Episode 6 – Fei Tang – putting the community in MOOC

Welcome to Episode 6 of the Technology in Human Services podcast!

In this episode, I’m speaking with Fei Tang, who helped create and run CultureLink’s very successful Massive Open Online Course/Community (MOOC).

If you’re not a familiar with MOOCs, Wikipedia defines it as “an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.” As you’ll hear from Fei, the idea of building community within the course was as important as sharing the curriculum to CultureLink.

Interestingly, the notion of community in massive open online courses isn’t new. In fact, it’s something Canadian researcher and open education proponent Stephen Downes has been an active proponent of.

To read up on the differences between a typical and a community MOOC, and why if you’re considering a MOOC, you should consider a “cMOOC,” read this article by Downes.

For some more details about CultureLink’s first MOOC, check out the infographic they created below the Shownotes.


  • CultureLink doesn’t just use MOOCs as an education tool, but also as a social engagement and community building tool.
  • They got into MOOCs to leverage the scale, openess and accessibility of online courses, as well as to build connections among newcomers.
  • They took work and content they already had and moved them into a new service channel. They weren’t trying to offer something they don’t have subject matter expertise in, or not part of their core services.
  • Creating online services has to be aligned with organization strategic goals. Anyone thinking about creating a MOOC needs to align the project with organization goals, service strengths and client trends. That means also defining success in those terms.
  • While the technology of hosting the MOOC was free, it’s not free to produce. There is still an allocation of human resources and much time to create a MOOC.
  • It’s still hard to get government funders to support MOOC development in human services. If you want to do something innovative, the funding source is not usually your typical government funders. Most innovative projects at CultureLink have been through seed grants from the private sector and foundations. You can build on that, to provide evidence to traditional funders to get their support, but they’re not necessarily the go-to funders for innovation. Yet.
  • The experiment means that CultureLink is looking at how MOOC innovation can be built into their service delivery. With a vulnerable clientele, most clients need one-on-one and service on a smaller scale. MOOCs are a good supplement to existing services, but won’t replace the existing work, which is still personal and individualized.
  • Technology is already incorporated into our every day service delivery, with a focus on tech that clients are familiar with. For example, with Syrian refugees, staff have started using WhatsApp because clients are. They’re not using email. They rely on WhatsApp, as it has been a useful tool for them. It also allows clients to use voice messaging, for clients who aren’t literate in their own language. They’ve been able to use WhatsApp groups to connect and include many clients with one message.
  • MOOCs are also useful to be used as professional development tools for human service workers, across the country. Fei’s insight here builds on Dave Montague’s comments on professional development as a key tool for building online community among settlement workers.
  • You don’t have to be beholden to the structure of the technology you’re using, but seek to change it. For example, CultureLink proposed simple name changes to course actors, that their MOOC host has incorporated and made available to other educators. Innovation isn’t just about technology, but also about being responsive and adapting to the idea of change.
  • CultureLink is sharing what they’ve been doing and what they’ve learned. While human service organizations tend to be closed about their “turf”, Fei says that by sharing we can learn much more from each other, which can only help to make what she’s doing better, and hopefully influence others to be innovative as well.
    By sharing we don’t only build a community, but also create a pool of field knowledge that can benefit all human service workers.
  • CultureLink will be offering a “How to MOOC your social services” this year. You should definitely check it out! For now, here is a tip from Fei to get started in the right direction: think about what the problem you’re facing that can best be resolved by creating a MOOC. Or, what is the strength you’re so proud of that you want to broadcast, at scale, using a MOOC?
  • Simple ingredients for MOOC success: be passionate, be strategic, have the expertise to run the course/community.

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