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MOOCs: Brief History, Emerging Issues, and a Critique of a new platform
This is a brief paper written for EDDE 801 (Athabasca University) on the subject of MOOCs. In this paper I wrote a bit about the history of MOOCs (ca. 2008 - 2014), some emerging issues around MOOCs, and a critique of a new Greek initiative on MOOCs.
MOOCs: Brief History, Emerging Issues, and a Critique of a new platform
EDDE 801 - Assignment #3
Massive Open Online Courses
A brief history, a discussion of current issues, and a critique of an
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have taken the world by storm these past two years.
The hype that overtook us in 2012 is slowly dying down and more substantive research on the
underlying approach of teaching at scale1 is published in academic, peer reviewed, journals.
This paper aims to provide a brief overview of the history of the MOOC, discuss some emerging
issues around the offering of MOOCs, and critique a recent entrant into the field of MOOCs,
opencourses.gr, a project undertaken by institutions of higher education in Greece.
MOOCs have been both a celebrated, and a highly contested topic in higher education over the
past few years. MOOCs span both the field of pedagogy in an online environment and the field
of educational technologies. Some see the MOOC as a new phenomenon, while others see it as
a natural progression of previous movements such as the Open Educational Resources (OER)
and Open Educational Practices movements. Many technologies that has been developed
have been seen, at one point or another, as a way to change current educational practices.
Thus in similar ways that professor’s predicted Radio Universities (Hayton, 2013), there are
those today who predict that MOOCs will disrupt current academic practices, akin to how the
MP3 file format disrupted for the music industry (Shirky, 2012).
MOOCs initially were seen as courses that were distributed, and content created by instructors
and students existed in a connected web. Students could traverse this network in a variety of
paths. There was no one, or few, predetermined paths by the instructor (Cormier, 2010).
Originally MOOCs were also seen as working on the principles of aggregation, remixing,
repurposing, and feeding forward of content within those courses (How this course works,
2011). This seems closely related to the “5R’s” of Open Content (Wiley, n.d.).
MOOCs, in name and in form, begun in 2008 with the course Connectivism and Connective
Knowledge (CCK08) offered through the University of Manitoba (Siemens & Downes, 2008).
This course was a course that explored connectivism by using connectivism. This course was
for students at the University of Manitoba, whoever it was open to the entire world, for free, as
well (Fini, 2008). As a consequence a couple of thousand learners registered for it.
MOOCs, like all other technologies, are historically situated and influenced by what has come
before them. A common graphic that shows an abridged timeline of MOOCs shows the cMOOC
as being influenced by the OER movement. In this same diagram, the Stanford MOOC
experiments are shown to be influenced by the cMOOC, and the EdX variety of xMOOCs as
influenced by MIT’s OpenCourseWare, as well as Stanford’s xMOOC experiments (MOOCs and
1 “at scale” appears to be a term that is used in lieu of “massive” these days due to the difficulty of being
able to define “massive”.
Open Education Timeline, n.d.). While this may be accurate as an abridged version, I think that
there are two important elements missing. The first are previous attempts at “at scale” online
education in the form of Fathom and AllLearn (Watters, 2013). The second is the Learning
Management System (LMS) development that has been in use in higher education at least for
the past twenty years. It is clear to people who’ve used an LMS that the conceptual framework
of MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Edx is the LMS.
As MOOCs continue to develop, and our understanding of pedagogies at scale expands, there
is a call to move from a MOOC “1.0” to a MOOC “2.0” model, indicating a change, or evolution,
of the original concept. However, when asked to describe, visually, what this development
looks like, the graphic portrays MOOC 1.0 as a hub-and-spoke model, and a MOOC 2.0 as a
networked connections diagram (Slathe, 2014). This is a misunderstanding of the actual
historical development of the MOOC. The first type of MOOC, the cMOOC, was of the “2.0”
variety, and when the xMOOC was developed by faculty at, so-called, elite universities we saw
them develop as the hub-and-spoke MOOC. Going back to a networked, interconnected,
MOOC represents a return to basics in a sense.
There are various classifications of MOOCs proposed. The one that appears to be used the
most is the xMOOC and cMOOC classification proposed by Downes. cMOOC is pretty clear in
that it stands for connectivist MOOC. xMOOC, on the other hand has no concrete definition. On
the one hand the ‘x’ is inspired by the initial use of ‘x’ in MITx, which found its way into the MIT
name by placing the ‘x’ there as a placeholder with the intent of having something more
permanent later (Agarwal, 2012), this of course didn’t occur. On the other hand, the ‘x’ is
thought of as possibly standing for “extended”, as in TEDx (Downes, 2013). It seems that these
days the ‘x’ just denotes anything that isn’t a connectivist MOOC.
