SIP TEL Innovation Report 2: MOOCs
The topic of this briefing paper is MOOCs (massive open online courses). It describes what
they are and where they came from. It provides a summary of current MOOC initiatives
together with an assessment of their educational value and potential.
The paper will draw on Jisc Advance resources and the outcomes of other Jisc programmes
and initiatives. A range of links will be provided to enable drilling down to whatever level of
detail is required.
In 2010, Dave Cormier1
... a MOOC integrates the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an
acknowledged expert in a field of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources.
Perhaps most importantly, however, a MOOC builds on the active engagement of several
hundred to several thousand “students” who self-organize their participation according to
learning goals, prior knowledge and skills, and common interests.
This is scary stuff for traditional campus based academics only familiar with face-to-face
classroom based teaching. It is not scary at all for today’s teenagers who live in the world of
social networking and already self-organize their participation in the informal learning
environment of their daily online social communications.
What MOOCs appear to be trying to do is harness this widespread, vibrant but chaotic
online social activity and inject a structure that will lead to defined learning outcomes.
There is no convincing evidence that this has yet been achieved, but the reality of mass
online social communications cannot be ignored in educational planning.
A Reflection on Self-organised Learning:
When something new comes along that requires new knowledge and skills, it initially tends
to develop organically within a self-organised community of committed individuals. Later it
becomes more structured and efficient and, when accepted as part of the established
educational system; appropriately regulated, validated and funded.
A recent example of how this happens in practice can be seen in the development of Hang
Gliding as a form of recreational aviation. In the early 1970’s a few pioneers were
experimenting with the design of foot-launched gliders based on a relatively primitive grasp
of the principles of aeronautics. They shared their experiences and learned from each other,
both in terms of glider design and how to fly them. Some of them died when it didn’t work:
it was important to learn quickly.
As the sport grew, schools were set up by the more experienced pioneers. Gliders were
manufactured and sold commercially rather than built in garden sheds. When it came to the
attention of the Civil Aviation Authority, regulations were applied. Eventually there were
pilot and instructor qualifications established within a national training framework.
But the point is that it started with self-organised learning by learners. There were emerging
experts amongst the learners, but there were no teachers but themselves. The description
of MOOCs by Dave Cormier reflects this early stage in development and implies that
perhaps it will remain this way. History suggests otherwise in the context of established
educational systems, but there is always the possibility that this may actually be a game
comments that since MOOCs are so new and have been the subject of such little
research, it is difficult to say exactly how their story will play out. He notes that in the same
way, the principles of Bell3
in the 19th
century presaged a world in which education was seen
as something attainable by anyone in society regardless of means or method of access. It
never really worked out in the way he envisaged. It remains to be seen whether MOOCs
really represent a turning point in open educational opportunities for higher education, or
whether they also are just another attractive, but unsustainable idea.
There are several cases of universities that were founded without walls that have now
become standard public universities, the UK Open University4
being a prime example. The
existing system has simply accommodated these new players in the game of higher
education without succumbing to the predicted earth-shattering changes. Perhaps MOOCs,
if the concept proves durable, will be equally absorbed into the educational mix.
An alternative view might be that the popular conception of a MOOC as an educational
course is applying a formal structure in an entirely inappropriate way to what is actually a
fine vehicle for informal online learning and, in doing so, risks nullifying the potential
The principles of Connectivism outlined by George Siemens and Stephen Downes5
reflecting on in this context. It was, after all, the subject of the first MOOC:
Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
Learning is more critical than knowing.
Maintaining and nurturing connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
Perceiving connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of learning activities.
Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning
of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a
right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information
climate affecting the decision.
This is all about learning communities and being an individual in the learning community
who is both a learner and a teacher. That is what the web facilitates and is why Google and
Wikipedia and the other online gateways to learning resources have become so influential.
The final bullet point above may be considered to be the most important. It asserts that for
effective learning the online learners must be confident decision makers. In other words
they must have effective research skills and the ability to select the best resources and
exploit them to achieve their learning goals.
Such skills are not just the preserve of the postgraduate community. They are easily
assimilated and applied by children as soon as they gain access to the Internet and their
various mobile devices. But it does point to an entirely new pedagogy that is no longer
based on the classroom broadcast model. What MOOCs should not do, and it is not clear
that this has yet been recognised, is to replicate the broadcast model rather than create a
new pedagogic approach that supports self-organised learning. The current Ancient Greek
Hero MOOC at Harvard, for example, worthy and intellectually stimulating that it is under
the inspirational delivery by Nagy6
, still retains the structure of a broadcast course.
MOOC principles derive from the reality of open educational resources. The Internet has
created an online environment for learners where learning materials in any subject area are
freely accessible. This naturally leads to a scenario where the key skills for learners are in
the learning process itself. It changes the role of the academic from a subject expert to a
guide in the effective acquisition of skills and knowledge regardless of subject.
That is not to say that subject experts are not needed, only that their role has changed. In
higher education they remain as the researchers and developers of new knowledge.
However, from as teaching point of view, perhaps a reflection on the medieval
apprenticeship system may be appropriate: students learning by doing in the presence of
The Current MOOC Landscape:
Yuan and Powell from Jisc-CETIS published a white paper7
in 2013 that provides an excellent
summary and critical assessment of the development and future potential of MOOCS. It
notes how they are a relatively recent development launched in 2008 with the Connectivism
and Connected Knowledge course8
by Stephen Downes and George Siemens.
