centre, fostered by the New Westminster School Division. The Sunrise Project, based in Slave Lake, Alberta. Or the South West Indian Training centres in Sioux Valley and Waywayseecappo, in rural Manitoba.

It is the sort of success that was replicated across the country with the Community Access Points. This was a project that did more than merely provide internet access, it created a common location for people interesting in technology and computers (and blogs and Facebook).

People talk of ‘learning communities’ but strictly speaking there is no such thing as a ‘learning community’ – save, perhaps, the strained and artificial creations of educational institutions that try to cram classes into collectives, creating personal relationships where none naturally exist.

Rather, people learn in communities, and what would make any given community a ‘learning’ community or otherwise is whether people in the community learn more or less well. It should be a truism today that communities are grown rather than constructed. Sharing and learning cannot be “legislated into existence.” (Dube, Bourhis, & Jacob, 2006) The desire for autonomy comes part and parcel with some of the perceived benefits of learning and growing in a community: safely, security, and privacy.

In the field of learning especially, there is a great deal of attention paid to what it is members have in common that facilitates the creation of a community – whether it be common educational needs, common age or locale, common sets of values, or even more theoretical entities, such as common objects, domains of discourse, or understandings.

The value of a community, however, and especially of a learning community, comes from the diversity in the community. Students gather around an instructor precisely because the instructor has knowledge, beliefs and opinions that the students don’t share.

They gather around each other because they each have unique experiences. Fostering a learning community is as much a matter of drawing on the differences as it is a matter of underlining the similarities.

Threats and Opportunities

There is both risk and opportunity in this model for specific cultural and linguistic groups.

Provider institutions may be located anywhere. MOOCs serve a global audience. We are seeing this trend develop already. Even today, I see course announcements posted almost daily, on new MOOCs rather from individual universities or via EdX or Coursera. It is now possible to take a course on almost anything from almost anywhere in the world.

The risk is of course the same as is created by any mass media, that the largest culture will come to dominate social and political institutions by weight of number and prevalence on mass media. And this is in fact what we have seen in the area of MOOCs. The language of instruction has been until recent years almost exclusively English. It is very easy still to find ‘the first’ or ‘the only’ courses in various non-English languages, and these courses often languish as an after-thought to the large MOOC providers.

For example, consider the case of francophone MOOCs, as compared to the anglospehere. Even as of 2014, only a half-dozen MOOCs were available, including MooC ITyPA (Internet : Tout Y est Pour Apprendre) offered through l’École Centrale de Nantes ( and our own MOOC REL, offered to 1100 registered participants worldwide through our online3 course site ( ).

Iberian-language courses can also be found on the course listings page, such as the Spanish-language course on managing port waters offered among others by the University of Cantabria (, or the Portuguese-language MOOCs ‘Infográfico MOOC EaD’ run by João Mattar and Paulo Simões ( ). In Italian meanwhile we find UNINETTUNO (OpenupEd), self-billed as “the first Italian MOOCs portal”. ( )

By contrast, linguistic peer communities active in global MOOCs ensure that even in Anglophone MOOCs, an international community and contribution is present. Potential students are now faced with a wide range of open online educational opportunities. My own web site,, lists hundreds, maybe thousands, of open online courses. It is not enough to offer courses and programs online in one language or another. Different linguistic cultures should be projected into all courses and communities, even those that are predominately English.

The MOOCs George Siemens and I have designed and developed were explicitly designed to support participation from a mosaic of cultures. Other, more traditional, MOOCs make it more difficult, but the key to participation in these is to convert a static one-language presentation-mode course into a thriving multilingual and multicultural community. We see this more widely in other online courses through the ‘meet-up’. A good example of this is the Denver Francophone Group. Or the Austin French meetup club.

Why is this important, particularly in the context of fostering language and culture? It is worth noting that theorists of both professional and social networks speak of one’s interactions within the community as a process of building, or creating, one’s own identity.

