Alyn Gwyndaf on MOOCs and the right to learn

Alyn Gwyndaf is an artist representing Coney and has shared here a personal reflection and provocation on taking his first Massive Open Online Course about Creative Coding, exploring his interest in the potentials and fault lines between art and technology which he shares with Coney.

I took my first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in June. These started emerging in the US a few years ago, with universities making existing teaching materials or new courses freely available online. Now, FutureLearn has been started by some UK universities (including, natch, the Open one) and institutions (British Council, BBC), with some overseas universities, such as Monash in Melbourne.

Courses tend to be short: my Creative Coding one was six weeks; but that time could cover a broad foundation (Introduction to Ecosystems), or focus on a specific niche (Improving Your Image: Dental Photography in Practice). FutureLearn is essentially a platform, a framework for any participating institution to create and deliver a course, and within which anyone can sign up to anything.

It’s a bit of a shock to the system. It shouldn’t be: it’s a university-level short course, and they need commitment, time and focus. But physical engagement also demands certain preliminaries: the initial flirtation, the decision to follow-up, the application and the acceptance; a sense that even getting started involves some effort. MOOCs provide the same casual acceptance as any other Internet freebie that just needs a thirty-second registration. Then, reality arrives suddenly: you’re into Week 1, there’s exercises and reading links and, because these carry more weight than, say, 29 Buzzfeed Quizzes To Take Before You Reach 23: You’ll Be Amazed! there’s an obligation to read them. This is not the Internet of casual engagement, but one that demands we give something substantial of our time and attention.

FutureLearn has several key characteristics. One is course structure, with reading and exercises drip-fed in a well-designed sequence, over time. Another is conversational: the discussion within a massive (800 in my case) course group, whether for specific problems or broader thematic discussion. FutureLearn’s social mechanism is still a bit clunky compared with commercial social media, but their beta development process is responsive and I could already see changes being made that reflected students’ feedback.

Although the structural and social aspects are equally evident with ‘in-person’ courses, the biggest revelation came from the massive and open aspects. The online discussions felt similar (if less subtle) to discussion in a seminar group, with maybe 20-30 principal voices, all articulate in English. But the surprise came with our final piece of work. We had a peer feedback process, with each student giving feedback on another’s writing, within a constructive framework. I did this three times and every time read a piece from someone for whom English didn’t seem like the first language, a cultural framework beyond the Western Judeo-Christian liberal tradition, and whose profiles located them in Asia or the Middle East. Suddenly, voices that had been missing from the online discussion became visible.

This seems to speak volumes to the value of MOOCs. In a culture where higher education is theoretically accessible to everyone, and debates have  become about its cost or employment value, it’s easy to overlook the thirst for knowledge in less privileged areas. That sense that education might provide a way out of poverty and oppression, to economic, political, or social empowerment; that it’s worth overcoming obstacles of connectivity, culture or language to achieve an education.


I just pulled down from a bookshelf The Middle East for Dummies. One of a popular series, it’s subtitled The Reference for the Rest of Us in a chilling echo of Apple’s old “for the rest of us” strapline. Chilling in the same way as “because you’re worth it,” which tries to implicate us all in accepting or even celebrating ignorance and disempowerment.

I’ve skipped many questions about MOOCs, such as their relationship to education as an industry and employer, or as cultural soft power. But this aspect seems one key reason why MOOCs feel radical and significant, a way that echoes blue Pelicans, public libraries and the Workers’ Educational Association in the UK: that they provide a way for the widest possible population to assert its right to learn.


Alyn Gwyndaf

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