Massively Multiplayer Online—Learning?

Massively Multiplayer Online—Learning?
aka, Are social networks disrupting models of education?

I spoke recently at a panel on Rebooting the University: Disruptions in Models of Learning.[1] In preparing my presentation, I found myself thinking about the topic of the panel. Are there new “models of learning”? The brain hasn’t changed all that much, has it?

The real disruption is not in models but modes of learning. Let me explain. Students today care about their education, perhaps more so than ever. In fact, 4 out of 5 students stress about their grades.[2] Yet class attendance is down. The more technology is used, the less likely students are to attend.[3] After all, why sit in a one-hour lecture when one can download the powerpoint and skim it the night before the exam? 60% of students find lectures “boring” and powerpoint “sleep inducing”.[4]

Students aren’t reading their textbooks either.[5] That’s an easy problem, you say—this is the digital generation, let’s digitize their books. Surely textbooks will be more accessible (and affordable) on their laptops, their Kindles, their iPhones? It turns out 60% of students read less when using e-textbooks instead of physical textbooks.[6] 600-page PDFs do not make the grade with today’s youngsters. Frankly, I can’t read 600-page PDFs either.

The problem starts well before the university. In the recent Silent Epidemic study[7] funded by the Gates Foundation, 47% of high school dropouts said a major reason for dropping out was that “classes were not interesting” and they were “bored”. Remarkably, 88% of dropouts had passing grades. These kids are not failing out of school; they are simply disengaging.

But wait, you say. Students are bored, they don’t go to class, they don’t read their textbooks—how in the world do they learn enough to get passing grades? That’s where modes of learning come in. Students do learn—but from Wikipedia, nearly 80% of them.[8] They learn from MIT’s OpenCourseware—50 million and counting[9], over 200 thousand visitors a month. That is a lot of engagement. And most significantly, they learn from their peers. 55% of teenagers report using IM to discuss homeworks—a larger percentage than dating.[10] Students are studying, but the web is their classroom.

But wait, you say again. Universities offer more than knowledge delivery; they offer community. As George Siemens says of Open Yale, “Great video and talented presenters. My only complaint: I’d like to interact with others who are viewing the resources. Creating a one-way flow of information significantly misses the point of interacting online.”[11] Don’t universities provide this interaction? Isn’t that their value?

Students do need community. But let’s look at where their communities are. 95% of college students are spending up to 10 hours a week in social networks[12]—blogging, updating their profiles, trading pictures, and—yes—talking about schoolwork. “With so many hunched over their laptops and cell phones”, as Preetha Ram says, “who is left on the college quad?”[13]

The college quad. The very phrase conjures up images of the walled gardens of academia, laced with ivy, filled with knowledge, brimming with students eager to absorb that knowledge. But, as my former student Chris Sprague puts it, today’s students are casting a wider net. The web is their classroom, Facebook is their community, the world is their study group. The days of walled gardens are over. That is the true disruption.

Modes of learning have changed. George Siemens talks about connectivism—the new mode learning in the digital age.[14] The university is no longer a walled garden; it is a hub that connects students to the world around them. It is open. Not just in the sense of free video lectures; rather, the community (which, after all, is the real value of the university) is open.

My colleagues and I have been building an online community called OpenStudy.[15] Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Georgia Research Alliance, OpenStudy is a kind of Facebook for learning. A place where students come, not to trade pictures and jokes, but to study. A place that connects them to other students in their university, to students in other universities, so they can study together.

We’ve seen this disruption in other areas. People collaborate online to create everything from music[16] to software[17]. Is creating knowledge any different?[18] As Rich DeMillo says, “social networks are well adapted to producing value in higher education.  The hubs and spokes of social networks reflect the long-tail effects that influencers have on learning.”[19]

I do research on games[20] and collaborative learning[21]. Anyone with a teenager at home knows how engaging massively multiplayer online games can be.[22] Stephen Downes and George Siemens are experimenting with massively multiplayer online courses.[23] OpenStudy can be thought of as a kind of massively multiplayer online learning—a world wide “guild” (if I may borrow a gaming term) of students interacting, helping, collaborating, studying together. A place for “user generated learning”, if you will.

Students get this. The world is their social graph, their gaming guild, and now, their study group. Student response to OpenStudy has been very positive. University response has also been positive, but many want to know if they can create a private network for their students. A closed network. AKA a walled garden. Universities still don’t get it.

The topic of the panel is Rebooting the University. My point is simple. The university is no longer a closed system, located in a tiny land-grant town a hundred miles from civilization. The days of isolation are over.[24] The university must be a hub for students to explore the world, expand their horizons, reach out to others. Students are doing this anyway, and if universities won’t adapt[25], students will do it without them.

[1] B Konsynski (2010), Knowledge Futures.

[2] SJ Cech (2008), Poll of U.S. teens finds heavier homework load, more stress over grades, Education Week.

[3] Personally, I have abandoned technology in favor of the good old whiteboard. It is more work than flipping through powerpoints, but (speaking purely anecdotally) attendance is up, students are more engaged, grades have improved. And students seem to like it—I get more Thank A Teacher awards now J.

[4] S Mann (2009), Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring?, The Guardian.

