Hogwarts is Here! – MOOC from Other Worlds

hogwarts-castle

Tomorrow morning, I plan to record an interview with Russell Beale, one of the people behind the MOOC provider FutureLearn, a platform launched by Britain’s venerable Open University (the world’s oldest and still largest distance-education institution).

A quick scan of their site demonstrates the success FutureLearn has had drawing in well-known British institutions such as Kings College and The University of Edinburgh. But England’s most famous school has recently decided to break out on its own with a new MOOC (or series of MOOCs) travelling under the banner of Hogwarts is Here (HIH).

The online school of witchcraft and wizardry opened its electronic doors last month and, to the surprise of no one involved with either MOOCs or Harry Potter culture, enrollments climbed into the five figures almost immediately.

I’m leaving it to my eleven-year-old to put himself through the course material, rather than kicking off a new overwrought personal learning project. But from what I can tell the online courses HIH offers in familiar subjects like Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts are primarily text based (unlike most MOOCs which have standardized on video-based lessons). That said, it looks like assessment (in the form of essays required for each course) are graded by instructor-volunteers, rather than peers or servers, which actually puts the online version of Hogwarts ahead of competitors teaching subjects bound by the world of boring old reality.

The launch of HIH triggered some interesting commentary by people looking at it from the perspective of fan culture, with a few folks “Snaping” over the educational value of a program that asks students to put hours into studying and writing about subjects that are, well, fictional. But given my fondness for thinking about all manner of free learning in the context of a developing culture of educational experimentation, I’d like to spend a few moments pondering what the academics and entrepreneurs driving the still-vibrant MOOC movement might learn from oddball projects like Hogwarts is Here.

First off, the fact that Hogwarts managed to recruit enough house elves to ensure everyone’s electronic parchments are human scored means the HIH team has scratched one more thing off the list of “things that can’t be done” in a massive learning environment. That said, the fact that grading is largely being performed by volunteer Potterheads with passion and time on their hands means it’s safe to say that most of them are not working with validated scoring rubrics or have training in how to minimize inter-rater reliability.

But having said that, none of the scoring rubrics I used for evaluating my fellow students on peer-graded assignments last year seemed like tools a professional test developer had a hand in creating. And at least the HIH scorers have something in common (passion and dweebiness) vs. the diverse set of essay writers and peer graders I encountered during my One Year BA (many of whom had not mastered English, much less professional testing principles).

I was also intrigued by how HIH fuses the notion of a MOOC with massive online gaming. For, in addition to taking courses, an online Hogwarts student gets to be sorted into a school, join clubs, even collect Chocolate Frog training cards. And as the world the people behind this project are building continues to expand, I anticipate Quidditch, sneaking out to Hogsmeade and skulking around school corridors after hours are all just some volunteer programming hours away.

Think of this aspect of HIH is the context of not just MOOCs but of all online learning methods that have tried to leverage gaming to create fun and creative educational experiences. One of the problems with educational games, no matter how thoughtful and imaginative they are, is that kids playing them can’t help but make comparisons with products like Halo or Grand Theft Auto, blockbuster titles with development budgets that rival feature films. But the playfulness within Hogwarts is Here derives from immersing a student into a world that has already captured their imagination. So even text-based games (which most graphic-obsessed game designers eschew) are likely to captivate HIH students who first encountered the world they are joining through the medium of text (i.e., seven of the best-selling books of all time).

Now I don’t expect the teaching team behind The Ancient Greek Hero, a popular (and personal favorite) MOOC from HarvardX to swap their civilian clothes for bronze armor in order to create an “immersive environment” that doesn’t fit the culture of Harvard or the personality of the instructors. But there’s no reason why a bit of HIH-style playfulness can’t inform one or more writing assignments (which the course currently lacks) that might require asking students to enter the world of the Iliad and Odyssey, rather than just talk about it. And if manpower for grading is a problem, there are those 4000+ students who liked Greek Hero so much the first time they took it again who might be up for contributing some grading time, giving professors options other than AI or peer-grading when it comes to scoring written material at scale.

One of the things that made the Harry Potter series so successful was the way the author riffed on a familiar British fantasy-literature trope which has a magical world operating alongside our own, one which the British are too stiff-upper-lipped to be phased by (think Peter Pan or Mary Poppins). But for anyone involved with creating MOOCs (or other forms of online learning), I hope that the light-heartedness of Hogwarts is Here doesn’t lead them to miss some educational magic that might be surprisingly close at hand.

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