Some healthy scepticism about ‘Citizen Engagement’ (and why I’m excited about MOOCs)

MOOCs are taking over. If you aren’t yet excited about Massive Open Online Courses, you should be. When I was first getting MOOC logointerested in development the only way to bridge the gap between reading the news and coughing up squllions for a Masters was to cycle through the rain every Tuesday evening to London’s City Literary Institute to sit at the feet of Jenny Pearce and her course on Latin America (I ended up taking over from her, and writing a book based on the course). These days I could stay warm and dry, and listen online to development gurus from around the world. The numbers signing up are colossal – Jeff Sachs reportedly has 14 million students for his MOOC on sustainable development.

As often happens, the initial surge came in the US, but it’s crossing the Atlantic. Last week I spoke at the LSE at the launch of a MOOC on ‘citizen engagement’, put together by the World Bank, LSE, IDS, ODI, Harvard and Civicus (a sort of crowd-sourced MOOC – even more funky). We spoke a few days after the MOOC went live, by which time 14,000 people had signed up from all over the world.

mooc-cartoonThe discussion was pretty good and although no-one was against citizen engagement (CE), they were strikingly sceptical about the hype around it – no-one is drinking the participation-will-solve-everything koolaid any more. Some snapshots:

Everyone stole my lines on power, politics and conflict being an essential part of change and transitions to accountability. Linked to that was a clear distinction between using CE as a means of paradigm maintenance and ‘and enabling people to rock the boat’. Owen Barder warned that ‘we need to be careful with the idea that removing confrontation is a desirable outcome’. Duncan Edwards of IDS quoted Andrea Cornwall and John Gaventa’s great call for a move ‘From users and choosers to makers and shapers’ (here’s his take on the meeting).

Healthy scepticism on the impact of donors on CE: the risks of ‘death by consultation’ that changes nothing, ‘facipulation’ and creating Astroturf organizations (they look like grassroots, but are actually synthetic creations hoovering up aid dollars).

The dreaded ‘toolkit temptation’ whereby perfectly good, innovative and adaptive ideas are reduced to one more box to tick.

Vanessa Herringshaw of Transparency and Accountability Initiative pointed to the hypocrisy of dozens of governments that mouth the platitudes on engaging citizens, while at the same time cracking down on civil society space.

There was a healthy degree of scepticism about the game-changing potential of IT, not least because its use is often individualised rather than collective – can it be turned round to promote ‘connective action’ that brings people together and builds ‘power with’?

Some wise words on the dangers of CE fundamentalism: ‘It would be catastrophic if every form of engagement led to an say MOOC one more timeoutcome’ (Fredrik Galtung of Integrity Action). ‘The purpose of government is to reconcile competing interests. They make people do things that they don’t want to do for some greater good.  The goal of CE is not to ensure that everyone gets what they want all the time, but to change the power relationship to some fairer form of reconciliation of competing claims.’ (Owen Barder at his magisterial best).

Beware short cuts: Owen Barder again (he stole the show a bit): ‘Social contracts cannot be brought about by a series of fixes (CE, but also reforms to tax, property rights, democracy, legal system). They emerge from the evolution of institutions, and that can’t be bypassed or short cut. Our role (as outsiders, aid agencies etc) is to accelerate evolution, thinking less like Dr Frankenstein sticking body parts together, and more like a plant breeder speeding up the variation, selection and amplification of new strains (presume he was referring to traditional plant breeding, rather than GM…..).

Voice is not the same as accountability: one speaker memorably argued that China has lots of accountability and no voice; India the opposite.

As for the MOOC, I would love to hear from anyone taking it. One interesting aspect of now being on staff at the LSE is that I get to see some of the tensions between Open Access and traditional academic culture – a spirited internal email exchange about whether MOOCs will undermine academic standards and more practically, a refusal from the techies to webstream the launch event because they hadn’t got sufficient layers of sign off. Quite funny really.

And at Oxfam we are busily discussing a MOOC to accompany the How Change Happens book, but I think it could go much wider than that. We’re sitting on a pile of internal training materials that would be relatively painless to turn into MOOCs – Oxfam University anyone?

If you’re an acronym junkie, MOOC is just the start. There are fee-charging  SPOCs (small private online courses) and (I learned at the event) even SNOCs (small network online courses). I think at this point you can just start making them up and see if they stick.

And here’s a 3m video ad for the course (if you don’t want to join it because it’s already started, don’t worry, there’ll be another one along in a few months)

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8 Responses to “Some healthy scepticism about ‘Citizen Engagement’ (and why I’m excited about MOOCs)”
  1. Edward Kellow

    Hi Duncan,

    Sounds like a great launch event. I am convinced that universities can either choose either to embrace MOOCs or become bit-players in the global education market. The more academics protest, the more I am confident about this!

    Best Regards, Edward

  2. Heather Marquette

    I think that one of the things that universities are concerned about is that MOOCs reduce higher education down to a very transactional understanding of what education is about. Here’s some key reading, here’s a video, here’s some concepts, and off you go. They’re great for CPD, and they’re great for ‘tasters’, but beyond that they lack the transformational potential that a good university experience gives people. People largely interact with MOOCs in a passive way, by necessity, and no one really gets challenged. My best professors changed my life, challenging me, questioning me, forcing me to defend my positions. I wouldn’t be where I am and who I am today if it wasn’t for them, and the same goes for my fellow students who did the same. And I hope, from what some of my own students have said to me, that I’m able to do the same for my own students now.
    DLP’s research on higher education and developmental leadership suggests that quality higher education that develops critical skills, creates space for debate and challenge, inculcates norms and values and so on is invaluable in the shaping of developmental leaderships (see for example). This happens in the classroom, but it also happens a lot outside the classroom, through participation in debating societies, university politics, study groups, social movements and activism and so on. It doesn’t happen in MOOCs. And, it has to be said, it also doesn’t happen in poor higher education environments where students are crammed into overstuffed lecture halls with tired and indifferent staff, probably on insecure contracts or not being paid at all, and with little or no support for extracurricular activities.
    So MOOCs are great for what they do, but there’s a lot of important things they don’t do that have very little to do with the global education ‘market’. Transactional change, always a possibility, but transformational change…unlikely.

  3. Heather Marquette

    And, it has to be said, if I were a political leader with an authoritarian bent, I’d love the thought of students sitting on their own in their bedrooms reading off a screen, rather than agitating and demanding political change through collective action on campus. Maybe they’d be able to organise together online and agitate collectively through social media, but MOOCs would need to be designed in a way that created the space for this to happen. Can they? A great research question… This looks like a starting point –
    Of course, if it ever happened, all the political leader would have to do to disrupt it is shut down the internet…

  4. Chris Alford

    Bit of a MOOC junkie here – I´ve found myself pretty much constantly enrolled in different courses over the past 18 months or so. I think they´re a fantastic tool to advance education in general and development knowledge / education in particular. A particular MOOC highlight for me was studying international human rights law with none other than Olivier de Schutter last year.

    It´s been a bit frustrating to see how slow the development sector has been on the uptake though – just have a quick flick through the course listings on Coursera or Edx and compare the number of development-specific courses on offer to the number of courses on the environment, computer science, business management, education or healthcare and you can quickly get an idea of how far behind the development sector is trailing on this front. Instead, it still seems to be fixated on sticking to the conventional strategy of knowledge dissemination by publishing endless papers, reports and guides that barely anyone reads. Hosting a MOOC is such a superior way to spread new knowledge (the fact that Jeffrey Sachs has 14 million people (!) take his course says it all really and should serve as a wake-up call to more people in the development sector to up their game and start investing more time and resources into this learning potential).

    I´m currently enrolled in this Citizen Engagement course and am enjoying it so far – they´ve really put together quite a powerhouse of speakers for their videos! It definitely needs some improvement on the course design front through (e.g. the forums aren´t very active or interesting at the moment, the quizzes are rather pointless and it´s currently only available in English), but that´s to be expected for the first run of any course. It would also be nice to see the course expanded a bit more as well – citizen engagement is such a huge topic that you can only really scape the surface of it in 4 weeks!

    Very excited to hear you are putting together a MOOC on How Change Happens Duncan. Keep us updated and if you want some input into design ideas drop me an email – I´ve taken quite a few MOOCs now so have had exposure to the many different techniques that course providers have used to make their courses more (or less!) engaging.

