Monday, April 8, 2013

Of MOOCs, Models and Moebius: Comparing MOOCs

The specific history of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, is short. Ignoring
various precursor pedagogies, the first MOOC to be so labelled was held in 2008 (Wikipedia 2013). That first MOOC was driven by a connectivist philosophy, which in starkest terms means that teachers are facilitators and students create their own knowledge collaboratively, through the connectedness afforded by modern Web 2.0 platforms. The connectivist approach may be described as teacher-mediated. In this model, the teacher/instructor seeds the learning environment with concepts and invites students to undertake collaborative processes in support of their learning.

The traditional educational model has been termed behaviourist (Daniel 2012). In this model the teacher is seen as the holder of the knowledge and learning consists of students internalizing fragments of the knowledge as they are delivered by the teacher.

Interest in MOOCs as platforms for connectivist learning, labelled as cMOOCs by many, continues to the present, especially among educational theorists. In the popular mind, however, a new kind of MOOC, based on the behaviourist approach to education, has assumed dominance. These are the so-called xMOOCs, adopted by many large universities, especially in the United States. In a typical xMOOC, the behaviourist teacher/instructor provides a series of information fragments and requires students to submit periodic evidence that they have internalized this learning content satisfactorily.

Because of this brief history, the competing educational philosophies and the many economic and scale factors involved, "the precise function of the MOOC within higher education still remains unclear" (Knox et al. 2012).

MOOC Pros and Cons

Using for the moment the simple distinction noted above between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, it is possible to identify some broad strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches.

A cMOOC is highly accessible and promotes the discovery of new knowledge and of self-directed learning (Kop 2011). Achieving a state of self-directed learning is likely closely associated with the initiation of life-long learning. On the other hand, this type of MOOC has limited audience appeal, and is actively pursued primarily by those with a strong interest in educational theory or personal enlightenment. Because our traditional educational systems are largely behaviourist in structure, the cMOOC environment may be confusing and anxiety-raising for many students.

An xMOOC, by contrast, tends to confer technical knowledge and so is avidly pursued by large numbers of students who wish to improve their employment and/or earning prospects. Most people are comfortable with the xMOOC environment, even if they chafe at the spoon-feeding approach to learning. Sadly, however, xMOOCs do not lend themselves well either to the generation of new knowledge and insights or to the initiation of life-long learning. They, of course, are not truly open because work done by students is typically trapped within the registration wall (Parr 2013) and so not widely available.

Bases For Comparison of Existing MOOCs

In attempting to understand the basic nature of MOOCs and to assist in the determination of what may be the most productive way to use them to realize overall improvement in the effectiveness of education, it can be instructive to compare several existing MOOCs.

Even the most superficial comparison of MOOCs shows immediately that the distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, other than as archetypes, is overly simplistic. The field is young and of interest to many. Large corporations, large universities and progressive educators all share uncertainty as to what potential impact this new form of education may have and what operational modes may lead to sustainability. As a result, all of the players are continually experimenting with the MOOC format and adapting it to better serve both philosophical and practical objectives. Some cMOOCs are adopting platforms or procedures typical of xMOOCs. Some xMOOCs are experimenting with broadening their offerings by incorporating some aspects of connectivist learning.

The Comparisons - Four MOOC Exemplars

Exemplar 1 - Change MOOC: We may expect this to be a 'dyed-in-the-wool' cMOOC, coming as it does from some of the founders of the concept. The technology platform is a unique, open-source LMS called grsshopper. It appears to be most similar to a wiki or a CMS, with a strong emphasis on aggregating and integrating external materials. The pedagogy of this MOOC appears connectivist in format and behaviourist in delivery (things happen at predictable times). This is a teacher-marginalized system. Its general approach and philosophy includes lots of invitational lecturers providing multiple seeds to learning. There appears to be a primary focus on text, but it's hard to tell as materials seem to be unavailable when the course is not actually being given.

Exemplar 2 - DS106 (Digital Storytelling): Ostensibly a cMOOC, this one depends on delivery using Canvas by Instructure, billed as a supposedly open-source LMS, but primarily, it seems, a fee-based cloud service. The pedagogy in this MOOC is connectivist in format and in delivery - materials are continuously available and student participation is invited on an anytime basis. This is a teacher-mediated system. The general approach and philosophy in DS106 includes many instructor seeds to learning and a focus on multimedia modes of communication.

