MOOCs Are So Yesterday

How to use SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) to create powerful executive development.

The power to deliver outstanding instructional content inexpensively to thousands of individuals at their own locations is a pretty enticing concept. And that’s what MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) promise. But they are so yesterday. The International Correspondence Schools originated home study courses in 1891 to teach mine safety. In the 1920s, the FCC reserved channels for educational broadcasters, and in the 1940s, NBC was touting its “University of the Air.” In the 1960s, a technology called ITFS (Instructional Television Fixed Service) was supposed to transform high school education by beaming the best teachers into classrooms.

If these sound a lot like MOOCs in premise, you’re right—and they all are based on the flawed concept that instruction is about delivering content as if it’s a package of groceries, ignoring that personal and professional development is more about social connections and modeling. All of these modalities suffer from the same fate: dropout rates over 90 percent except among highly motivated and educated learners. While content dumps may be good for providing technical skills or updates, they are useless for those of us who work with higher-level learning and executive development.

SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) combine the best aspects of small live teaching environments with the efficiencies afforded by the Internet. By the smart blending of asynchronous online courserooms with short bursts of intensive in-person collaboration, we are able to not merely deliver knowledge, but also provide the kind of role-modeling, networking, and escape from daily pressures that the classroom and other executive development venues always have offered.

On the SPOC
Here’s a description of a SPOC-based executive Master’s degree in communication innovation that we’re offering at Ithaca College:

Over the span of two years, a cohort of approximately a dozen accomplished professionals learn, practice, and push the boundaries of knowledge that will help them imagine and bring to life the next generation of communication innovation-all while working at fulltime jobs around the globe. At the end of the two years, they will have earned a graduate degree and completed an R&D project for their employer or for their own entrepreneurial ventures.

It starts with three intensive days on our campus in Ithaca in August during which learners determine and practice how they will interact, maintain confidentiality, retain proper ownership of their intellectual property, and use the online systems for accessing instructional modules and digital library materials. They begin to apply concepts of systems design and innovation to solve realworld and unexpected challenges and leave as a cohesive and energized team.

Over the next two years, they take required courses in an asynchronous online environment-one 1-credit course during each five-week block. There are no tests; they spend about 18 hours per course engaging with materials developed and curated by the professor, which provide the framework for solving problems, writing short papers, applying concepts to their jobs, and posting comments on the discussion board.

Every six to eight weeks, there’s a “destination intensive”—a special topic course that brings them to a special location over a long weekend to interact with experts on exciting problems and opportunities. These have included working with the former Prime Minister of Greece on re-inventing democracy using new technologies and strategies, and exploring transmedia storytelling in Los Angeles with Disney Imagineers.

The program director serves as learners’ “intellectual concierge,” frequently communicating with them via Skype, Google Hangouts, and phone; setting each of them up with mentors and coaching; and helping them refine a final project that they’ll develop in year two. The fellowship ends back on campus with presentations of their R&D projects to the faculty and the incoming cohort.

This model can be readily applied to executive and high-potential development, onboarding programs, and other training. But it does require an engaged program director, faculty, and cohort of learners. To learn more,join me at Training 2015 in Atlanta, GA, in February.

Diane Gayeski, Ph.D., is the dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.