MOOCs are your friends

THE MOOC! the movie

<Image Giulia Forsythe>

(I know what you're thinking: "if only someone would write an opinion blog post on MOOCs, there just aren't any out there").

Reactions to MOOCs tend to fall into two camps. The first is the MOOC will conquer all group who see them as saviours of learning and destroyers of universities. See Clay Shirky's MP3 analogy for an example (and also David Kernohan's excellent response) although this month's MOOC hyperbole award goes to this techcrunch piece.

The second camp are the dismissers. MOOCS are a fad, they aren't anything new, or they're so flawed they aren't worth considering. See for example, MOOCS fad and bubble .

What I want to consider here though is the idea of MOOCs being complementary to existing Higher Education practice. It's a line I've promoted before, in my digital scholar book I make the argument that:

"Competition with informal learning is true to an extent, but it presupposes a set amount of learning by an individual, as if they have a limited number of cognitive learning tokens to be used up in a lifetime. But it is more often the case that learning begets learning. In this respect open, informal education is complementary to formal education, indeed something of a gift, rather than a threat. In a world that generates vast amounts of niche content which people are increasingly engaged with, either through generating their own, sharing or discussing, the outcome is a larger population of active learners. A population of active learners are more likely to engage in formal study than a population of passive consumers."

I've been asked to do a couple of MOOC presentations recently, and I've tried to provide examples of where MOOCs can work in harmony with current educational practices, either boosting recruitment, enhancing the student experience or allowing different approaches. So, here's my top five ways in which MOOCs are your friend:

  1. Open up a portion of courses – one could structure online (or blended) courses so a portion of them is a stand-alone MOOC. This is what I'm doing with H817, where my 7 weeks of the 20 week course is open. This allows students to see if it's the type of course they want to study, to make connections and experience studying. We found this type of trialling quite important in OpenLearn (as the research report sets out). It has several benefits for the institution and the learner. Firstly, it's the shop window, so it can increase student recruitment. Secondly, it can increase student retention, since those learners who will struggle can find this out for free, and either take a different subject, study at a different level or take preparatory material. Thirdly it can widen participation, reaching audiences you may have struggled to reach before, because they can try it for free and widening participation is one of those strategic targets many universities set themselves and then struggle to achieve.
  2. Open boundary courses – DS106 and Phonar are good examples of these. A campus based course with fee-paying students supported on campus, has an open boundary so informal learners can study online too. As well as the advantages set out in 1) this has particular benefits in certain subject areas. Photography is one such area where exposure to a wider audience, including professionals and experienced hobbyists, is beneficial. But for all students there is a benefit in developing a network of peers beyond their immediate cohort.
  3. MOOC collaboration – HEIs can collaborate on MOOCs which are useful for a range of their students. Why teach the same subject at several places, when you can create a high quality MOOC that they all take, and is recognised by all participating HEIs?
  4. MOOC recognition – by formally recognising certain MOOCs, HEIs could shorten some of the courses they offer. For example, if you have successfully completed four of these ten MOOCs, then you can skip the first year of a degree programme and complete in two years. This may not look like a win for the HEIs, but it could be. For the students it means fees are reduced by at least a third, which might make degree study more attractive. For campus universities they are selling the 'campus experience' more, without it costing quite so much, and as with 2) we may see higher retention of students who do sign up because they've been through MOOCs already.
  5. Curriculum experimentation and expansion – formal, online courses are an increasingly large investment for HEIs, which means course approval is more rigourous. The demands placed on a formal course are lessened for a MOOC (although they do not disappear), which allows for experimentation. And because you are appealing to a global audience, what is not a viable course for a campus, fee paying constituency may well be viable to a global community of informal learners. This means you can experiment with the curriculum, and find out if courses, or technology, or pedagogy, can be rolled into your formal offerings. It also means you can offer a broader curriculum, because you can offer your own low-cost MOOCs but also recognise others. "Hydro-engineering and Russian?" We do the engineering part, you do the Russian via this MOOC. 

So there you have it – MOOC as slightly annoying friend.


  1. Dear Prof. Weller/Martin,
    I read this post with interest. It is fascinating to follow some of the developments and I look forward to experiencing how the MOOC ideas will evolve. It is easy (too easy?) to bin an innovative idea, and it does happen (often). But pioneers keep pushing the boundaries as they have a vision even if they haven’t thought about the details yet. They see the big picture. Taking risks and developing ideas is part of experimentation and creating something of value.
    You make valuable suggestions in how open courses or open course elements could be beneficial for students, facilitators and institutions.
    I have started a PhD in open learning in the context of academic development and am offering an open pilot with a colleague from a Swedish institution. The pilot is a course around Flexible, Distance and Online Learning and has been co-designed by developers in both institutions. We share resources, expertise and plan to offer the course together to our staff at both institutions as a staff development opportunity but also to anybody else who would like to join us.
    The FDOL site is available at just in case you would like to have a look.
    Thank you for reading my comments.

  2. mweller says:

    Hi Chrissi
    (yes, just Martin is fine :)
    Thanks for this, will take a look today. My course starts mid-march, so there may be things of interest there too. And you’re right, dismissing stuff is easy, but seeing beyond the hype to the actual potential is more difficult.

  3. Hi Martin ;),
    Thank you for replying. Will be looking with interest to find out more about your course. I am also interested in your comments about our open FDOL course, but only if you have the time.
    Wishing you a creative weekend.

  4. This is a thoughtful post indeed – am about to participate in some Coursera offerings. As a matter of interest – it would be very interesting to have someone from the OU to join us on the Education Stream:

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