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MOOCs are really a platform

We can officially declare massive open online courses (MOOCs) as the higher education buzzword for 2012. Between Coursera, edX and smaller open course offerings, nearly $100 million in funding has been directed toward MOOCs in that past 8 months. Newspapers from NYTimes to Globe and Mail to publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, TV programs such as NPR, radio programs such as CBC, and a few hundred thousand blog posts have contributed to the hype. In higher education, there is joyful abundance of opinions on the topic, ranging from breathless proclamations of their disruptive potential to general dismissal of any value. I’ve captured numerous articles here on diigo.

Largely lost in the conversation around MOOCs is the different ideology that drives what are currently two broad MOOC offerings: the connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs?) that I have been involved with since 2008 (with people like Stephen Downes, Jim Groom, Dave Cormier, Alan Levine, Wendy Drexler, Inge de Waard, Ray Schroeder, David Wiley, Alec Couros, and others) and the well-financed MOOCs by Coursera and edX (xMOOCS?).

Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication. I’ve spoken with learners from different parts of the world who find xMOOCs extremely beneficial as they don’t have access to learning materials of that quality at their institutions. xMOOCs scale, they have prestigious universities supporting them, and they are well-funded. It is quite possible that they will address the “drill and grill” instructional methods that is receiving some criticism.

Phil Hill, who has been an early and consistently informative voice on MOOCs addresses the different MOOCs in a recent post:

When analyzing the disruption potential of MOOCs, it is easy to forget that the actual concept is just 4 or 5 years old. Furthermore, the actual definition of the concept has undergone a significant change in the past 12 months as an entirely new branch has emerged.

He offers this diagram to detail the distinctions:

Evolution of MOOCs

This morning, Marc Bousquet and I were on CBCOntario Today (recording here) discussing MOOCs. Following the interview, Marc posted his thoughts on good vs. bad MOOCs:

Well, the good intentions and featured best practices of Siemens and Downes exist in political and institutional realities. If institutions really wanted to sustain participatory learning, they would already be doing so, for instance, by reducing lectures and high-stakes testing, investing in teaching-intensive faculty and the like. Instead, driven less by cost concerns than a desire to standardize and control both faculty and curriculum, administrations rely more than ever on lectures and tests.

MOOCs are a platform

MOOCs, regardless of underlying ideology, are essentially a platform. Numerous opportunities exist for the development of an ecosystem for specialized functionality in the same way that Facebook, iTunes, and Twitter created an ecosystem for app innovation. I don’t know if MOOCs will be transformative in higher education. I’m not sure that they’ll be half as disruptive as some claim. They are, however, significant in that they are a large public experiment exploring the impact of the internet on education. Even if the current generation of MOOCs spectacularly crash and fade into oblivion, the legacy of top tier university research and growing public awareness of online learning will be dramatic.

Jeffrey Young, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses the Coursera contract with University of Michigan, a contract that offers insight into possible commercialization strategies around MOOCs. The options presented assume MOOCs-as-a-platform.

In a previous article on the duplication theory of educational value, I stated that:

if something can be duplicated with limited costs, it can’t serve as a value point for higher education. Content is easily duplicated and has no value. What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning.

The value of MOOCs may not be the MOOCs themselves, but rather the plethora of new innovations and added services that are developed when MOOCs are treated as a platform (I addressed this in 2011 in the race to platform education).


  1. Rory McGreal wrote:

    The term MOOC may be new, but if you define a MOOC as 100s or 1000s of students. AU has been doing this since the late 90s. Of course they were not “connectivist” MOOCs. However they do fit the Wikipedia definition of a MOOC: “A massive open online course (MOOC) is a course where the participants are distributed and course materials also are dispersed across the web.” We have been linking to websites for quite a while now. So really I would see a third type of MOOC, which is more structured and possibly more akin to the non-connectivist type.

    Wednesday, July 25, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  2. So we will have MOOCs and MOOCCs, with an extra C for connectivism – I think many MOOCs will be little more than traditional distance courses delivered by Web, just as most open courseware or OER is no more than syllabi dumped on the web. Remember the French Revolution was in 1789, but it is not yet over!

    Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  3. What is missing in the list is the commercial MOOCs – like Google’s search MOOC, and the HTML5 MOOC. They are hosted by companies hoping to either increase their brand awareness or sell products.

    Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  4. glen wrote:

    What about MOOC as an adjective? Sometimes it’s just that. Not to take anything away from anything, but….well, sometimes it’s just that.

    Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink
  5. Dawn Worley wrote:

    George, with hundreds of thousands of students in a course, my concern is the loss of instructor feedback and the instructor’s gentle nudge (as you put it) to encourage students in their learning. While collaborative learning will be a contributing factor for establishing peer-to-peer connections, how will the instructor contribute to these connections in a sea of so many students?

    Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  6. Laurie wrote:

    I first heard about MOOC’s about 2 weeks ago and promptly registered for a class in Coursera. Based on one week of participation I like the mini lectures (10-15 min. long), wish I had access to more written material (which is my preferred mode of learning) and feel overwhelmed by the discussion forum (which I have not learned to navigate.) I was thinking for my next class how I’d like to set up my own mini discussion forum with about 5-10 consistent participants completely separate from the forum provided by the Coursera. I find blog participating in small blog dialogues very enjoyable but rare/hard to find.

    Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  7. As an avid follower of the undomesticated form of MOOCs I see them as an ideal and open approach to learning that once re-formatted into an educational product will become just another “class.” Human curiosity is inefficient, often unproductive of quantifiable results and can’t thrive inside the rationalizations necessary to drive an institution. Why do we think the only “use” for MOOCs is to be absorbed into the metabolism of big “E” education? Is there no room in our culture for a learning space outside the walls?

    Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Jared Stein wrote:

    “I was thinking for my next class how I’d like to set up my own mini discussion forum with about 5-10 consistent participants completely separate from the forum provided by the Coursera.”

    Laurie, I think you’ve hit on one of the key weaknesses of the MOOC model in and of itself–lack of formalized structure for the learner and directed social engagement. But you’ve also identified one of the critical potentials of the connectivist model of MOOCs that Siemens and others propose. As I understand it, even the /organization/ of learning can (and, indeed, should) be “open”. This facilitates–if not forces–learner-directed structuring, organization, and application. This, theoretically, could lead to greater meaningfulness through personalization.

    But, while I applaud your intent to self-organize useful learning communities to focus or even amplify the power of the Coursera MOOC, I worry that you are the minority, and most learners will flounder without direct guidance.

    This is just one of many important questions that need to be answered by MOOC researchers and practitioners.

    Monday, July 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  9. Jared,

    Agree with you that MOOCs could use a bit more structure for the learner. As self-directed as I can be there are times when I’d really like help or to offer help. Social learning suggests working with others and there’s no ban on personally connecting to others in the MOOC rules but I think time constraints don’t allow the luxury of building relationships. Even extended MOOCs like Change 11 seemed fractionated and I wonder if this isn’t our habits as participants developed over years of bracketed learning moments in the form of classes that limits our ability to build and nurture contacts?

    Is there any reason why MOOCs or any educational experience can’t be a continuous process that spans at least the time it takes to establish solid contacts? Or would this just freeze into norms and stale conversations without constant turn-over?

    And (dangerous ground here) MOOCs may simply not be everyone’s cup of tea. Especially in a society like Canada or the US where the public schools serve up texture-less brain-sop. If some effort isn’t put back into the K to 12 system, there won’t be any demand for MOOCs, or any other version of higher education.

    Monday, July 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  10. Blaise wrote:

    I learned about the whole general idea about MOOCs just a couple of days ago. I just wrote a blog post about different examples I could find (udacity, coursera, edX).

    From my perspective, I am a bit cautious about the hype for xMOOCs. I agree with the problems that can be problematic in the future.
    However, I would like to address on of them. Finding financial model. As an example of Udacity – it has found a revenue model, taking example from open source model. They want to become apart from free online university also a kind of recruiting organization. From the alumni of the first artificial intelligence classes one thousand best students were send an invitation to provide their CVs which were then attached to the professors recommendation and send to over a dozen head-hunters/recruiters agencies. As I learned in US a person who is successfully recommending a future employee can earn 10%-30% of that person’s annual earning (correctly if I’m wrong). That’s a fair way of financing a free university I think.

    If you are interested you can read the blog post here:

    Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  11. Esther wrote:

    I know the “new” (non-connectivist) MOOCs must be of value to some people, but it saddens me that they’ve somewhat “smothered” the broader conversation about knowledge, learning, and education. I wrote more here:

    Friday, August 3, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  12. Esther,

    Nice blog. I expect the MOOC label will be adopted by many delivery structures that may stray a long way from spirit of the (what else can we call them?) connectivist MOOCs. The current attention is fleeting and driven by the brand power of the big institutions’ names being associated with MOOCs. Domesticated MOOCs are built on standards of delivery and assessment that is commonly understandable. The originals require effort to figure out. They represent models of education that are hard to explain in short essays and refuse to throw off hard or quantifiable results that are associated with education.

    I mean, who endures intellectual difficulty and risks being mistaken without the rewards of diploma or certificate? Who goes to school to learn how to think–we all can think can’t we? How can anything of value emerge from something that is free to participants? MOOCs represent a concept of value that we’ve given up even imagining let alone believing: that there are common values; that every unique idea need not be monetized and marketed, or that real change can occur without looking like a replica of what we know doesn’t work but this time it will.

    Thanks for the blog, very thoughtful.

    Friday, August 3, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink
  13. Julie Gallanty wrote:

    The issue of the value of the MOOC and how it works within the higher education arena raise interesting questions. As you stated so eloquently “contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning.” The connect between professor encouraging deeper thought and an online learning experience can not work independently. An essential ingredient in the future success of the MOOC will be the seamless interaction of the two.

    Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  14. Esther wrote:

    Hi Scott,

    Thank you for reading my post and commenting. I find your remarks very interesting. Specifically: “who endures intellectual difficulty and risks being mistaken without the rewards of diploma or certificate?” I think this is a great question. I sometimes wonder: Is it idealistic, “arrogant” or both to think of education and learning in these terms (i.e., learning for the sake of learning)? For people who already have a degree, acquiring additional knowledge through less traditional venues might be one thing. For someone who has no formal education things could (understandably) be very different. All reasons are valid and commendable and I would never dare judge any of this anyways.

    I guess what I do “resent” somewhat the intense focus on testing and the “vending machine” mentality (and this could be a media bias for covering only these types of initiatives.) As you say, “we’ve given up even imagining let alone believing […] that every unique idea need not be monetized and marketed.” That is so right. We can barely think about intrinsic motivation being a factor in our choices. I watched a YouTube video about Coursera over the weekend and, at some point, the speaker says, referring to credits/certificates: “Students were getting something meaningful for their investment of time and effort.” I was very surprised to hear the word “meaningful.” I think the word “practical” or “tangible”… would have worked better for me.

    Here is the video:

    Anyways, thank you for your thought-provoking comments.

    Monday, August 6, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink