MOOCs – the educational technology ‘du jour’

MOOCs, Massively Online Open Courses

The idea of the MOOC has come to prominence in the last year or so.  The idea is that courses can exist online provided by organisations such as universities or profit making bodies and students from across the world can sign up and take these courses.  They courses aren’t constrained by the physical size of the classroom buildings.  Some offer badges for completion.  See the OU’s Innovating Pedaogy pamphlet for a discussion (p. 19-21).

I have criticqued the concept of the MOOC under three headings;

Democratising HE?

Some have argued that MOOCs represent an opening up of HE courses to those without finances to attend face to face classes and will enable all to benefit from a higher education  (Koller 2011 2mins).  However this notion has been challenged by Laura Czerniewicz from Cape Town University who argues that the opening up of access to HE in Africa is about ensuring students’ preparedness for HE and about ensureing the success of non whites rather than about access to knowledge.


The MOOCs that I’m aware of appear to have two alternative pedagogical models.  The first type of MOOC applies the model of Connectivism see  or rhyzomic learning.  These models are about student led activities where learning occurs without the constraint of the curriculum but where students make connections and forge their own way through the myriad of resources available on the web.

My view is that this sort of MOOCs may work fine for those who already have a high degree of autonomy and criticality but it is not an effective model for the majority of students new to higher education.  This opinion is supported by Rita Kop whose doctoral thesis explored connectivism, where students learn under their own guidance and make connections as part of their self directed learning on the web (2010).  Kop studied how connectivism worked for adult learners and found that the role of the educator was critical to its success.

The other MOOC pedagogic model uses a more didactic and programmed learning approach.  These MOOCs consist of videos of subject experts giving lecturers and students participate by engaging in  MCQ, multiple choice questions..  It has been criticised by Knox et al. in that it attempts to mimic of the values and style of traditional educational formats.

Screenshot from Coursera showing Digital Cultures course home page

Other examples of large scale video based learning include the Khan Academy.  ( Khan started out on his own creating videos but has been supported by Gates and Google subsequently.) The Khan academy’s pedagogic model is very like the programmed leanring model where you are directed through the teaching of a subject through a structured programme of tasks.  Motivation is supported by ‘badges’ rather than accreditation  which students earn by getting questions right.

The critique I have of this model is that it mimics conventional learning rather than being designed around sound pedagogy.  In addition it is just doesn’t work for some subjects eg discursive ones or ones based on skills.   Having said this, there are some very good pedagogical innovations that the Coursera platform has developed for ‘softer’ subjects for instance the use peer assessment and rubrics (See Koller around 30mins in).  These approaches enable students to get feedback on these ‘soft subjects’ within a large scale environment without teachers needing to mark loads of essays.  Koller also explains how this model gives much faster feedback and that peer grading and self grading has been shown to be a powerful learning exercises (Sadler and Good 2006).  In addition the Coursera MOOC platform encourages the formation of study groups – another sound pedagogical approach.

What do MOOCs mean for us?

My opinion is that providing MOOCs is not going to be where many HEIs will want to go – as it is a distraction from the other things that they do for which they get funding.   The smaller less prestigious HE/FE institions are unlikely to want to set up and deliver their own MOOCs because they won’t get the scale of uptake to make it worth their while in terms of publicity or getting other ‘spin off income’ – for instance if people finish the MOOC and want to continue studying at the MOOC providing instution.

However MOOCs that are available do they present a challenge to HE and FE as people can study  and get some sort of ‘badged’ learning whilst this may not be as official as the accredited learning that HE/FE offer it is a form of competition.  Where I think HE/FE needs to respond is by focussing on what we can do well which is

  • quality of the interaction between student and tutor;
  • understanding and supporting highly contextualised and nuanced practices such as digital literacies, or professional competencies;
  • working to ensure that the face to face interactions are used as effectively as they can be to support active engagement rather than content delivery.  Koller provides some examples of how she does this in her class (2012 37mins).  The notion of the flipped classroom is pertinent here. (There are several ways of understanding the notion of the flipped classroom one is that the face to face time should be used for active learning activities with peers and with the teacher and this is the way that I’m using the term here.  Another version of the flipped term is student as teacher and teacher as learner.)

In conclusion, I think the rise of the MOOC presents HEIs with a chance to sharpen its game to hone our offering in terms of quality pedagogy and student satisfaction.  I think we also have a lot to learn from MOOCs, see my post about Learning Analytics.


About Liz Bennett's Blog

I'm a Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education and University of Huddersfield
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2 Responses to MOOCs – the educational technology ‘du jour’

  1. pauljack00 says:

    I believe these MOOCs are a fantastic idea for those people who are self-motivated and want access to higher education but can’t afford the fee’s, or don’t want to take on the debt, or are restricted by geographical, political or social problems.

    I had no idea before watching the video just how interactive and supportive these MOOC’s can be, my initial thoughts were of videos of old lectures and no feedback or support with the user being totally responsible for their own learning. This turns out to be an unfounded misconception on my part.

    With regards to the official accreditation aspect, the question is how important is it? You need to ask each student their reason for participating and when the number of students reaches the thousands the students will all have their own reasons.

    Will it be the end of the university I doubt it, but universities need to be open and flexible to change.

    • My experience of learning using MOOCs concurs with some of the arguments. Rhyzomic learning utilises previous experiences and suites self directed, confident learners. This model of on-line colabarative and reflective learning using forums and blogs allows the roots to spread and grow through the virtual world.

      Several students in my cohort lacked confidence when choosing a research subject. The other students gave them on-line advice and suppport, sharing links and refernces. Learning through the medium of MOOCs develops what I would describe as the ‘learning family’, supportive, collabarative and non-judgemental.

      MOOCs are revolutionary and open higher education to the masses, challenging power structures that restrict access in order to maintain elite structures. They are essentialy non-competitive and apper to be democratic. High quality University education and assessment is opened up too wider and more inclusive participation. Students new to higher education who have not had positive experiences of secondry education may benifit from a transitional phase which includes study skills

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