They comment on the distinction between the connectivist approach, outlined above
(cMOOCs), and what has been described as the content-based approach (xMOOCS) which
reflects the conventional institutional delivery model. It further distinguishes between the
for-profit and non-profit models for MOOCs and the rationale behind the business models
for each. This nascent delineation is perhaps to be expected but may distract from the more
important debate about the nature and future of MOOCs themselves.
MOOC delivery platforms have emerged, largely through collaboration between institutions
and the injection of venture/philanthropic9
funding. This again risks missing the point,
perhaps being stuck in the history of locally owned and managed servers and systems.
However, if the local servers and systems are viewed as incrementally adding to a global
shared computing capacity then an entirely new vision is enabled. This of course underpins
the whole Cloud Computing10
Prominent amongst the leading MOOC providers is edX11
, a non-profit organisation hosted
by MIT and Harvard University. The whole OER movement, of course, was precipitated by
MIT when they made all their course materials freely available online12
in 2002. I’m
currently participating in an edX MOOC which is disappointingly structured as a large scale,
lecture based, talking-heads course. The lecturer is excellent, but so much is being missed
by not exploiting the capacity to present a variety of rich content.
Another prime mover in the MOOC arena is Coursera13
, which is is a for-profit company with
a range of courses offered by a (growing) global partnership of 83 institutions including the
University of Edinburgh. It espouses a world-wide, world class education underpinned by
sound pedagogic principles and includes peer assessment as part of the learning mix. I
completed the Edinburgh Coursera course on e-Learning and Digital Cultures and concluded
that it was:
1. A taster course for learners intended to promote the online delivery offer;
2. A toe dip in the water for the university itself, rather unsure of how successful it
It sort of worked, although I’m not sure I learned anything. I was impressed by the peer
assessment process, however, and feel that this may be an important and pragmatic
component of future MOOC courses that are quality assured and credit bearing.
The UK Open University has set up FutureLearn14
as a private company with a range of
institutional partners to deliver MOOCs. FutureLearn has yet to be launched, but is
promoted as an extension of the OU OpenLearn provision which is already making a wide
range of teaching resources freely available online. The current website is clearly a
marketing vehicle, though detail of what will be offered is lacking and the marketing
message is weak as a result. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the initiative being a successful
venture, which is surprising for an institution with so much experience in distance learning
and renowned for its innovation.
There are a number of other players in the frame15,16,17,18
some of which are for-profit,
others not. The business model for future sustainability is not clear at all at present, the
current initiatives being mainly supported through project funding or venture capital. There
is a rather woolly aspirational mix, in the literature and dialogue, of altruistic free education
for all coupled with anticipated spin-off paid for services including tutor support, assessment
and award of qualifications.
Nothing that has been said so far about sustainability and a viable business model for Moocs
that is particularly convincing, but there is an element of inevitability about the whole
MOOC/OER development that tells us a sustainable business model will eventually emerge.
There may be some burned fingers on the way, however.
Jisc Advance resources on MOOCs
Jisc Infonet has assembled a useful collection of articles about MOOCs19
to IP and copyright issues that need to be considered20
. Amongst the resources referenced
is an article from Universities UK that provides a detailed HE viewpoint of current
. This article provides a useful summary of the main global players in the
market and their funding arrangements. It also comments on a range of issues central to the
debate about MOOCs, including pedagogy, potential business models and academic
Some concluding remarks about educational value and potential:
There can be no doubt that the affordances of the Internet, in terms of providing access to
learning resources and learning support, will transform the educational landscape. The
traditional educational culture will resist, of course, but eventually young teachers who
grew up in the online environment will become the educational designers, institutional
managers and policy makers of the future.
They will continue, of course, to promote the educational values, principles and practices of
Socrates, Pythagoras, and all those other inspirational pedagogical innovators that followed
over the millennia. However, they will now be working in a new social communications
environment and will have access to a completely new set of tools and can adapt their
teaching practices accordingly.
That is not to say that MOOCs are automatically a good thing. The jury is still out on that
one. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. However, the
fact that there is capacity, through the Internet, to facilitate learning on a massive scale
demands serious consideration both in terms of the potential benefits and the necessary
changes to conventional course design and delivery to cope with it.
These considerations include:
The fact that we are talking about courses. This immediately ties the process to the
conventional teaching process and structure and may be the root of the problem
that many people have in visioning how it will work and why it has value. If we talked
about learning then that immediately changes the emphasis and the agenda;
Design and delivery. By calling it a course, it implies for most people structured
sequential delivery, a quality assured process, formal assessment and, finally,
certification. The problem is that although the sequential delivery process is there in
most MOOCs, the other components are not. People are therefore confused because
they are used to conventional courses being focussed on achieving qualifications,
rather than enhancing learning;
Massively Open Online Learning. Now we’re talking about a learning journey, not a
qualification journey. We can start thinking of the global Internet itself being the
institution, the community of learners and the community of teachers. We are back
to self-organised learning, to common learning goals, to co-learners and co-teachers.
So what does this mean in practice, and what does it mean for the future of MOOCs? Well
the principles of Connectivism outlined earlier are a good start to answering this question.
We need to be thinking of learning and the accreditation of learning as two completely
Massively Open Online Learning (MOOL) will facilitate the learning with the extent of the
learning goals determined by the learner. Academic institutions can offer assistive services
here, including tutor support. If the learner wishes to have their learning formally
recognised, they can submit for examination in a manner approved by the validating
institution. As noted earlier, there has been considerable discussion about a viable business
model for MOOCs and a conclusion that may be drawn is that MOOL is a more accurate
descriptor and that supportive and validating services should form the basis of a business
model. The more prestigious institutions are likely to be the most commercially successful in