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Mike Caulfield - December 14, 2012 9:30 am MST

Keep Learning in 2013

Mike Caulfield - December 14, 2012 9:30 am MST

Reuse, Not Production, Is Key to Positive MOOC Impact

Mike Caulfield - December 14, 2012 9:30 am MST
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Production is sexy. Reuse is not.

The famous recurring lie of George Costanza on Seinfeld is that he is an architect. “Nothing is higher than ‘architect’,” he says to the young slacker he is mentoring in one episode. If you’re going to say you’re something, you might as well go with that.

And culturally, he’s right. You can use a building, remodel a building, restore a building. You can save a building from termites, convert an office building into condos or vice-versa. You can make a building accessible to the disabled, come up with a time-sharing plan that effectively doubles the building’s capacity, retro-fit it with solar panels, or reinforce it to meet existing code. All these things are important. Some might save the world. But not one of them will get you the respect that designing and building a new building will get you.

Production is a nice place to be.

Credit: David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp

The issue in higher education is that the really hard and important problems — the problems that no one has solved yet, the problems that will ultimately destroy us — are problems of reuse, not production. David Wiley nailed this years ago in his reusability paradox. Briefly stated, the paradox is this –

  • Designing for reuse (in most situations) means removing contextually-dependent hooks from designed objects.
  • The value proposition of higher education, unfortunately, is largely the process of contextualization of knowledge. What students find useful in a course is the coherence-building that a teacher and other students provide. Small contextually-dependent hooks such as “As we mentioned last week” are the bread-and-butter sense-making of any course.
  • Therefore “pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another.”

To some extent calling out this paradox was a plea for a truly open set of educational resources – not PDFs of slides, but actual editable PowerPoints. Not DRM’d learning objects, but cuttable videos. Not textbooks as ePubs, but textbooks as editable documents. To be open is to permit local re-contextualization.

In reality, we did not often meet that challenge. How much time did we waste with OCW stamped on every page with an unremovable logo that screamed to students “This is not your class. This is not your teacher.”? Dig deep into the history of open education and you’ll find that much of its grant-funded design is not only indifferent to institutional reuse, but openly hostile to it. And it is that way because the perception is that production, not reuse, is the issue we are trying to solve.

So where do we go from here, in the age of MOOCs? It depends, I suppose, on what you want to happen. CMOOCs dealt with the reuse issue by pushing the contextualization down to the level of the participants. XMOOCs dealt with the issue by making everybody part of the same big class. In an xMOOC the phrase “As we were talking about last week” makes sense because to be using the learning object is to be in the class.

While both of these approaches have their uses, particularly in the areas of lifelong learning, professional development, and distance education, none solves the problem that I and many, many others remain obsessed with – how do we bend the cost curve of traditional face-to-face higher education while improving its quality? How do we use technology to strengthen and improve the higher education system we already have?

If you want that – if you want a world in ten years where most students still have access to face-to-face experiences with students and professors — the key to that is MOOC reuse.

For producers of MOOCs, this means actively engaging populations that want mesh your MOOC with an existing class or credit-bearing experience. The University of Mary Washington’s Ds106 project has been exemplary in this regard, and the flexibility that course has gained through its multiple institutional re-imaginings has made it stronger for all involved, including students at UMW. On the other hand, over in the realm of anti-patterns, Coursera actually prohibits students from using their materials as part of a credit bearing class. For all the talk about Coursera, this fact generally goes unremarked. From a production perspective, Coursera is incredibly impressive. From a reuse perspective Coursera is as unrevolutionary as a for-profit textbook publisher. An openness that does not allow institutional reuse is not is not an openness we can afford to support at this point in history.

Allowing for reuse is just one step. Building a culture of reuse also means designing for reuse. In the Intro Psych xMOOC project I am working on, we have struggled with how different institutions might “wrap” a variety of experiences around the core course. One of the problems is that different institutions might want to use different amounts of the running xMOOC — one professor might want to use the lectures, readings and reading quizzes from the class, but handle the reading response activities on her own. Another might want to use the class, only the reading response activities. One might want to use it as a one-credit equivalent supplement to an existing course, another might like it to function as a nearly complete experience. How do you accomplish this in the context of a single running class?

The way we are solving this is simple, but I have not seen it used as a solution elsewhere. Each assignment (watching video lectures, reading supplemental readings) is paired with an assessment (video quizzes, reading response). That assessment is weighted based on the amount of time exemplary completion by an average student would take, where 6 points equals sixty minutes. The co-instructors using the course in a wrapped context will get a course section assignment for their subcohort, which will allow them to see the point totals in different areas. From there, it is as simple as saying on the syllabus “For this class you are expected to complete 60 points of reading responses in the xMOOC.” and this is easily understood by the professor as about 10 hours of work in the xMOOC. It’s simple fixes like this, added together, that will result in truly great pairings of centrally run courses with engaging local experiences. And it starts with seeing the reuse perspective as being as important as the use perspective.

Finally, we need more than reuse-conscious MOOC builders. What we really need are people that are will to take on the more demanding task of figuring out how reuse could work from the perspective of an institutional consumer of MOOCs. And when I say “more demanding”, I don’t think I am exaggerating. We’ve had successful production of OCW and other OER for over a decade now, with plenty of use-cases of self-learners being successful. We’ve done online learning since at least the 80s. We’ve done CBT since the 60s. There’s a ton of successful models for people to draw on if they want to build effective large scale online courses. Even in MOOC-world, we are entering year five of these things, and it has been a pretty successful five years.

On the other hand, we have failed miserably at institutional reuse, and at using these distributed experiences to help slow the rising cost of education. And I think we are failing because reuse is a harder problem with less prestige associated with solving it.
Ages ago, David Wiley talked about calculating your “EduCarbon footprint” – figuring out how much you reused the educational materials of others vs. creating your own and taking pride in that reuse.