  5. Peter Bryant

    Thanks for the blog post. One of the key things MOOCs have struggled with in my opinion is the Massive bit. MOOCs in general have squandered the Massive. They have used numbers as a measure of success or to benchmark engagement of individuals in the process of delivery. And most of empirical data points to the ‘massive’ decreasing in size each week of delivery to small proportions of their initial ground breaking size (90-95% attrition is common)

    Working with the Institute for Public Affairs at the LSE, Learning Technology and Innovation (a group at the LSE that collaborates with departments to innovate teaching and learning with technology) have sought to create a community from the ‘massive’ and leverage that community in order to facilitate action, problem solving and learning. Since January, we have been running ‘Crowd Sourcing the UK Constitution’ ( which is a 4 month long project designed to bring people together from diverse backgrounds, address a specific problem of national concern (drafting a UK Constitution), while benefiting from inter-disciplinarity, 21st century skills, such as: digital citizenship, advocacy, policy development and civic engagement and leveraging the power of the massive to make connections, establish networks and create and apply knowledge in innovative and different ways. This community has been extremely engaged generating over 600 ideas, thousands of comments and votes and will deliver a crowd sourced constitution on April 22nd.

    It would be great to share our experiences from both projects. We see great potential in social learning at scale, especially in the area of digital citizenship. Using non-traditional methods of engagement, innovative pathways and approaches to learning design, and understanding the powers, risks and privileges of social media to construct learning and knowledge in different ways we feel we have started to see the potentials of a next generation of on-line learning

  6. Ravi Murugesan

    I completed an edX MOOC in public health and it was possibly the best university course I’ve taken. The 85% who didn’t complete the course might not share my view though! Although I wrote a series of blog posts on MOOCs and educational development (, I’m ultimately a bit ambivalent about MOOCs. MOOCs are not open in the sense of open licensing. They’re a lot about knowledge transfer – teacher to student. But wait, isn’t that what happens commonly at universities? I never had a teacher at university who really cared about what I thought, or – more outlandishly – tried to learn from me! I’ve studied at major universities in India and the US, and living in India now I can see that I’ve had a privileged education. Yet I’m not one of those who claim to have been molded and shaped by my teachers. Maybe it’s because I studied engineering – I had to interact more with technology than with humans! Still, when I think of those who’ve had an even greater privilege than I had – studying in better universities or under better teachers – I have to ask, could we all be something like 1% of the world’s population? How soon are the others going to catch up? Are traditional universities going to help them or MOOCs? I don’t know.

    What I do know is that online courses can facilitate collaborative learning within a supportive environment. At INASP, an international development charity where I work (though I’m posting this in a personal capacity), we regularly offer online courses to researchers and librarians in developing countries. Last year we offered an online course to a group of 250+ researchers, and there was just 1 facilitator. The learners worked in peer activities and gave structured feedback on others’ work. Nearly 70% of the people completed the course and most of them demonstrated improved knowledge of key concepts in research communication. About 80% of them said that they believed online courses can be as good as or better than face-to-face courses as a result of their experience.

    Most of our online courses though are for smaller audiences – 30 to 50 people. In these the facilitator attends to every course participant and even follows up with people falling behind, and may directly evaluate the learners’ work.

    We don’t use videos in our courses because many of our learners in developing countries have low-bandwidth or unstable connections. But that doesn’t mean our courses are made up of PDF files – actually there’s no PDF file at all. We use an e-learning authoring tool to develop interactive content. And content is only a small part of our courses – it’s really more about the activities and discussions.

    MOOCs are just one kind of online course, and I think what happens in the world of MOOCs is not representative of the strengths, weaknesses, or potential of online learning. I worry that MOOCs have become a buzzword for online learning, like Big Data has possibly become for data. Data, online courses – meh. Big Data, MOOCs – wow!

    An online course can be unique and inspiring, just as a teacher can be.

  7. mary morgan

    MOOCS does have tremendous application for learning- i would say for learners that are self directed. What worries me is that some think that MOOCS can be used for capacity building. The MOOCS course i took offered lots of resources and reading and it was sequenced well but there was no engagement with other students like what you Duncan have described above. Learning is about applying and engaging- otherwise we only access information. And i get concerned that people who have not had experience with self-directed learning, as many development workers in the field have not, will be expected to gain skills from a MOOCS course because it is free. In MOOCS there is no real assessment of knowledge gained, comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis of the material in the course. MOOCS is not a silver bullet- but it is definitely an opportunity to be exposed to ideas, experts and concepts.