Exemplar 3 - Gamification on Coursera: This is, without question, a pure xMOOC. It is delivered via the Coursera proprietary LMS platform. The pedagogy is behaviourist both in format and in delivery. This is a teacher-centered course. The general approach and philosophy used in Gamification includes a large body of information provided by the instructor, supplemented by material from external sources. Requirements for the delivery of quizzes and essays by students is rigid, although access to course materials is extended. There appears to be a balanced focus on text vs. visual forms of communication.

Exemplar 4 - E-Learning and Digital Cultures on Coursera: Bucking the trend, this was primarily a cMOOC, but based on the Coursera proprietary LMS platform. A hybrid, or blended MOOC in many respects, this course adopted a largely connectivist pedagogy with a behaviourist approach to delivery. Course activities were regularly scheduled as were student assignments. This MOOC was teacher-mediated, and course materials with links to student projects remain available to all who registered after the course finished. The majority of student-generated content remains publically available on the internet. Balance was achieved as well in general approach and philosophy - multiple instructors provided seeds to learning, with a heavy dependence on external sources. Both text and visual forms of communication were utilized.

Discussion & Conclusions

As suggested above, a simple division of actual MOOCs into xMOOC and cMOOC categories is insufficient to characterize what is happening in this field. In addition to aspects of the classic (i.e., two-year old) binary classification, one should also be looking at such factors as temporal characteristics of course delivery, multiplicity of instructors, method of seeding concepts, the balance between text and visual foci (that is, the extent to which digital literacy is favoured over print literacy), extent to which student collaboration is internal or external to the learning platform, extent to which the teacher/lecturer is marginalized, extent to which materials are available between sessions and level of dependence on external sources.

One observation made here appears to have escaped much attention previously. I have used the term 'seeding' the learning with concepts and examples. Here the term seeding has been used in the sense of "seeding the clouds" to initiate rain. In physico-chemical terms a seed is a minute particle or crystal, usually invisible, that serves as the foundation for the accumulation of additional particles, droplets or crystals until a large, visible structure has formed. In the educational context I use the term 'seed' to refer to the articles, videos and other digital artefacts that are introduced by a teacher/instructor to students in a MOOC, sometimes in association with a question. These learning 'seeds' then trigger the accumulation of collaborative comments, thoughts, and other reactions, including the creation of new digital artefacts, by the students. Learning seeds, then, may be seen as minute fragments of knowledge that can give rise to relatively larger and frequently innovative bodies of knowledge when incubated in the connectivist environment.

The comparisons above have largely ignored some of the more fundamental challenges to MOOCs making a major impact on education. Perhaps the two most significant are monetization, how can MOOC programs achieve financial stability, and certification, how can an institution be assured that the student being certified is the individual who has satisfied the course requirements. Coursera is making an effort to address both of these concerns with its new Signature Track program. This initiative claims to create a digital ID for students who pay a per-course fee (introductory rate of $39 US), consisting of photo-ID and a keystroke pattern signature. This approach, they feel, will allow for verified certification of student achievements, and incidentally establish a revenue stream at the same time (Rivard 2013). Signature Track is offered for the Gamification MOOC discussed earlier.

It is too early, I suspect, to determine exactly where we are on the Moebius strip of educational development. I cannot do better than to echo here, once again, the assessment of Knox et al. (2012),  "the precise function of the MOOC within higher education still remains unclear." That remains true today.


Daniel, J. (2012) ‘Making sense of MOOCs: musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education, no. 18 [online]. Available at (Accessed 2-April-2013).

Kop, R. (2011) ‘The challenges to connectivist learning on open online networks: learning experiences during a massive open online course’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 12, no. 3 [online],  (Accessed 2-April-2013).

Knox, J., Bayne, S., Macleod, H., Ross, J. & Sinclair, C. (2012). 'MOOC Pedagogy:
the challenges of developing for Coursera.' (Accessed 8-April-2013)

Parr, Chris. (2013) 'US Mooc platforms’ openness questioned.' Times Higher Education, 4-April-2013. (Accessed 8-April-2013)

Rivard, R. (2013) 'Free to Profit' Inside Higher Ed. 8-April-2013 (Accessed 8-April-2013)

Wikipedia (2013). Massive open online course.
(Accessed 8-April-2013)

[This posting is for Activity 14 (Week 4) of the OpenU course on Open Education H817open. The post has been awarded the MOOC understanding badge displayed at the top. All text and graphics are released under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]