Saturday, 13 April 2013

Activity 14: Thinking about MOOCs

[This post is for Activity 14 of the H817 Open Education course]

For this exercise, I had a look at four relatively well known MOOCs or MOOC platforms. The Change MOOC and DS106 were given as examples of cMOOCs, which are regarded as the ‘original’ MOOCs and are characterised by their connectivist approach. Then there was Coursera, an xMOOC platform which hosts courses offered by (at the time of writing) around 60 universities worldwide. Udacity was the other (x)MOOC provider offered up for comparison.

Here’s my attempt to aggregate, relate, create and share:

First of all, have a look at two excellent posts from fellow participants Inger-Marie Christensen and Sukaina Walji as, for me, they’ve done an excellent job of summarising the key technological, pedagogical and general/philosophical considerations when investigating the various MOOC types.

Instead of going over the same ground, I’ve decided to put down a few bullet points of what I consider to be key questions and issues for any comparison of so-called xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

Key issues:

One size does not fit all: There is little sense in comparing the various types of MOOC to say which is ‘better’. Anybody taking part in some kind of MOOC comes into it with their own expectations and needs. What works for one does not necessarily work for another.

The role of the 'Instructor': The contrast in the roles of the instructor in each type of MOOC is worth further exploration. The xMOOC seems to have more of a ‘Sage on the Stage’ approach, whereas those running the cMOOCs  would probably describe themselves as Facilitators (the Guide on the Side). These are very different roles, although I do not think it necessarily follows that the Guide role requires less time and input. It may be more difficult in many ways, as teachers/lecturers are less used to facilitating these types of distributed interactions (but ask them to create a powerpoint of a lecture to put up and it may take time, but they should be familiar with the task and technology).

Dropout rates: The focus on dropout rates does not tell the whole story.  As Anant Agrawal, head of edX pointed out, “while the rate of attrition may seem high, if you look at the number in absolute terms, it's as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT.” (Daniel, 2012) Some of these courses do not necessarily need to be 'completed'.

Benefit to learners? It would be useful to see evidence of what those learners (particularly) in developing countries who have completed a MOOC have been able to do with it – have students been awarded scholarships, been employed or accepted on university courses on the strength of their participation in a MOOC? Where is the evidence that completion of a MOOC is actually valuable in real terms, to back up claims such as this one by Coursera: “…we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” A laudable aim of course. They hope to and they want to, but do they? Or is it too early to tell?

Rhetoric: However, perhaps these Utopian and unrealistic xMOOC claims do not really matter – the important thing is that they are contributing to the debate and experimenting, even if their ultimate objective is financial, it is nevertheless acknowledging the new educational landscape and perhaps helping to push universities into thinking more about it and ‘dipping their toes in the water’.

Pedagogy: In my view the cMOOCs are more interesting pedagogically, even if some of the theory seems a bit wishy-washy. xMOOCs giving free access to quality learning content and expertise is great, but in pedagogical terms they seem to take the same old transmission approach (which no doubt can be very effective in certain circumstances). The teacher here is the gatekeeper of knowledge, drip-feeding students with the good stuff - all they need to do is soak it all up. The Change MOOC and DS106, on the other hand, allow the learner a far greater role in their own learning, acknowledging that it's not necessarily what you know anymore, but how you know, how you access, filter and use the knowledge and networks that are out there.  By building connections, remixing and repurposing distributed content, and allowing students to a certain extent to become co-creators of the course, this model seems better designed for a constantly evolving technological landscape.

cMOOCs aren't for everyone: Being a learner on a 'connectivist' type MOOC is more challenging and requires a fairly high level of digital literacy. Many learners might not tolerate ambiguity very well and prefer a more directed approach. It may be that this type of MOOC is, for now, more suited to lifelong learners, educators, hobbyists etc and for professional development purposes, rather than your average undergraduate cohort. It also seems clear that only a relatively small proportion of participants on a cMOOC type course will be capable of engaging successfully in the four major types of activity: Aggregation, Relation, Creation, Sharing (Kop, 2011)

Course quality: The quality of courses in Coursera to a certain extent depends on the institution. Although the course has to be built within the Coursera platform, there seems to be a degree of flexibility built in, and no reason why universities could not add to and develop their courses in more interesting pedagogical directions. (this is probably already happening, but as I have not taken part I cannot say)

The role of MOOCs: Not all MOOCs need to be aimed at hundreds of thousands of students around the globe. They could be a useful tool to help plug various gaps – e.g a Digital Literacies MOOC as part of a Continuing Professional Development programme for Higher Education staff, or as part of an induction for new students coming to university for the first time to make the ‘transition’ between school and HE easier and so on. The possibilities are endless. These types of course could start relatively small but then become ‘moocified’ as more collaborators join and the course becomes more widely disseminated and open to greater numbers.


  1. Great points! I especially like the ones about researching benefits to learners. I'm curious about this, not just for people that Coursera and others claim to be helping, but for any participants. I wonder if that sort of data could be accessible for researchers (though I don't know how you'd answer these questions, exactly), or if the companies would have to do the research themselves because they want to keep their student data locked down. Indeed, there is a lot of data being generated by these MOOC providers about online learning, I expect...wonder if it could be made available for research? Honestly don't know, but I fear that much of it may be considered proprietary knowledge and thus not made "open."

  2. Really thoughtful exploration of the terrain, Jim - thank you. Personally I'm just glad to be here at this creative and emergent stage - before the successful monetisation of the whole shebang!
    NB: On the #edcmooc there were a few desperate pleas: 'Where are the teachers?!' - but the more confident learner did see the teacher in the shape of the course, the sourcing of readings and viewings (both open) - and the liberation of the students to co-create the course and the experience... As you say, it is something that tends to benefit the more mature or digitally aware learner. (In that way it is arguably a bit akin to AP(E)L - which whilst being seen as a widening participation or more inclusive initiative - is usually harnessed most successfully by the already academically literate.)

  3. Sandra - really like the idea of seeing the teacher in the shape of the course. I agree - the more digitally aware learners find it a lot easier to navigate in this type of terrain.