Siva Vaidhyanathan [twitter: sivavaid] has a really well-done (as usual) article that reminds us that for all the excitement about Massive Open Online Courses — which he shares — we still have to figure out how to do them right. There are lots of ways to go wrong. (And I should hear note that I’m posting this in order to: (1) recommend Siva’s article, and (2) make an obvious point about MOOCs. Feel free to stop here.)

The fundamental issue, of course, is that real-world ed doesn’t scale very well. The largest classes in the real world are in the hundreds (oh, maybe some school has a course with thousands), and those classes are generally not held up as paradigms of Western ed. Further, traditional ed doesn’t scale in the sense that not everyone gets to go to college.

So, now we have a means for letting classes get very big indeed. Hundreds of thousands. Put in the terms of Too Big to Know, the question is: how do you make that enormous digital classroom smarter than the individuals in it? 2B2K’s answer (such as it is) is that you make a room smart by enabling its inhabitants to create a knowledge network.

  • Such a network would at a minimum connect all the participants laterally, as well as involving the teacher

  • It would encourage discussion of course topics, but be pleased about discussions that go off topic and engage students socially.

  • It would enable the natural experts and leaders among the students to emerge.

  • It would encourage links within and outside of the course network.

  • This network would enable students to do their work online and together, and make those processes and their traces fully available to the public.

  • All the linking, discussions, answered questions, etc., would be fed back into the system, making it available to everyone. (This assumes there are interactions that produce metadata about which contributions are particularly useful.)

  • It would encourage (via software, norms, and evaluations) useful disagreements and differences. It doesn’t always try to get everyone onto exactly the same page. Among other things, this means tolerating — appreciating and linking to — local differences among the students.

  • It would build upon the success of existing social tools, such as liking, thumbs upping, following…

  • Students would be encouraged to collaborate, rather than being evaluated only as individual participants.

  • The learning process would result in a site that has continuing value to the next students taking the course and to the world.

I’m not trying to present a Formula for Success, because I have no idea what will actually work or how to implement any ideas. Fortunately, there are tons of really smart people working on this now, with a genuine spirit of innovation. All I’m really saying is something obvious: to enable education to scale so that MOOCs don’t become what no one wants them to be — cyber lecture halls — it’s useful to think about the “classroom” as a network.