[5] Clump, Bauer & Bradley, 2004; Burchfield & Sapington, 2000; Murden & Gillepsie, 1997; McCabe, 2003.

[6] JT Rickman, J Von Holzen,  PG Klute, & T Tobin (2009), A campus-wide e-textbook initiative, EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 32(2).

[7] JM Bridgeland, JJ Dilulio Jr, KB Morrison (2006), The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.

[8] MH Miller (2010). Students use Wikipedia early and often, The Chronicle: Wired Campus.

[9] MIT OpenCourseWare marks 50 million visitors, The Boston Globe: Business News, 2008.

[10] 2007 AP-AOL Instant Messaging Trends Survey, reported in:

[11] G Siemens (2007). Open Yale.

[12] National School Board Association (2008). Creating and Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social—and Educational—Networking.

[13] P Ram (2009). An Empty College Quad?

[14] G Siemens (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. eLearnSpace.


[16],, and others

[17],, and many others

[18] D Wiley. Open source, openness, and higher education. Innovate Journal of Online Education.

[19] RA DeMillo (2011). Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities in the Twenty-First Century, MIT Press, in press.



[22] Actually, the average age of gamers is 35 [ESA 2009:] so this holds for adults too. This is good; universities will need to engage adults too as they begin to address lifelong learning seriously.

[23] Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs):

[24] It is no surprise to me that student-voted “best college towns” are no longer Ann Arbor and College Park, but places like Georgetown and our very own Emory [Princeton Review]. The campus town isn’t Emory Village, it is Atlanta, it is Washington DC, it is Greenwich Village. Students today are indeed casting a wider net, in more ways than one.

[25] Rich DeMillo (ibid.) describes one such vision: open courseware, hacked degrees, no brick walls, and above all an increased emphasis on access and a de-emphasis on selectivity and exclusion.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Very well done. I agree with your viewpoints pretty thoroughly.


  2. Very interesting & thought provoking post. To close the skills gap we need to change the way people learn


  3. Amazing post! Learning and education are becoming more social because of factors like digital revolution! Some interesting insights on ‘Digital Textbooks’, for example, here:–-a-five-year-projection/


  4. Very interesting article, the title alone really captured my attention. And the fact that college students spend most of their time on social networks solidifies the importance of taking advantage of social networking for educational purposes.


  5. Posted by Paul Gowan on June 11, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Greetings Dr. Ram!
    It’s nice to know that there are Professors that understand this. Dr. Roger Schank ( ) mentioned this kind of thing in the mid 1980’s in his book ‘The Cognitive Computer: On Language, Learning and Artificial Intelligence’ and has been moving forward on this ever since then. In ‘Education Automation’ Dr. Buckminster Fuller advised a University planning committee to get the equipment to make documentaries that any child could call up on a network when they wanted to know something. Dr. David Hestenes has been working on educational reform in Physics fsince at least the 1970’s and can attest to the large resistance to change.
    The one point many Professors and Teachers just can’t seem to understand, and that Dr. Schank points out, is that the old paradigm of lectures needs to be abandoned in favour of interdisciplinary collaborative faculty production of interactive multimedia simulations that immerse the student in doing something rather than sitting in a lecture hall passively absorbing a lot of information that will never be used after the exam. This point regarding operacy vs. scholarship is even made by Dr. Edward de Bono regarding Universities (“The Universities are out of date!)”.

    If we should ever meet in Second Life, would you like to Mx4rvVjrZ5wpEbGdrcN5Y29ycA ?

    Unique ID: [ Mx4rwJRiEpwpEbGdrcN5Y29ycA ]
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  6. the title of the article is great and it hooked me to read the post… i agree with everyone that the points are thoroughly discussed..


  7. Hi,
    Thanks for sharing such a nice information with us.i really like your information which you have provided.


  8. Posted by profhanley on January 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    I’m going to check out OpenStudy now . . . your vision of the university as “hub” and of providing students with platforms for massively multiplayer online studying is brilliant!


  9. Posted by Janet on January 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Great post – great information. How do we get buy-in from the masses?


  10. Posted by cognitivecomputing on January 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Students are buying in. Top cities on @OpenStudy: Delhi/New Delhi, Atlanta, Mumbai, New York, Seoul, Giza/Cairo, Istanbul, Seattle, Mexico City, Chicago, Lagos, Bangalore, Jakarta, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Taipei, Lima (in that order).

    And universities are buying in:MIT, Yale, NYU, Michigan, UC Irvine, Emory, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, …

    But I’m not sure faculty are bought in yet. (1) students can collaborate on assignments? how will we assign grades? (2) students can get help from anyone? won’t they cheat? (3) anyone can join my course group and interact with my students? (4) students can learn from each other? how will we know the information is correct? (5) students can use open lectures? won’t they stop coming to class?

    Faculty who’ve tried it find that these issues aren’t a real problem in practice. But there is understandable reluctance to change the old ways of doing things.

    Like with music, news, or movies, the change is happening, with or without us. Are we going to be part of it?


  11. spot on:
    These kids are not failing out of school; they are simply disengaging.


  12. I like the helpful information you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your weblog and check again here regularly. I am quite certain I will learn a lot of new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!


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