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“The collaborative learning process took our Fellows to places where they delighted in connecting with people of diverse experience and expertise, sparked new ways of thinking about topics and gained the sorts of insights that led to genuine revelations”

- Peter Clitheroe FRSA (RSA East of England regional team)

East of England Fellows working on their Human Centred Design MOOC

East of England Fellows working on their Human Centred Design MOOC


The emergence of MOOCs (‘Massive Open Online Courses’) - where tens of thousands of people can learn online together, mostly for free - has taken the education world by storm. Coursera, a MOOC provider, has 7m+ users. But it was when Stanford University’s artificial intelligence Mooc, announced in July 2011, attracted 160,000 sign-ups that it became clear a powerful new phenomenon was emerging.

“It has been an effective key-turner for our local network by giving a real purpose to working together on a specific, focused and time-bound project”

- Peter Clitheroe FRSA

RSA Fellows are increasingly finding MOOCs to be a great way to come together both to learn and to work on real-world projects collaboratively.

For example three Fellow groups in the East of England region recently enjoyed taking part in ‘Human Centred Design for Social Innovation’, a free MOOC put together with the leading Design/Innovation agency, IDEO.

iEnjoying the +Acumen Human-Centred Design MOOC in Sao Paulo
Enjoying the +Acumen Human-Centred Design MOOC in Sao Paulo


The Fellows’ groups chose these real-world challenges to work on together during the seven-week course:

* Enabling more young people to become social entrepreneurs - in which the team proposed new systems and devised ways to strengthen existing programmes to help young people tackle civic/social issues as a career path.

* Healthier food options for people in need - Two separate groups tackled the healthy food challenge (one of them based at Suffolk County Council). One group focused on first year university students living in self-catering flats, who were surveyed about their eating habits. The result was a plan for a street-food events run by - and for - students in collaboration with local food producers.

Our MOOC quartet made Fellowship tangible and meaningful, more so than any other RSA encounter I've had

- Kate Hammer FRSA

Peter - who informally led one of the groups of Fellows - also commented that: “It has been an effective key-turner for our local network by giving a real purpose to working together on a specific, focused and time-bound project”.

“It offers a model that could be usefully deployed in developing a coherent network across the county and possibly the region.”

The MOOC runs regularly and is provided by +Acumen, the community/education arm of the global anti-poverty organisation Acumen that was founded in 2001 by Jacqueline Novogratz.

Want to join a MOOC with other Fellows yourself? Get in touch with your RSA Regional Manager to discuss.

Working face-to-face with your group

+Acumen is unusual compared to larger and better-known MOOC providers - because its courses all rely on weekly face-to-face ‘Lab’ meetings with your group, where you will be working on... [Continued]

real-world challenges and projects - using the new knowledge and expertise provided during the MOOC. It also doesn’t have the bespoke online platform, numerous videos and suchlike that other providers often offer - though participants can contribute in a Google+ community.

“We have seen people form new friendships, reinforce old friendships and strengthen collaborations with colleagues because of our courses”, says Acumen’s Jo-Ann Tan.

“I believe +Acumen is the only free course offering targeted at social innovators.  We recognise that it’s often tough for budget constrained social sector organisations to gain access to quality training materials.  It’s crazy!  These are people doing some of the world’s most important work to make things better, and we need to support each other”.

I personally found it very enjoyable working with a group including RSA staff and others on +Acumen’s MOOC ‘Adaptive Leadership: Mobilizing for Change’.

It was certainly a revelation to me to find myself digging deeply into the course’s core text The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Ronald Heifetz et al, and applying some of the key techniques to my chosen real-world challenge. Though it had been sitting - neglected - on my bookshelf, it truly came alive once applied like this with a group: a real revelation.

How to turn a conventional MOOC into a collaborative experience

Even the more conventional MOOCs can easily be done with a face-to-face - or virtual - group, and the online platform itself will usually offer ways to bring together a number of potential members. Amongst people I already knew, I found a group of Fellows who wanted to do Profs. Kegan and Lahey’s Harvard MOOC ‘Unlocking the Immunity to Change: A New Approach to Personal Improvement’ (course started again on 16 Sept - easy to catch up).

