MOOC,  open courses

Give me an M!

Letter M

<Image by bigbluemeanie>

The second of MOOC musing posts:

On Twitter recently Alan Levine bemoaned that there was too much emphasis on the M in MOOCs, and I think it's the M that worries Jonathan Rees. Kate Bowles has a well reasoned post on some MOOC concerns also. I wonder if there is some truth in this – it is the manager’s dream of the infinite lecture hall that characterised early e-learning until people found out e-learning wasn’t very cheap in the end. But for a MOOC, learners aren’t paying so they can’t complain about the infinite lecture hall approach, but they will be monetised somehow (whether through accreditation, data, adverts, etc). And for that to work the M in MOOC has to equal massive. Moderate or minor won’t do.

 Let’s take each of those initials and think them through:

M – Massive. As mentioned above the massive element is appealing if you are a commercial enterprise. But if you are offering MOOCs out of interest, then they may not be massive. When Dave coined the term (it was Dave wasn't it?) I think it was more a reflection on what had happened in CCK08 – that these large numbers of learners had congregated. It was an observation rather than a prescriptive element. Open courses don’t need to be massive, and focussing on this element because it’s where the money lies, may lead to less interesting topics being proposed because they won’t achieve the mass required to kick in the money. And that’s a shame because one of the potential benefits of MOOCs is a form of liberation of the curriculum – it need no longer be dictated by what courses are profitable and meet a sufficient need. It would be a failure of imagination to apply the same constraints we currently labour under.

Open – as I mentioned in my last post, one of the disappointing aspects about the new open courses is that they are not truly open. Real openness has a number of benefits – others can take elements of the course and use it in their own courses, the course itself acts as a learning resource that anyone can dip into at anytime, it allows open research through data analysis, learners are encouraged to use their own tools rather than the artificial course system. Not being fully open loses much of the subtlety in MOOCs that made them fun in the first place.

Online – Steve Carson suggests we should call the new breed MOCs, for Massive Online Courses. But they are free, so this acronym would miss the key element that differentiates them from all the elearning we’ve been doing over the past 15 years. I had a Massive Online Course in 1999 but it was the open element that was missing. This is the no-brainer in the acronym I guess. They need to be online to really be free and work, but what might be interesting is the combination of MOOCs with local, face to face support. One could imagine a general introduction to teaching MOOC for example, which covered pedagogy, core subjects etc but accompanied by local support which placed teachers in school, added local contextualisation (eg curriculum requirements in that country) and so on. So Online needn’t mean ‘Only Online’.

Course – after a decade of OERs, it’s interesting that we’re coming back to educator constructed courses. The vision might have been of learners constructing their own personalised courses from the vast array of content out there. And while this does happen to an extent, and social tools will help it happen more, it’s also the case that one of the core functions the educator provides is to structure content into a sequence that learners can follow and have trust in. The bargain they make is this – if I do the course you have constructed then I will come out with a certain understanding of the topic. 

I guess the moral is, be careful of the acronym you dream up as someone will analyse it in excessive detail one day…


  • VanessaVaile

    Jonathon *Rees*, not “Kees”. We Welsh should stick together even (*especially*) when we disagree. Unlike most mooc critics, Jonathon uses as much ed-tech teaching as you’ll find in the average hybrid course, engages with Digital Historians, even did a THATcamp, accepts challenges from developers, etc. I entertain the possibly unrealistic hope of seeing him in Lisa’s next POTcert session,, because I trust him to give it a fair trial, more that can be said of so many other skeptics.
    That said, I’d like to see more mooc rats (to borrow Scott Johnson’s designation) following More or Less Bunkm, With a strong background in labor history, he is also (rightly) concerned with the disruptive effect on academic labor and issues of ethics, not unlike the kinds of concerns you yourself have expressed.
    Many mooc followers, most in Lisa’s recent course, are insecure academic labor ~ sessionals, casuals, adjuncts, precarious knowledge workers, contingent faculty, and no doubt other designations. Although we cherish the equality of association in moocs, too often missing in brick and mortar institution and abysmally absent in online for-profits (what critics fear the MOOC will inevitably feed into), I would like to see more mooc engagement with the “adjunctifiction” issues Jonathon raises.
    Thanks for opening this discussion.

  • Reedyreedles

    Hi Martin,
    Interesting reflections.
    I actually questioned on Twitter last week, if one can be a MOOC if there are only small numbers. Certainly not if they are commercial (but then if something is commercial is it really open anyway?), and furthermore, by definition (again, the problem with acronyms [never really like MOOC]).
    What really grabs me though, is that all of the MOOCs I’ve seen appear to be on learning technology, openness and other topics geared around CPD for educators. The Coursera, MIT/Stanford initiatives I’ve come across focus on Computer Science.
    I’ve recently met with a few colleagues for a small OER project in Applied Geomorphology at MMU and wonder if we could offer it as an open course. Perhaps the topic naturally narrows the market but would it work? I think it could…
    Finally, on your point regarding returning to educator run courses – does this bare any reflection on the uptake of the smaller resources by learners? I’d imagine (no hard evidence) that learners are likely to do a google search and if a structured open course from the OU returns, then that would be a trustworthy source. Compare that with an individual small OER from a lesser known HEI – any difference?
    Just speaking aloud really but all interesting debates.
    Peter Reed

  • mweller

    @Vanessa – sorry, I wasn’t clear if you thought I was disagreeing with Jonathan – I wasn’t, I pretty much agree with what he says, I was linking to his post as a thoughtful piece on some of the perils of focusing on scale.
    @Peter – in terms of subject matter, this is always the case. The early elearning courses were about elearning, there is a certain ‘the medium is the message’ advantage in early innovation, so if you spend a lot of time worrying about the format and the technology, that’s still useful because it’s related to your subject. But you don’t want to waste learning ‘real estate’ in a Shakespeare course, say, on this. But then as it becomes mainstream it moves away from these topics, so now we have elearning courses on everything. The same will happen with MOOCs, I don’t see anything intrinsic in them which would limit them to specific disciplines.
    The reputation point you raise is interesting, (and we do see it with OERs) but I guess as you got into very niche subjects, it may be that the big providers aren’t there and it is only one or two community specialists.

  • Reedyreedles

    So an interesting perspective might be that smaller/less known institutions wishing to contribute to the open movement might be more effective (in terms of reaching self learners) by focussing on specific topic related areas due to the difficulty in competing with leading providers (competing in terms of reputation, but also resources/funds to produce high end materials)….
    Another interesting perspective is the value of small OERs to self learners compared with fuller ‘courses’. Not sure if any research compares access to both….


    I think the vision of the infinitely extendable lecture hall is exactly the one that presents the MOOC as a risk, in a way that wasn’t intended in the first uses of the term, I don’t think.
    When media coverage started to talk about celebrity MOOCs with 190,000 enrolled, there were two obvious stakeholders who would take an interest, because 190,000 is the sign that a new kind of educational market might be emerging, that isn’t tethered to enrolment or location. So institutions started to say “Should we get into this?” and LMS vendors started to think: “This is better than having to go through an RFP.” And I’m guessing that for obvious reasons celebrity college professors thought “I have so got this covered.”
    If this represents some kind of shift back to the lecturer as a slightly free agent, it also suggests a need for both HE institutions and LMS vendors to try to create some organisation in the self-learner market—to manage the risk of contract churn.

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