I suppose, four years later, I’d like to propose something even simpler. If everybody currently producing MOOCs for their college would commit to reusing just one other institution’s MOOC or ds106-like experience in their college as part of a credit-bearing course experience, and if they would report out on the obstacles and opportunities with that, then we might actually start to solve the problems that matter rather than just producing more vanity-ware. And reusing the works of others, in turn, will not only impact our bottom lines, but also be an important lesson that feeds back into how we design for reuse and impact.

There are models out already out there, waiting to be tested. I alluded to some above. A “wrapped MOOC” wraps a face-to-face seminar (or other high-impact experience) around a MOOC core, allowing the offering instructor to spend her time helping students make meaning rather than designing quizzes and delivering PowerPoints. A “MOOC follow-on” would allow students to use a MOOC as a prerequisite to a locally grounded, community engaged project – students take the MOOC with an eye towards later in the semester when they will have to apply that knowledge to a project-based learning course. If they demonstrate the knowledge provided by the MOOC in the construction of the project, they get credit for both experiences.

Offerings like this would help us break through the credit-hour productivity problem, providing students more credit hours than we have to explicitly teach, while allowing faculty to concentrate on the sort of things that face-to-face environments do best. They have the potential, if we get them right, to preserve the face-to-face experience of college for future generations and to make sure that the state colleges that are the hub of so many small communities don’t implode, taking the surrounding communities with them. They have the potential to prevent the dismantling of education into a series of consumer goods offered through a voucher system that benefits corporations at the expense of students, and the potential to protect the important cultural role played by university researchers and experts.

Experiments with reuse can do all of that. They could save the whole damn thing.

Or we could continue to build yet more vanity MOOCs for our institutions, which might get our press releases picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s our choice, really.

[Photo, “Shoed Attitude“, by Rick Harris licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]


  1. Mike – great post. Creative Commons has a post titled “Keeping MOOCs Open”* you might enjoy.

    One important point: if reuse is the goal… educational content must have an open license on it that provides the legal rights to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute the educational work (e.g., a MOOC course).

    For content to be “open” and legally reusable, it must comply with the Hewlett definition of OER: “OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”**

    Point: If we’re all going to take full advantage of MOOCs and reuse their content in education institutions around the world, the MOOCs will need to openly license their courses… or at least give contributing Universities / Colleges / Faculty the option to add a (non-ND) CC license to their MOOC course.

    Cable Green
    Director of Global Learning
    Creative Commons


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  3. I agree a great post and I totally agree that we did not resolve the reuse paradox(es) when we moved on from RLOs into OERs as a ‘reuse solution’. We are getting closer but one persistent problem is that when we say; ‘What we really need are people that are will to take on the more demanding task of figuring out how reuse could work from the perspective of an institutional consumer of MOOCs’ we are usually not taking about how get get the time strapped teacher to do this but how to get others (some pretty impressive expert/project staff) to do this *for* them. The solutions too often look like more work for the time-strapped educator slogging through their muddy field. It is good that we have moved from emphasising reuse as all about saving money and making learning design more automatic/less creative (still better that we no longer expect to be trading small bits of content for cash – the learning object economy, remember that?). But reuse is still not easy – it too often sounds like a healthy diet or exercise regime which the educator not funded to do it finds easy enough to put off investing time in. Someone needs to make the content reusable (licenses, granualarity etc, decription, dissemination, de-contextualisation perhaps). This work is important. But we don’y yet have enough examples of why the habit of reuse is worth adopting by someone outside these funded circles who are not building new courses in lab conditions with technical help, but simply going about the day to day business of just-in-time learning design emergency surgery. It is quicker to reuse only if you know how. Most people don’t know how – they have war stories of fruitless seaching and trying to find stuff and then finding that they can’t use it, or they can’t change it. We need to convey why it would be exciting to continue to try, what has changed and why this is about creativity and doing something sensational for learners rather than settling for less.

    Loved Martha Kanter’s speech at OpenEd 2011 for this reason. I was also very taken with Alan Levine’s demonstration of the DS106 at OpenEd 2012 which I know that I can use to convey to educators what you can really get from mixing things up.
    Gosh, this has been a pre-Christmas comment ramble, but thanks for raising this issue. Resolving the reuse paradox (and I think that there is more than one out there) is something that we need to prioritise to move open practice into the mainstream where everyone can benefit. But reuse takes time. My thesis – which I could tweet as ‘in search of reuse in UK HE and why after 8 years I still did not find it where I should have’ ( – the real title is less catchy). Let’s give the time to resolving all the reuse paradoxes in 2013 through engaging everyone in this discussion. What a great resolution that will be.

  4. This is the second time I’ve read through this post. Thank you. I’m thinking about how important it is for students to become the expert re-users and sense-makers of all the great stuff out there. In motivating students to dig, re-order, synthesize, and make/re-make (ie ds106), then we’re doing something that really lasts… taking me back to the idea that relevant problems and challenges are one of the most effective catalysts for true synthesis. A great teacher (in my mind) dreams up an interesting problem or challenge worth tackling and builds a space where that is the socially-acceptable thing to do. Maybe we have enough “answers” in all the great materials out there; what we need more of are the questions and challenges that provoke and the communities/spaces that inspire us to take action. Thanks again for these good reminders.

  5. I have worked real hard the last few years to design for reuse by removing context. It is key, and it is important. I teach web page scripting with HTML, CSS, and Java script, and the stuff changes so fast it is hard to reuse much more than a year or two. I find myself being able to reuse the foundational pieces, but not the rest. Luckily many students get it when you are showing something inside a program that was last years edition, but I find some who just can not relate.

    I find that success with this is just doing it, and tweaking your approach along the way.

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