MOOCs: what have we learned?

By Feb.03, 2014

University of London and a conference on MOOCs:  there were the inevitable ironies of any conference about cutting-edge digital technologies and new ways of learning.  Jon Harman, Learning Design and Media Director for the University of Law, found that his video wouldn’t play.  The Open University’s Martin Bean lectured on interactive learning from behind a lectern (and made a point of this incongruity).  And David Willets, joining the discussion in a pre-recorded video, proved inaudible and was unceremonially cut off. But all the same, this second conference on the MOOC revolution was a good opportunity to take a view on 2013, described by one speaker as “the year of the MOOC”.

Certainly, the numbers are big.  Cousera, whose founder Daphne Koller was with us via video link, has $85m in venture capital funding and is signing up 14,000 new registrations each day. MOOC completion certificates are being incorporated into formal credit systems at universities and newer platforms – such as the Open University’s FutureLearn – are expanding rapidly.  For Martin Bean, this is the tipping point for one of the biggest transformations in education, and you are either a believer or a Luddite; a defender of the “tyranny of conventional wisdom”, a retrogressive “sage on the stage”.

[caption id="attachment_3623" align="alignright" width="300"]the big “xMOOCs” are now morphing into something more familiar, and pretty traditional. The big “xMOOCs” are now morphing into something more familiar, and pretty traditional.[/caption]

The OU is a terrific organisation with an enviable reputation for innovation, quality and sky-high student satisfaction, and Martin is its irrepressible advocate-in-chief.  But this Manichean take on the digital world doesn’t stack up. As others pointed out, the big “xMOOCs” are now morphing into something more familiar, and pretty traditional.  In appealing in some cases to a largely-graduate global community, moving towards fees and value added services and serving as digital resources embedded in conventional undergraduate courses, they look more like the progressive enhancement of learning technologies than a disruptive innovation.  With very low completion rates (10% is good) and with assessment that is credit bearing and – perhaps – fee charging, this future looks neither “massive” nor “open”.  The destiny of some xMOOCs may be as outsourced course content, either driving down the costs of conventional provision or providing differently-priced routes towards conventional graduate qualifications. Martin insists that FutureLearn will be different; his engaging presentation encouraged me to sign up for a ten week FutureLearn course (“The Secret Power of Brands”) starting later this month, so I’ll see for myself.

[caption id="attachment_4137" align="alignright" width="300"]Technology enhances connectivity - like our ELVSS12 Global Hangout at the University of Salford, led by Professor Helen Keegan, where 50 students from the UK, New Zealand and France met for the first time Technology enhances connectivity – like our ELVSS12 Global Hangout at the University of Salford, led by Professor Helen Keegan, where 50 students from the UK, New Zealand and France met for the first time[/caption]

An xMOOC is what a connectivist – or cMOOC – isn’t.  Connectivist MOOCs, invented well before Coursera and other dominant platforms, are based in theories of learning that stress the value of interactions between people – the play between perception, insight and experience – rather than in advocating teaching via expert instruction.  In the cMOOC vision, new technologies offer revolutionary possibilities in facilitating and enriching these connections.  Rather than being defenders of the tyranny of conventional wisdom, those who criticize xMOOCs such as Coursera and Futurelearn are the opposites.  They see xMOOCs as having co-opted new technologies for conventional ends. It seems to me that the accelerating showdown between the xMOOCers and the cMOOCers will in itself be a rich source of future innovation as new approaches emerge alongside ever-evolving technology.

When xMOOCs are assessed in terms of connectivist principles, the central challenge is scalability.  It’s not possible to maintain any form of quality contact or personalised feedback when 5,000 people sign up for a course, let alone 50,000.  And although Coursera has some very clever innovations – such as the peer assessment algorithm for its assignments – the model cannot allow for the person-to-person factor.  Martin Bean implies that this doesn’t matter – he makes the comparison with the conventional book trade not getting Amazon.  But, of course, the Open University’s great success in distance learning has been its ability to maintain high levels of personalized support – that’s what it’s learners really appreciate.  So there’s a bit missing in this chain of argument.

One of the most interesting perspectives at the conference was from Bill Lawton, of the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education. He sees a coming bifurcation into different learner constituencies.  Some MOOCs will remain free and open and will attract large numbers of registrations driven by curiosity, recreation and specific interests.  Completion rates are irrelevant here; the value of these MOOC channels will be to profile and market universities across the world.  FutureLearn, for example, has been careful only to admit partners ranked highly in conventional league tables – this makes it a usefully elite club for marketing purposes.  Other MOOCs will be credit bearing and, while not requiring prior qualifications, will lead to fee-paying examinations with value in acquiring formal qualifications.  These will attract far fewer enrolments than free and open MOOC channels while being more versatile than conventional modes of provision.  Other MOOC channels could be blends between these two extremes.  Interestingly, Harvard University has begun to offer a range of MOOC options along exactly these lines.

This “many MOOCs” view counterbalances the somewhat neocolonial approach of Coursera and the big xMOOC platforms.  Rather than insisting that there is just one global way for future learning, the “multiple MOOCs” approach can recognize that approaches to learning – what it is and what it should be – are contextual, varying across regions, languages and philosophical traditions.

Jenny Hamilton, the University of London’s Director of Undergraduate Laws Programme, stressed this in her responses to Martin Bean’s opening keynote.  Can we, she asked, assume a common set of criteria for learning and teaching practices?  And why would we want to?    Letting MOOCs be free to diversify both allows for this, and the productive convergence with connectivist principles.

This looser approach allows for the reality that the gap between the generations may be bigger than the distance between continents.  Very few of those at the London conference were under 30, and most of us were a good deal older; there were no student voices in the room.  This allowed some pretty dodgy assumptions to go unchallenged.  One of them was that students need the structure of an xMOOC to learn properly; that they would find it difficult and confusing to manage the “gritty” world of the cMOOC.  I find this barely credible, as would anyone who has seen what a young adult does every day with social media; with the fluid, rapidly changing platforms created almost instantly with the hashtag.  Maybe the third University of London conference on MOOCs should be led exclusively by people under the age of 25.

[caption id="attachment_3535" align="alignright" width="300"]Whatever the form or scale of the MOOC, the digital data that they generate are powerful proxies for learning behaviour. Whatever the form or scale of the MOOC, the digital data that they generate are powerful proxies for learning behaviour.[/caption]

One thing that does seem set to change the world of education is digital analytics.  Just before his digital presence was terminated, David Willetts was making a significant point about the value of the evidence for learning patterns that MOOCs generate (and it’s a pity that we didn’t get him back on screen to complete his sentence). Whatever the form or scale of the MOOC, the digital data that they generate are powerful proxies for learning behavior – and we still know surprisingly little about how people learn things.  And, assuming  trust and ethical compliance, digital learning analytics open up the possibility for personalized predictive modeling, tailoring educational design to individual capabilities and aspirations.  Now that, it seems to me, would be truly revolutionary.


“MOOCs: what have we learned, emerging themes and what next”. Senate House, University of London, 28 January 2014.  University of London, The Observatory for Borderless Higher Education and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.