You can probably dismiss this post as 'stop being defensive', but I'll log it now while it occurs to me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the sudden interest in MOOCs from mainstream universities and the media is exciting, and has a number of benefits, but is not without its pitfalls. In the rush to fuel the MOOC hype it seems to me that some commentators have confused the possibility of running large scale (always the large scale gets them excited) open courses with running large scale online courses. The two are not synonymous. I believe it is the open element of MOOCs that is really intriguing – for me they are moOcs, whereas others see them as Moocs (if you get the distinction).

Millenium Bridge

<Image by Gerry Balding>

Henry Petroski suggests we forget fundamental lessons in bridge design every 30 years, because that is the average length of an engineering career. I wonder if the same is true with distance education. We've been designing large scale distance courses, and then large scale online courses for some time now. And the differences are worth noting, because I would suggest there are differing design approaches, pedagogy, and economics for open courses and 'traditional' ones.

I haven't done a detailed analysis of (large-scale) online distance ed courses and (large scale) open courses (I expect there are a few PhDs beavering away on this very topic), but here is my off the top of my head set of characteristics for the two (based largely on my own OU experience of course).

Traditional large-scale online courses are 'production heavy', ie they spend a lot of time in crafting the course material. This material forms the basis of the content, and so goes through multiple edits, critical reads, and is produced by a team. There is a structured, supported tutor model, whereby each student is a member of a small tutor group, so they have personalised support. This is combined with cohort wide communication and interaction, typically in forums which are moderated either by the course team, paid tutors or students. The course has accredited assessment, and feedback on this forms an essential part of the student-tutor dialogue. This is a pretty standard distance education model, modified for online delivery to a large-scale. In this paper Ley Robinson and I describe the set up for a 1999 course with 12-15,000 students (that isn't as massive as the Stanford AI course, but it's essentially a scaleable model). They are costly to produce and run and therefore carry a study fee. Jones et al compare three open universities and their respective models, which are variations on this.

Large-scale open courses , or MOOCs, tend to have less focus on production I would contend, but then are more flexible and adaptable at the delivery stage. They seem to be focused around an individual instructor/academic rather than a team. Support is provided through peer networks and automated feedback. Assessment is either informal, paid for separately or automated. They can be delivered fairly cheaply by a single academic and are usually free to study.

I am definitely not trying to suggest one is better than the other. But I think it's important to distinguish the two as they may meet different needs. If studying for free is the overriding factor for you as a learner, then MOOCs are obviously the way to go. If you feel that support is important then the more traditional route may be better.

We are seeing an inevitable, and innovative, blending of the two, so this distinction shouldn't be seen as absolute. For example, some MOOCs will offer support for an additional fee. (The cynic in me think that in a few years time someone will unveil the 'completely supported MOOC' which will rather resemble my traditional model above).

In the rush to embrace MOOCs I think it is a disservice to them to fail to appreciate that it is the open element which is truly interesting, and a failure to appreciate the different needs of learners to ignore the other models of large scale online delivery. The defence rests. And has a cup of tea.




  1. Yes indeed.
    JISC and CETIS predicted the free content & peer support, pay for academic support, assessment, accreditation idea back at ALT2010 ( There’s really only the point at which you pay differing stuff like that from early 00s online learning.
    Dave Cormier has an interesting angle on this too:
    I like your bridge design point, really useful metaphor. 🙂

  2. A nice timely post – I’ve been musing about this since the launch of EdX and Coursera. Is there another characteristic difference about open licencing?
    Traditional large-scale online courses have often been restricted copyright, but it looks to me like emerging moOcs seem to be using more CC or similar material – EdX make a big point of this in their publicity.

  3. I think that there are still some open options that can offer support within the MOOC model. I think doing summer camps (schools) would certainly be useful – they could be freeish like BarCamps or paid for.
    We’re currently working on a MOOC-inspired course and building in opportunities to pay for individual tutor support.

  4. @Tony – yes, that’s an important distinction to make. Although a lot of the new commercial ones eg coursera, aren’t CC, and in that respect aren’t very open.
    @Dominik – I agree – the mixing of models will be very interesting. A simple model might be ‘the first quarter of every course is run as a mooc’ then people sign up for more if they want it. I like the idea of a summer school, I think there could be real mileage in that.

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