MOOCs: chaotic or chaordic?

Ami Erickson, one of the deans at Sheridan College, our local community college, recently participated in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about MOOCs.  Although Erickson is a teacher and administrator at a relatively traditional bricks-and-mortar institution, one of her personal goals is to “identify, promote, and encourage opportunities to help [her] team excel in a dynamic process of progress and growth.”

So when she got the chance to participate in the online class put on by Hybrid Pedagogy, a “digital journal of teaching and technology,” she jumped onboard.  Then she wrote about the experience in a piece that appears on her own blog and was recently published in our local newspaper, where I happened to see it.

Read Ami’s own post if you want the details.  But I think her experience with a MOOC may be quite common.  On her first day, she wrote, “My initial impression following the introductions and comments by the approx 300 participants is that this is pure chaos.”  “But maybe this chaos will organize . . .

And it did.  By the time she was done and reflecting on the whole experience, her opinion had evolved to:

As I started the course, I was dubious about the quality of learning that could happen in the online environment when thousands of students are competing for feedback and direction from the instructor. But, after one day of participating in this MOOC, during which I read blog posts, followed discussions, contributed to an essay on MOOCs, interacted with people from around the world, started my own blog, AND learned a great deal – my educational world view changed. The students were not passive recipients of information, but instead contributors to a community of learning. The experience was stimulating, exciting and creative. Yes, it was a bit overwhelming. With so much information shared, I couldn’t possibly absorb everything. However, what I did learn has left me wanting more.

It sounds as if a well-run MOOC can exhibit what is called chaordic behavior, where a reasonable amount of organization can arise, apparently spontaneously, from chaotic (or at least not tightly managed) systems.  Dee Hock, who founded VISA, coined the term and has written a lot about the such systems and their strength.  I’ve always been particularly fond of one of his many prescriptions for behavior that can encourage a system to “go chaordic:”

Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex, intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.

 One does not see the former behavior often enough.  But all of us can, I’m afraid, come up with way too many instances of the latter.


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About Anne Gunn

A Wyoming native who grew up in Montana, Anne Gunn lived for 20 years in New England before returning to Wyoming in 1999. While in New England, she co-founded Tally Systems, a bootstrap-funded software company. At Tally she wore many hats, including software development, sales, technical support, quality assurance, and product management. In 1995 she promoted herself from Senior VP of Product Management to entry level programmer in order to have more time and flexibility. She remained on the board of Tally until its sale to Novell in 2005. Here in Wyoming, she has worked as a freelance programmer and has started a new software products company. Sheridan Programmers Guild publishes apps, websites, and ebooks and takes on a small number of custom projects for clients each year.

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