Wenger, for example, writes, “Having a sense of identity is a crucial aspect of learning in organizations. Consider the annual computer drop at a semiconductor company that designs both analog and digital circuits. The computer drop became a ritual by which the analog community asserted its identity. Once a year, their hero would climb the highest building on the company's campus and drop a computer, to the great satisfaction of his peers in the analog gang. The corporate world is full of these displays of identity, which manifest themselves in the jargon people use, the clothes they wear, and the remarks they make.” (Wenger, 1998)

And meanwhile, danah boyd, studying the social community, writes, “The dynamics of identity production play out visibly on MySpace. Profiles are digital bodies, public displays of identity where people can explore impression management. Because the digital world requires people to write themselves into being, profiles provide an opportunity to craft the intended expression through language, imagery and media. Explicit reaction to their online presence offers valuable feedback. The goal is to look cool and receive peer validation. Of course, because imagery can be staged, it is often difficult to tell if photos are a representation of behaviors or a re-presentation of them.” (Boyd, 2006)

In both of these we are seeing aspects of the same phenomenon. To learn is not to acquire or to accumulate, but rather, to develop or to grow. The process of learning is a process of becoming, a process of developing one’s own self.

We have defined three domains of learning: the individual learner, the online community, and the peer community.

Recent discussions of MOOCs have focused almost exclusively on the online community, with almost no discussion of the individual learner, and no discussion of the peer community. But to my mind over time all three elements will be seen to be equally important.

At university, I became not so much a philosopher, though that was my formal education, but rather, a journalist, which is the community I became a part of.

MOOCs are communities in which learners can immerse themselves and grow into something new. Previous experience suggests that these will be places where they can create and where they can project – not “serious games” but “modding communities”, not “reading groups” but “fan fiction”, not “educational simulations” but “LAN parties”.

We might also define three key roles in online learning: the student, the instructor, and the facilitator. The ‘instructor’ is the person responsible for the online community, while the ‘facilitator’ is the person responsible for the peer community.

Of course, the ‘instructor’ and the ‘facilitator’ are abstracts. We think of them as one person, but in fact these roles are fulfilled by teams of people working together to orchestrate the experience of community.

The talk of ‘star instructors’ without reference to the wider facilitation is as nonsensical as talking about ‘movie stars’ as being the entire film industry, without regard to directors, camera operators, distributors and movie theatre managers.

The ‘star’ is yet another McGuffin – of no great importance, but some candy designed to attract us to the event.

In traditional education, the two communities exist as a single entity. The same institution which produces the online instruction is also the institution attended by the student. For example, if I say I am taking a course from the University of Calgary, what I mean is that the course instruction is being delivered by the University of Calgary, and also that the University of Calgary provides the facilities where I receive that course instruction.

In the future, host and provider institutions will increasingly be different institutions. One example of this is course brokering, wherein the course I am taking may have been developed by, and even instructed by, a University of Calgary instructor, but is being delivered at Red Deer College. Thus, when I take the course, I use Red Deer's classrooms, computers, and facilities even though the course is a University of Calgary course.

The recent MOOCs offered by companies like Coursera and Udacity have commercialized course brokering. They take a course offered by one university and make it available to other institutions to host in on-campus peer communities.

Of course, this is a model that the K-12 community has employed for any number of years. It is common to see a single course taught from one location and delivered to other locations by means such as video conferencing and interactive environments.

And, one would expect the same phenomenon to extend into the language-based community, to see local support offered in different communities for participation in online courses offered in a variety of languages at a variety of locations around the world.

But I would ask, with equal relevance, where is the culturally-specific community itself? Where will I see their contributions to physics and philosophy, botany and political science? It will not be enough simply to author content and offer courses. The place for the various cultures is in the middle of these domains, in discourse and discussion on a global stage.

Yes, content and courses are necessary. But what is needed more than anything is participation in the discourse itself, that idea that, for any online course, any online community, your  culture and language has a place there, belongs there, and is necessarily a part of that course and that community.



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