The Big Idea: Community Open Online Courses

What is learning? This is the question I have been exploring through the development of Community Open Online Courses (COOCs), where anyone and everyone can contribute to the curriculum and decide how and what they want to learn. Initially, answering this question from an institutional perspective, seemed easy enough to do – there are a plethora of accreditation routes, standardisation measures and statistics that can be used as evidence. But, we all know that the structure of formal education can leave people as diminished by their experiences as it does enriched.


What COOCs hopes to do is explore a wider concern of learning as it is felt, experienced and practiced beyond institutions. We want to consider the ways in which people come to learning through curiosity, enthusiasm for a subject and a desire for personal growth. The ethos of COOCs begins with the idea that learning is internally motivated but enriched by sharing that inner drive.


In part, COOCs emerged as a response to online communities and how they could be shaped around shared interests. The initial idea was to take the model of the MOOCs but alleviate the need for a massive response and recognise the impact of small-scale learning and communities being formed around ideals rather than geography. COOCs hopes to become a space to encourage exchange and practice by anyone, with anyone, and about anything.


Although I’m a Lecturer myself, COOCs had to be non-institutional so that choices around learning were made by the communities and the course creators themselves. Our attitude is not anti-expert, but we appreciate and celebrate that expertise can be found in many locations and that being amateur, can be a good thing.


Teaching from a range of starting points can encourage self-development, and generating communities of learning based on enthusiasm will allow for a revitalised approach to education based on openness and choice, and resistant to hierarchies and gatekeepers.



Initially, the idea of COOCs began as a website and a professional web developer was hired. This step was perhaps against the ethos of DIY learning and teaching and it proved a difficult experience. The continued failure of the website to meet our needs, meant that although 200 people had registered, the experience was less than positive for almost all.


It was clear that there was interest in the concept and people were keen to use COOCs for a wide range of teaching/learning, but the technology and access to resources threatened to scupper our plans.



RSA and Catalyst via Ragged University

It was at this point that we met Alex Dunedin, an RSA Fellow and founder of the Ragged University. This proved to be something of a revelation, and I was immediately aware that far from being an isolated and doomed approach, self-generated learning was something that the Ragged University was interested in and was making work.


Alex explored Catalyst Funding possibilities at the RSA and we were awarded £2,000 to develop the website. We were then able to work with an excellent web developer who worked largely for free to recreate COOCs using Moodle as the course creation template. We have now had six weeks of the new website and the number of courses is growing. Thankfully, many of those disillusioned by the earlier technical concerns have returned with renewed enthusiasm.


The COOC Builders

The range of COOCs is potentially, vast. Courses are emerging based on spontaneous issues that are ephemeral but significant at a particular time; the free, open and responsive nature of COOCS makes it possible to create and share almost immediately.


A growing discussion with groups that see themselves excluded by the approaches used in formal education is poignant. The mental health courses in evidence come from groups that experience issues personally and want a course that is as much supportive and human, as it is dedicated to policy and medical process.


Artists, and particularly educators from arts based subjects, are also looking to develop COOCs as a space that prioritises the creative process over their professional experiences that are driven by product and assessment. Further courses on racism, philosophy and creative processes are in the early stages but highlight the diversity that can emerge.


How can Fellows help?

The RSA Fellowship is perhaps one of the finest examples of what can happen when institutional barriers are removed and people can come together based on their own passions and interests. We would encourage Fellows to create courses and where projects are being developed, consider using COOCs as one way they can disseminate the learning and teaching inherent in their work.


We encourage freedom in how the courses are created and shaped and what they include. All support is welcomed and we hope that COOCs can become a strong alternative to the discourse on what learning is and give everyone an opportunity to answer this in their own way.

If you’d like to know more please do get in touch with me: [email protected]



This was originally posted on the Royal Society of Arts website after the support of the RSA was extended to Peter’s vision via the catalyst grant. The RSA has a long tradition of supporting projects and initiatives which open up possibilities and enrich culture at large. Community Open Online Courses is open to everyone, and gives us all a valuable opportunity to learn through teaching and share our knowledge, it represents an important tool to help create a 21st century enlightenment: