What’s in a name?


Yesterday I had a bit of a pedant tantrum, when following the announcement about FutureLearn MOOCs offering credit, Leeds Uni tweeted they were the first Russell Group university to offer credit for online courses. They deleted the tweet after I complained because online courses aren’t the same as MOOCs, and of course many universities have been offering online courses for credit for years. I fully appreciate it was the demands of twitter and communications that caused this, there wasn’t anything sinister in their intent, and I apologise if I seemed a bit grumpy about it. But it was the latest example of a move to conflate MOOCs and ‘online courses’ that has a number of negative effects. It’s not just historical pedantry that wants this clarification, there are other issues at stake also. Here are the implications of this confusion:

It’s disrespectful – say you’ve been creating innovative online courses for years. Suddenly all of this work is dismissed because MOOCs represent a year zero for online education, and therefore everything you have done previously cannot be counted.

It’s a landgrab – some of this confusion is accidental (as I believe the case was with the Leeds tweet), but in other cases it is more deliberate. By claiming that MOOCs invented online learning they look to be the inheritors of its future.

It underplays the role of universities – this quote from a piece in the Times Higher captures this I think:

“If we have learned nothing else from the move by universities worldwide to be part of the massive open online course (Mooc) movement, it is that education or research development can easily be shared without the need for time and place dependencies.”

The piece has the title “Moocs prove that universities can and should embrace online learning”. I mean, really? Universities have been embracing online learning for at least 15 years. And yet this view makes it seem that we needed those silicon valley types to make us notice the internet. This adds to the landgrab. Similarly FutureLearn’s Simon Nelson stated “our platform means that they can achieve meaningful qualifications whilst still being able to work”. This rather seems to downplay the 40 year history of the OU which was designed for that very purpose, and once again makes it appear as a MOOC invention.

It limits our options – if MOOCs and online courses are synonymous then MOOCs become the only way of doing online learning. Let’s not limit ourselves again, now that we’re just emerging from the VLE restrictions. You can see some of this in this NYT piece: “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought”.

This conflation of MOOC and online learning means that MOOC failures become the failure of all online learning, and MOOC future becomes the future of all online learning. It’s more important than that, so we shouldn’t cede the ground to lazy terminology. That’s why I’m pedantic about the use of the term. Or maybe I’m just pedantic.

Lying in bed last night I remembered this post from Seth Godin. It pretty much encapsulates all my concerns above. He declares MOOCs to be the “1st generation of online learning”. Then he invents a solution to the problems of MOOCs, which is a fee based, small cohort course, based around assignments and group work. Now that sounds an awful lot like the type of elearning many universities have been doing for at least a decade, particularly at post-grad level. But that wouldn’t allow him to portray himself as a visionary, so all of that has to be dismissed. MOOCs were year zero, and now he’s making it better. What we do without gurus?


  • Mark Brandon (@icey_mark)

    Pedantry is OK. And I think you are making a very important point.
    We do try as hard as possible to make sure online learning learning and MOOC are not the same. Because they are … not the same.

    But in a way that is the MOOC problem too. Because if they are showcases and gateways to more complex study (as per yesterdays announcement), then they have to make their learners see the value paying more to continue their study, so they have to help the people studying see the difference.

    Don’t they? Great post btw.

  • francesbell

    l didn’t particularly like the THE quote either. If “education …. can be easily shared” then what is the point of campus-based courses? I was of the generation where students received grants and many students from poorer backgrounds were able to thrive and succeed in university (though of course some experienced ‘network effects’ in employment ). The campus experience was much greater than classes and libraries. Student organisations and politics provided great experiences beyond the gaze of the institution. How would that translate online? Learning Analytics meets Activity analytics ?
    We are in a different situation now but I still think we should be asking who wishes and benefits from campus-based educative and how can we ensure that they get it? As education is unbundled, costed and charged for by the bundle who will benefit and who will lose? the whole is different from the sum of the parts. Who will get the better and worse packages?

  • newbouldblog

    The OU transformed the educational landscape and has continued doing so for nearly 50 years (2019 will be the 50th).
    But when MOOCs finally turn to dust, or are reinvented as ‘the failure of online learning’, their demise must not be allowed to diminish the ongoing transformative value of the Open University and technology enhanced learning.
    Being ‘Online’ is just one of the characteristics of MOOCs. The OU, on the other hand, has shown it can exploit technologies to enrich learning, from printed publications and radio broadcasting to mobile ICTs, and – while it spawned FutureLearn – the future of learning is still very much the traditional, radical OU way 🙂

  • edtechs Info (@edtechsInfo)

    You are not grumpy, trust me it takes one to know one, you are not a pedant, you are simply correct. I was corrected at a very public debate with a large group of associate lecturers at the OU when I was firmly reminded that the OU was not entirely online and that many subjects were still mainly taught at distance. Interesting distinction, but an important one too. Feeling a little sorry for the poor – possibly young – person in charge of social media marketing for Leeds Uni though, they certainly felt the sharp end there.

  • macurcher

    Spot on Martin. I also meet this all the time in face to face meeting with faculty as well. For many MOOCs and Online learning are synonymous and they should know better.

  • Steve Bamlett

    Hi Martin

    I wonder if this debate is really nothing much to do with online education as with a very classic debate about academic epistemology: to wit: what is that constitutes historical knowledge and justifies time-based classification of events and processes.

    What is new or constitutes an origin? That’s surely a version of the same debate that from different perspectives presents its insight as ‘disruptive’ innovation – from old to new ‘testaments’, to ‘ground-zero’ calendar reformulations (Julian to the French revolution).

    My own feeling is that institutions feel forced to enter the discourse of the ‘new’ precisely because resources (including language) are all subjected to a primary test of their saleability as adjuncts of a commodity rather than their of the rigour and care with which they are sustainably used (which means I think used in a way that reveals novelty through its affordances until all such affordances are obsolete).

    Yes, of course, the position is old-fashioned – exchange value rather than use value rules in rigorously capitalised cultures – us old socialists die hard.

    However, I think Frances has a point. TEL is about how to ensure how education is produced, disseminated and reproduced in ways that open up opportunity. To see ‘online education’ as a new start is to collaborate with yet another ‘ground-zero’ option. Having said that, I think maybe Martin puts too much importance on one tweet and I’m feeling rather empathetic to the poor sod in Leeds!

    All the best


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