The idea of the ‘massive’ has been at the heart of some of the most disruptive and transformative debates in Higher Education, dating back to the growth of the large scale lecture and the era of mass education right through to more recently, where the massive has been one of the movable concepts within the MOOC acronym. In many ways, the massive has been the least understood and explored idea within revolutionary or hyperbolic discourse around MOOCs.

What happens when the massive is more than just a measure of scale or numbers of students? What kind of learning emerges where the massive stops being a community of individual learners, and becomes a learning community, drawing on the power of the collective and the crowd to solve problems, engage in civic debate or write a constitution? How do you surf the sometimes chaotic, informal, unpredictable and unstructured interactions, conversations and debates that occur within a crowd to deliver a collective solution to an intractable problem? Can the massive transform the ways we undertake and promote civic engagement in a digital age? What does on-line learning and teaching look like in the crowd?

In January 2015, the London School of Economics and Political Science (UK) launched an innovative civic engagement project, which aimed to crowd source the United Kingdom Constitution. One of the key intentions of the project was to leverage and magnify the power of the community and the ‘massive’ in order to empower participants to engage in debate, identify solutions and come to a common agreement about the need for and the content of a UK Constitution. Involving over 1500 participants and generating tens of thousands of on-line interactions that increased as opposed to decreased over the 14 week duration of the ‘course’, Crowd Sourcing the UK Constitution challenged some of the dominant paradigms of Massive Open On-line Learning. This project was short-listed for the prestigious Wharton-QS Stars Reimagine Education Awards in 2015.

By creating a pedagogical model that integrated discontinuous engagement, informal learner-centred learning and drew on the principles of participatory democracy and digital citizenship to facilitate learning through doing, we aimed to empower participants to make and participate in change as part of a ‘massive’ crowd. The innovative model of engagement and participatory online learning challenged the structured assumptions of many MOOC pedagogies and designs. The approach was built on the potential that exists in leveraging and magnifying the power of the community and the ‘massive’ through social media, in order to empower citizens to engage in debate and apply their learning in order to identify solutions to what may be intractable, impossible or controversial problems or challenges. The design model drew on the application of a number of conceptual frameworks such as peer learning (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007, 2010), incidental learning (Marsick & Watkins, 2001), digital pedagogies (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007; Siemens, 2005), crowd learning and ideation (Wexler, 2011) to a higher education informed online environment. It also integrated aspects of participatory practices such as hacktivism, making and digital citizenship which allowed the project to explore the notion of learning as incidental, tacit and exploratory. There were no readings, there was no ‘course’, no lectures, no explicit theories, just a series of challenges, a semi-gamified process of engagement and a framework to create, motivate and empower the community to make something based on what they knew and had learnt. There was no teacher or lecturer. There was no specific sequence of learning or activity, although because the ‘course’ was delivered through the London School of Economics there were very real expectations by participants of learning at a higher level.

The project was informed by the assumption that learning can occur through a variety of informal and formal methods, supported by both peer and academic engagement, but not privileged by either, effectively flipping the role of the academic and academy (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009; Greenhow, Robelia, & Hughes, 2009). Many of the practices of civic engagement, societal capacity development, information search, participation, action and social change that occurred within the platform and on other social media facilitated the creation of publicly visible ‘educational situations’ within an emerging and often agile democratic dialogue (Andersson & Olson, 2014; Linders, 2012). This occurred at non-sequential points within the project, as new users entered, old users bounced in and out and the community embraced and rejected opinion and thought leaders that arose from within the community itself.

Some key findings

Our intention was to encourage participants to bring to the project (and not be bound or prejudiced by) a wide variety of schema, learning trajectories and experiences. Participants were involved in developing and structuring their own learning (or lack thereof). They chose when to engage and when to withdraw, and most interestingly, when to return. Participation was not a linear process within the platform. Participants chose to ‘dip in and out’ of the project at a variety of different stages, with some returning for voting or for refining to defend or promote their ideas and other orphaning their own ideas to engage with others. The project experienced a significant boost in participation when voting was introduced as a priority task in the final weeks. These humps of participation run counter to the statistical experiences of most MOOCs that have a large drop off between registration and commencement of the course, then a progressive decline in engagement as each week progresses (Kizilcec, Piech, & Schneider, 2013; Ross, Sinclair, Knox, Bayne, & Macleod, 2014). This project experienced the exact opposite with numbers progressively increasing over the course of the platform being open, including a huge bump in the last two weeks (over 30% of participants joined the project in this time). There was no penalty for joining late, although there was a task attached (the sheer volume of contributions and the breadth of the debates) which for some was simply too big (around 15% dropped out for this reason). The discontinuity allowed participants the opportunity to enter assuming that the answers or solutions had not already been found and if they had been already offered, they were presented with an opportunity to challenge, support or edit them.

Participants entered the project with clear expectations of learning. We found that approximately 80% of participants stated that they had ‘gained new knowledge’ and 70% stated that they ‘gained new skills’. What was most interesting in the context of leveraging the massive was that 88% of participants were influenced by community discussions and 50% of participants stated that working with others directly contributed towards their learning experience. Whilst many of these figures support the efficacy of collaborative on-line learning, it was interesting to note that 50% of participants changed their mind about civic engagement through the participation in the community.

Conferences and papers

We have presented some of the evaluation at a number of international and national conferences throughout 2015. Below is a selection of the abstracts and full papers.

Bryant, Peter (2015) Disrupting how we ‘do’ on-line learning through social media: a case study of the crowdsourcing the UK constitution project. In: 14th European Conference on e-Learning, 29-30 October 2015 , University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield

Bryant, Peter and Fryer, Christopher and Moon, Darren (2015) Stop making sense: learning, community, digital citizenship and the massive in a post-MOOC world. In: ALT-C: The Association for Learning Technology Conference, 8 -10 September 2015, Manchester, UK

Bryant, Peter and Fryer, Christopher and Moon, Darren (2015) Harnessing the power of the ‘Massive’: an innovative approach to participation, digital citizenship and open learning on-line. In: Learning with MOOCS II, 2-3 October 2015, New York, USA

Bryant, Peter and Fryer, Christopher and Moon, Darren (2015), More meaningfully massive? Attempting an innovative, post-MOOC pedagogy. In: OEB 2015, 2-4 December 2015, Berlin, Germany

Bryant, P., Fryer, C., & Moon, D. (2015). Stop making sense: Learning, community, digital citizenship and the massive in a post-MOOC world. Paper presented at the ALT-C: The Association for Learning Technology Conference, University of Manchester, UK. 8-10 September.