Blog Post

A Pre-History of MOOCS (NB: HASTAC Was There)

(Note:  This is a section of my forthcoming book from Basic Books on the future of higher education, that tells about the "meta MOOC" I conducted in Spring 2014 via the Coursera platform on "The History and Future of Higher Education": #FutureEd  :  I doubt it will survive the final edit so I include it here of interest to HASTAC members and for anyone who might be interested in this part of the HASTAC's  early role in distributed online learning.  I happily accept any corrections or additions):

..... Excerpt

By the turn into the 20th Century, a majority of public, private, and for-profit community colleges, professional schools, colleges, and universities universities were offering at least form of distance education, either courses or full online programs.  By 2012, the MOOC year, about one third of students in the U.S. had taken some form of accredited, online course.[1]  

Even the particular MOOC format had more modest precedents from within higher education and the non-profit world before Silicon Valley got into the act.  In September 2006, HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), the world’s first and oldest academic social network, launched a year-long free non-credit series of “courses and seminars” on “human and humane dimensions of technology” ( ) . It was a distributed, cross-institutional effort, involving some twenty colleges and universities and over 300 experts from many fields, in a sequenced, planned “curriculum” of interlinked, intensive seminars, webinars, conferences, call-in sessions, lectures, demos, workshops, and telecast events, all advertised and either hosted or linked via the platform.  Anyone who signed up as a HASTAC member, could join all or any of the events, as a viewer or a full participant in online forums and open blogs where anyone could contribute.  The general course was called “What is In/Formation?” and the discussions were answered by multiple authorities each month and with a different thematic or topical focus sponsored by a different set of local institutions:

In/Common (University of Illinois, National Center for Supercomputing Applications and Louisiana State University, with a focus on rebuilding and connecting after Hurricane Katrina);

In/Community (National University, in San Diego);

Interplay (University of Southern California and Creative Commons);

Interaction (University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, and Mills College);

Injustice, (University of Michigan and the Law and Slavery Project);

Integration (Wayne State University);  

Invitation (University of Washington and the Robot Life Group at the MIT Media Lab);

Innovation (the University of California system-wide Humanities Research Institute); and

Interface (Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and Carolina State University, hosting the culminating conference for the year).

2006 was early for all of this. Facebook had only been publicly available for a year; Twitter was just getting launched, and both were used as part of the In/Formation year. An estimated 30,000 unique users participated in the year’s In/Formation cycle. It was launched without a penny of venture capital.  It wasn’t quite a MOOC, but it was a predecessor.

In Canada, the following year, Dave Cormier, of the University of Prince Edward Island, George Siemens of Athabasca University, and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council, created the first formal, official online open course. They also coined the term Massive Online Open Courseware or MOOC. These scholars have continued to be among the most influential in theorizing the potentialities of open, distance, online collaborative learning using a progressive, engaged, interactive rather than an hierarchical one-way model.  Dedicated, as is HASTAC, to open educational access, they opened courses taken by their tuition-paying extension students to the general public and 2200 students enrolled.  They used an array of collaborative tools and platforms including RSS feeds, blogs, Second Life meetings, and many other free and commercially available platforms.

These early developments are noteworthy because they did not cause any MOOC hype and hysteria.  They didn’t cost much to launch and they didn’t bring in much money. They were not tied to Silicon Valley. 





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