The time when a massive open online course (MOOC) could be claimed as a genuinely disruptive innovation has long since passed. These days, if your interest is in open courses, you’ll find the real cutting edge work going on in a converted former cinema in Coventry.
The team at Coventry University (some of whom now form the Disruptive Media Learning Lab) didn’t start with grand ideas to change the world – they just felt the age-old academic restlessness with established methods and practices. And when a professional photographer took an academic role, they saw the potential to use blogs and social media to introduce learners to the reality of professional practice.
Coventry University has leapt up the rankings recently, and its digital media department has developed a suite of open courses over the last five years that have contributed to that success. Based on the experiences of the Coventry Disruptive Media Learning Lab and other similarly motivated innovators, here are our five tips for unlocking the potential of innovative academics in your institution:
Give innovators space and time
Creating something genuinely new takes thought and experimentation. If institutions want their innovators to succeed they should be genuinely open to change, willing to try new approaches and accepting of the fact that there may be a failure or two along the way.
It has taken five years for staff in Coventry University’s media department to shape its Phonar open narrative photography course, and the linked PhonarNation Ltd’s claim to be running ‘the biggest youth photography class in history’ is no exaggeration. The undergraduate photography course that incorporates Phonar is one of the most over-subscribed of any at the university and it has garnered multiple awards for its pioneering approach.
Have courage! It’s not all about big budgets
MOOCs and leading OER platforms often have their own marketing budgets, dedicated and well-staffed offices, and funding from foundations, institutions or venture capital. However, free online resources and tools may well mean that there’s no need for big, expensive IT support for your own experiments in open classes - although it will be necessary to take a look at the institution’s existing technology and systems to make sure these can all work together effectively.
Coventry’s suite of digital media classes have made full use of practical external tools such as a WordPress blog which provides a ‘hub’ to co-ordinate the activities of the networked community. The courses have been led right from the start by a small team, empowered to try new things and to dust themselves down and try again if they fail.
Working below the radar can be a very good thing
Giving the pioneering project team tacit permission to experiment with non-supported platforms and social media freed them up to make full use of emerging technologies and to exploit evolving trends in the same ways that their communities use them. For institutions, operating ‘under the radar’ can be very useful – allowing new risky approaches to prove themselves before becoming high profile activities.
Make the most of new relationships that can transform learning
Use of social media makes it possible to draw in expert contributors and course participants from other institutions nationally and internationally. The Phonar project used WordPress and Twitter in particular. It meant the team was able to draw on expertise and practice from a variety of expert collaborators, including Jim Groom, Alan Levine and the open digital storytelling course ds106.
Engage with new partners to open up opportunities
The space to work with new collaborators, to experiment and to reflect allows students to expand what they can do and what they can offer. It enables them to establish a professional identity for themselves and a platform for their work that can translate into enhanced employability skills and more employment opportunities.
The team at Coventry has worked with a number of global external partners in the rapidly changing world of professional photography, and participants in the course have been able to take up a wide variety of career opportunities that arguably would not have presented had the course been run along more traditional, closed lines.
Want to know more?
Coventry’s experience has much to teach other institutions, either seeking to experiment with open courses or their own routes to innovation. On this front we’ve recently commissioned a report into the conditions and practices that enabled the institution’s open learning initiatives.
Written for us by Lou McGill and Tim Gray, the report makes a number of detailed recommendations for institutions aiming to build their own capacity to innovate. Please do take the time to read it, visit Lou's page on COMC for more information or contact me with any questions.