We found a further person none of us knew via the course’s online space - and she turned out to be a new RSA Fellow, who hadn’t yet worked out how to engage with the Fellowship.

The course proved to be surprisingly, powerfully transformative for all of us, in a way that I don’t think any of us quite expected.

One participant, Hilary Gallo FRSA commented: "A Professor friend told me that the problem with MOOCs is that no-one finishes them. ‘Why should they?’, my friend rightly challenged. ‘There’s no community,’ he said.

“Well, I finished the ‘Immunity to Change’ MOOC. The group we worked in at the RSA was critical to this. It made the MOOC a real sharing experience. We were able to help each other though the blocks we each faced. We did this mainly though listening to each other, observation and reflection. It gave the MOOC the community, personal touch and a positive will for action that it’s difficult to create on-line”.

Another participant - Florence Labedays FRSA - said: “Our face-to-face meetings, which we structured and timed to avoid small-talk and to focus on our progress and learnings, not only made us accountable to one another but also deepened our experience of the MOOC. I see potential for the RSA in inviting its Fellows to work together on MOOCs with a social dimension; it would boost the Fellowship sentiment and also provide a great tool to increase our impact collectively and individually. There’s no better way to learn than by coming together.”

There’s no better way to learn than by coming together

- Florence Labedays FRSA

Florence even began working for a MOOC-related educational start-up - called Proversity – as a direct result of her participation in the Overcoming Immunity to Change course.

MOOCs from the RSA and Fellows... and the emergence of COOCs!

The idea of a MOOC to help Fellows make white-board animations - similar to RSA Animates - about their social ventures is being looked into by the Fellowship team at the moment. (Look out for Alex Watson’s forthcoming blog post about this.) The RSA Education team are also developing a MOOC idea, about teacher research literacy.

In Scotland, an RSA Regional Digital Champion, Alex Dunedin, has just received RSA Catalyst funding for a pioneering project to help people to develop Community Open Online Courses (COOCs) - a more bottom-up, community-generated alternative to MOOCs.

MOOCs clearly could offer potential as a novel and engaging way to share (and practically apply) many RSA methods - across areas such as the Social Brain, the ChangeMakers networks approach, Design for Social Impact, the Power to Create and more. Might it be possible to bring together many thousands of Fellows, and others, around the globe to work together simultaneously in small face-to-face groups on real-world challenges? The success of +Acumen’s courses suggest the answer is ‘yes’.

Such creative and participatory MOOCs would help blunt the growing anti-MOOC criticism that the big providers have let them become didactic and unimaginative. (See ‘Mooc creators criticise courses’ lack of creativity’, THES online).

New MOOC roles needed in the Fellowship?

It looks very likely that the uptake of MOOCs by interest-specific and local groups of Fellows will increase - though getting an entire group through a MOOC without some sort of co-ordination can be a challenge, despite encouragement and ‘peer pressure’ from team members.

Peter Clitheroe suggests that there may be real value to the RSA in developing interested Fellows into MOOC support/advisory roles, including recruitment, group facilitation and evaluation (these are quite distinct from tutoring).

Peter says: “As the popularity of MOOCs grows, the cowboys will doubtless hitch up their wagons to exploit the market, so perhaps an RSA ‘Ambassador’ for MOOCs could help identify courses that provide a good fit with RSA purposes and priorities as well as participant interests? Such a role could bring consistency to evaluation and could play a part in encouraging and developing Fellows to make effective use of MOOCs across the regions.”

+Acumen themselves are keen to support the RSA Fellowship to do courses in groups - such things as promotional materials, a customised website back-end to track Fellows and others who sign up, and ways to integrate courses with Fellows’ programs and network. Contact your RSA Regional Manager if you’re interested.

Find a MOOC to join:

  • Acumen:  60,000 users (from 167 countries)

  • edX: 2.5m users


The number of people doing individual courses varies widely too, of course: Acumen gets 2,000-10,000+, whilst the bigger edX Immunity to Change course had at least 60-70,000 people signed up, I believe; 100,000 is commonplace. Indeed, it was when Stanford University’s artificial intelligence MOOC, announced in July 2011, attracted 160,000 sign-ups that it became clear a powerful new phenomenon was emerging.

Have you got an experience to share - or a suggestion about - MOOCs? Please add your thoughts in the comments below...


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