MOOCs 4.0: Clearing the Way for Huckster 4.0?

I just read an article on the Huffington Post blog titled “MOOC 4.0: The Next Revolution in Learning and Leadership.” The article is written by Otto Scharmer. Here is his Wikipedia biography, which has apparently been taken largely from his own website:

Claus Otto Scharmer (born 1961) is an American economist, Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the founding chair of the Presencing Institute. Scharmer chairs the MIT IDEAS program and helps groups of diverse stakeholders from business, government, and civil society to innovate at the level of the whole system. He co-founded the Global Wellbeing and Gross National Happiness (GNH) Lab, which links innovators from Bhutan, Brazil, Europe, and the United States in order to innovate beyond GDP. He has worked with governments in Africa, Asia, and Europe and has delivered award-winning leadership and innovation programs for companies, including DaimlerEileen Fisher, PriceWaterhouse, Fujitsu, Google, and Natura. He also is a Vice Chair of the World Economic Forum‘s Global Agenda Council on New Leadership Models.

“Scharmer introduced the concept of ‘presencing’—learning from the emerging future— in his bestselling books Theory U, and Presence (the latter co-authored with P. Senge, J. Jaworski, and B. S. Flowers), which have been translated into fifteen languages.

“Scharmer holds a Ph.D. in economics and management from Witten/Herdecke University in Germany. With his colleagues, he has used presencing to facilitate profound innovation and change in health, education, sustainability, and business systems.

“Selected publications:

2013. Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco. Co-authored with Katrin Kaufer.

2005. Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, co-authored with P. Senge, J. Jaworski, and B. S. Flowers.

2009. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It EmergesBerrett-Koehler, San Francisco.”

I am reproducing the biography here because I wish to convince you that when I say that Scharmer is a very accomplished scholar and very imaginative thinker, I do truly mean it. I am, in fact, simply stating the obvious.

I am even very willing to concede that Scharmer may be so much more intelligent than I am that I am simply not able to grasp his ideas, to think on the same plane.

Nonetheless, when I first read his article on the Huffington Post blog, I thought that it was a spoof, a satire on the seemingly increasingly desperate efforts to find something meaningful to do with MOOCs. And I’d like to explain why.

Here is the opening paragraph of the article:

“Last month my colleagues and I completed a pilot of what well may be the most interesting project of my life. It was the pilot of a new type of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that pushes the MOOC design envelope by blending a globally transformative platform with an eco-system of deep personal, locally grounded learning communities. Below is the story and some key insights from this experiment that prototypes the 21st century university by putting the learner into the driver’s seat of profound social change.”

And here are several later paragraphs:

“The evolution of MOOCs from 1.0 to 3.0 has been described elsewhere. But what’s really new in our experience is the deeper transformational dimension, in which the social field turns into a mirror that allows each individual to see his or her own highest future possibility (4.0: ‘Many-to-One’).

“By social field I mean the structure of relationships among individuals, groups, organizations, and larger systems that–when changed–gives rise to different collective behavior patterns. These structures of relationship have, when you inquire into them, their own resonance, awareness, and being.”

And, lastly, here are two responses from participants in this MOOC:

“The connection with other circle members was personally transformative. Although I missed the first coaching circle call, I felt as though I had known the others my entire life. . . . My skepticism around the ability to connect in such a way melted. I realized it was not the medium [through which] I communicated, but how I showed up internally that made all the difference! This paradigm shift will stick with me for the rest of my life. After endless in-person and online ‘downloading’ sessions that went nowhere, this was as though a portal I never knew existed was opened completely. All I had to do was walk through it with the love and support of the others. I was so struck with ‘I am them’ and ‘they are me.’“

“I felt the presence of all the others around the world very, very tangibly. Although I didn’t visualize any faces, the collective presence was really palpable. I knew all the other MOOC attendees around the world were doing exactly the same thing that I was. . . . I had the same experience of thick collective presence during the first live session. What I find interesting in this thickening of the atmosphere and deep calm is that it occurs as soon as I open up the streaming webpage. It’s immediate, right as I begin hearing Otto’s explanations. It is as if I am entering a classroom and sitting next to a classmate.”

I may have been influenced by my recent viewing of the HBO documentary of scientology, but I did actually say out loud to myself, “My God, they are now trying to sell MOOCs as L. Ron Hubbard sold Diantetics. Huckster 4.0.”

Moreover, the statistics that Scharmer cites seem conveniently incomplete. For instance, Scharmer reports: “Eighty-eight percent of the respondents said in an exit survey that the course was either ‘eye-opening’ (52%) or ‘life-changing’ (36%).” But he does not tell us how many of the 28,000 participants actually completed the MOOC or the exit survey.

He later provides these statistics on the participation in the MOOC and its various elements:

>28,000 registered participants from 190 countries
>300 prototype (action learning) initiatives
>a vibrant eco-system of 350 self-organized hubs (pictures below)
and 700-1000 self-organized coaching circles (of five persons each) plus
four global live sessions with 10,000-15,000 participants/viewers each

Despite all of the hyping of the impact of this MOOC, none of those numbers suggest the active engagement of a majority of the registered participants.

But what really made me think that the article was a satire was the use of “word clouds” to illustrate the impact of the MOOC on the participants. Here is just one in the series that the article presents, a “word cloud” that graphically represents the things that have prevented the participants from “operating at level 4”:

Scharmer Word Cloud

Really? I mean, really? Really?

Nonetheless, my irrepressible sarcasm aside, I am willing to concede that my initial impression that the article was some sort of satire may indicate a great deal more about me than it does about Scharmer’s work. Indeed, it may very well be that Scharmer is on the verge of developing something that will have a truly transformative impact on our world.

But if he is, I very much doubt that very many others are or, even more to the point, are likely to be able to grasp it or to employ it any better than I have or could.

And I am afraid that what I thought was satire may, under the aegis of his cutting-edge research, simply become a new marketing tool for the “same old” MOOCs. Because right now, most MOOCs are still at level 1 on Scharmer’s chart and not even on levels 2 or 3:

“MOOCs 1.0 use level 1 conversation: downloading, in which one person talks and everyone else listens.

“MOOCs 2.0 are anchored in level 2 conversation: discussion, a two-way interaction in which the learner reproduces content and solves problems according to the teacher’s pre-defined solution (aka the “egg-hunting” pedagogy: hunting for eggs that the teacher has planted).

“MOOCs 3.0 are anchored in level 3 conversation: dialogue, a multilateral, self-reflective interaction that allows learners to see a situation through the eyes of others. Shifting level 2 to level 3 conversations is a key capacity in user-centered innovation, such as design thinking and empathic design.”


4 thoughts on “MOOCs 4.0: Clearing the Way for Huckster 4.0?

  1. Pingback: Just Soft Machines | The Academe Blog

  2. Pingback: Just Soft Machines | The Academe Blog

  3. Pingback: More MOOCs, More… What? | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.