The Big Idea: Community Open Online Courses

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  • Education
  • Catalyst
  • Fellowship

What is learning? This is the question I have been exploring through the development of Community Open Online Courses (COOCs), where anyone and everyone can contribute to the curriculum and decide how and what they want to learn.

Initially, answering this question from an institutional perspective, seemed easy enough to do – there are a plethora of accreditation routes, standardisation measures and statistics that can be used as evidence. But, we all know that the structure of formal education can leave people as diminished by their experiences as it does enriched.

What COOCs hopes to do is explore a wider concern of learning as it is felt, experienced and practiced beyond institutions. We want to consider the ways in which people come to learning through curiosity, enthusiasm for a subject and a desire for personal growth. The ethos of COOCs begins with the idea that learning is internally motivated but enriched by sharing that inner drive.

In part, COOCs emerged as a response to online communities and how they could be shaped around shared interests. The initial idea was to take the model of the MOOCs but alleviate the need for a massive response and recognise the  impact of small-scale learning and communities being formed around ideals rather than geography.

COOCs hopes to become a space to encourage exchange and practice by anyone, with anyone, and about anything.

Although I’m a Lecturer myself, COOCs had to be non-institutional so that choices around learning were made by the communities and the course creators themselves. Our attitude is not anti-expert, but we appreciate and celebrate that expertise can be found in many locations and that being amateur, can be a good thing. 

Teaching from a range of starting points can encourage self-development, and generating communities of learning based on enthusiasm will allow for a revitalised approach to education based on openness and choice, and resistant to hierarchies and gatekeepers.



Initially, the idea of COOCs began as a website and a professional web developer was hired. This step was perhaps against the ethos of DIY learning and teaching and it proved a difficult experience. The continued failure of the website to meet our needs, meant that although 200 people had registered, the experience was less than positive for almost all.

It was clear that there was interest in the concept and people were keen to use COOCs for a wide range of teaching/learning, but the technology and access to resources threatened to scupper our plans.  


RSA and Catalyst via Ragged University

It was at this point that we met Alex Dunedin, an RSA Fellow and founder of the Ragged University. This proved to be something of a revelation, and I was immediately aware that far from being an isolated and doomed approach, self-generated learning was something that the Ragged University was interested in and was making work. 

Alex explored Catalyst Funding possibilities at the RSA and we were awarded £2,000 to develop the website. We were then able to work with an excellent web developer who worked largely for free to recreate COOCs using Moodle as the course creation template.  We have now had six weeks of the new website and the number of courses is growing.  Thankfully, many of those disillusioned by the earlier technical concerns have returned with renewed enthusiasm.


The COOC Builders

The range of COOCs is potentially, vast. Courses are emerging based on spontaneous issues that are ephemeral but significant at a particular time; the free, open and responsive nature of COOCS makes it possible to create and share almost immediately. 

A growing discussion with groups that see themselves excluded by the approaches used in formal education is poignant. The mental health courses in evidence come from groups that experience issues personally and want a course that is as much supportive and human, as it is dedicated to policy and medical process. 

Artists, and particularly educators from arts based subjects, are also looking to develop COOCs as a space that prioritises the creative process over their professional experiences that are driven by product and assessment. Further courses on racism, philosophy and creative processes are in the early stages but highlight the diversity that can emerge.  


How can Fellows help?

The RSA Fellowship is perhaps one of the finest examples of what can happen when institutional barriers are removed and people can come together based on their own passions and interests. We would encourage Fellows to create courses and where projects are being developed, consider using COOCs as one way they can disseminate the learning and teaching inherent in their work.

We encourage freedom in how the courses are created and shaped and what they include. All support is welcomed and we hope that COOCs can become a strong alternative to the discourse on what learning is and give everyone an opportunity to answer this in their own way.

If you'd like to know more please do get in touch with me: [email protected]

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  • What a fantastic idea! A couple of friends and I are looking to use something like this to create a sharing space for a Buddhist reading group as we're not always able to meet up. 

    • That is a great idea Janina, we would really like to see that happen so let me know where we can help.  Go to and register and have a look around (you can look around first, of course!). Anything we can do to help let me know

  • My interests are all over the map though the continuing contradiction in my life has been a love of education and a dislike of school. I can't be the only one and know there are many in education who are both disenchanted and enthusiastic which seem to be precursors for change. Also have an interest in having your voice and identity dismissed--and the mess this creates. For now I'm Reading "A Thousand Plateaus" by D&G and MUST finish it! 

    • Hi Scott

      Great post and I think that the importance of starting to distinguish between 'learning' and 'school' is possibly the most significant point in our own development.  I would give my backing to the notion that we are perhaps not at a point where it is no longer enough to just have people endure a restrictive learning approach when they could be encouraged to seek to become vital, to share their passions and to become productive and active rather than measured on an ability to endure and conform to a standardised model. 
      I am with you in Deleuze and Guattari, and have been reading for years and think finishing it is perhaps not the aim, just to surf through it and return to it at different stages of thought? The Rhizome opens up 'A Thousand Plateaus' and subsequently opened up the ideas and possibilities that underpin COOCs.  Tied in with the Popular Education notion of significant and relevant learning that is decided by each community, from its own needs, I hope you can join in and help us create COOCs as a space to explore many things/ anythings with a wide range of folk educators. 
      Best wishes

  • This is an intriguing idea. My field is learning and development.  I'd like to view the website and find out how courses are published/ conducted/ coordinated, etc.    Where might I start?

    • Hi Linda
      Thanks for your interest in COOCs and I hope you choose to join us in creating some free learning spaces and encouraging others to join up and teach/ learn with each other.
      The first thing to do is to visit the website at and register - this can be accessed via the log in page.
      Once registered you will have full access to create courses and sign up for the courses generated by others.  The course creation side of the website uses Moodle and every member has course creation access from the outset.  We have started with a community generated set of categories and these can be added to as required, courses can be on any subject and linked to a small community of existing friends/ enthusiasts to much larger groups and to the development of 'not yet here' communities that the course can help to discover and create.
      i would be very happy to discuss the project with you in more detail once you have had an initial look around.  The COOCs ethos has much to do with an interest in popular education with interest in how multiple and diverse backgrounds can come to create learning spaces.  The emphasis is on responding to the potential in many places rather than purely focusing on the sharing of that which exists in just a few expert-led institutions. 

      I hop this gives you enough to look at in order to begin to get an idea of COOCs and please get in touch to continue the discussion and start creating new ways to use the initiative. 

      I have included here a link to the blog (also available by the website) and to a seminar at Lancaster University where I discuss the background to COOCs a little more.

      I look forward to hearing from you in the future - any questions, let me know