MITx u.lab: Education As Activating Social Fields

Until last year, the number of students in my classes at MIT numbered 50 or so. Less than twelve months later, I have just completed my first class with 50,000 registered participants. They came from 185 countries, and together they co-generated:
• >400 prototype (action learning) initiatives
• >560 self-organized hubs in a vibrant global eco-system
• >1,000 self-organized coaching circles.

What explains the growth in group size from 50 to 50,000? It’s moving my class at MIT Sloan to the edX platform, making it a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

Designed to blend open access with deep learning, the u.lab was first launched in early 2015 with 26,000 registered participants. When we offered it for a second time, in September, we had 50,000 registered participants. According to the exit survey, 93% found their experience “inspiring” (60%) or “life changing” (33%); and 62% of those who came into the u.lab without any contemplative practice have one now.

Inverting the 21st-Century University

One-third of the participants had “life changing” experiences? How is that possible in a mere seven-week online course? The answer is: it’s not. The u.lab isn’t just an online course. It’s an o2o (online-to-offline) blended learning environment that provides participants with quality spaces for reflection, dialogue, and collaborative action.

From the perspective of the course co-facilitation team, the whole u.lab experience felt like a journey of profound personal, relational, and institutional inversion. To invert something means to turn it inside-out or outside-in. In the case of the u.lab, not only was the classroom experience inverted, but so was the conversation among learners and the learners’ cognitive experience. Unlike traditional classrooms, the u.lab is characterized by:

distributed organizing: opening up the classroom to many self-organized hubsaround the world;
generative dialogue: opening up the conversation from teacher-centric downloading to student-centric generative dialogue;
collective governance: opening up the institution to a global innovation context while cultivating spaces that help the system sense and see itself;
prototyping practices: opening up the learning modes through hands-on action learning methodologies;
self-transformation: opening up the deeper sources of human intelligence by activating the open mind, open heart, and open will.

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