This, of course, isn’t the only classification of MOOCs. Others have proposed their own
classification schemes for MOOCs as well (Lane, 2012; de Zwart, 2012, Clark, 2013) however
they all have a similar problem in that they tend to try to classify each MOOC variation in a nice
little container that describes all of the features of the MOOC. However, this might be a difficult
undertaking. A current way of thinking about classification of MOOCs revolves around
classifying their attributes and not the MOOC itself (Conole, 2013; Hogue, 2014). This way
many more permutations can be described without running out of names of them. It should be
noted that in addition to MOOC categories there also seems to be a movement to create the
anti-MOOC (Goral, 2013; Jaschik, 2013), however those classification and creation efforts have
issues and challenges of their own that are beyond the scope of this paper.
Emerging issues around MOOCs
After the initial pomp and circumstance surrounding MOOCs in 2012, there were a number of
critics of the xMOOC variety, and of course learners have had varying issues crop up with both
predominant varieties of MOOCs going back to those original cMOOCs. A colleague and I
started looking at both the, small but growing, openly published research on MOOCs, in
reportage in higher education news sources, such as inside higher education and the chronicle
of higher education, as well as blog posts from public academics who have been engaged with
MOOCs, and MOOC related research, in the past few years. By analyzing this corpus of text
we have developed an initial typology of issues around the development of MOOCs
(Koutropoulos & Zaharias, forthcoming).
Our typology contains 13 different elements:
● Definitions of a MOOC
● Academic Governance & MOOC Goals
● Instructional Design
● Learner Motivation
● Learner Engagement & Participation
● Learner Satisfaction
● Usability & Accessibility
● Assessment Challenges
● Value of “Completion” & Available Credentialing
● Sustainability & Reputation
● Course Content & Copyright Challenges
● Teaching in “Massive” Environments
● Cultural Communication & Cultural Hegemony
It should be pointed out that those 13 categories are not disconnected islands. Issues that fall
into one category can affect other categories. For instance determining the goal of the MOOC
will connect with areas of instructional design, assessment, and the value of certification. This
paper won’t go into every single category, however there are three that come up frequently in
conversations about MOOCs. Those are issues around the definition of a MOOC, issues around
learner engagement, and issues around certification.
When it comes to the definition of MOOCs each letter of the acronym poses challenges, which
has resulted in a joke amongst those in the MOOC field that every letter is negotiable (Plourde,
2013). To begin, “Massive” is not well defined. What does “Massive” mean? The first MOOC
had around 2200 students enrolled (Downes, 2008), MobiMOOC had around 500 (de Waard,
Koutropoulos, Keskin, Gallagher, Abajian, Hogue, & Rodriguez, 2011) and some of the
coursera MOOCs have had over 30,000 (Parr, 2013). “Open” is not well defined either, does it
mean open registration? open to the web? free of cost? utilizing OERs? Some argue that
“Open” has been co-opted to mean something else in the xMOOC compared to what it meant
previous to the advent of the xMOOC (Wiley, 2014). “Online” and “Course” would appear to be
some of the more well defined elements of the acronym, however those are also up for debate.
Online would imply that resources are on the internet, however as we’ve seen we can have
variability in the online space with synchronous versus asynchronous courses, cohort-based
versus self-paced, and of course the ability to have local, offline, groups of students studying
together. “Course” is also not immune from this type of definition challenge. Does the course
award college credits upon completion? Does it have defined start and end dates? What is the
role of the instructor in the course? As we can see these questions don’t just influence the
definition of the MOOC, but rather the definition of MOOC is central to other aspects of the
Learner Engagement is another element that is potentially an issue. What is meant by the word
“engagement”? Engagement can take many forms such as passively watching videos, a staple
of xMOOCs; speaking with others in a massive forum, but not necessarily listening to others;
having deep conversations with others about the course materials, whether these materials are
included in the course or not; and of course you can have passive participants who observe the
course, but their presence isn’t really felt except through server activity logs. This last group of
people is given the problematic name of “lurker”. Most of these types of engagement can be
seen through a lens of student-student interaction, student-content interaction and sometimes
student-instructor interaction. One may argue that the Equivalency Theorem as formulated by
Anderson (2003) might suffice, however learner engagement has only been considered through
specific lenses which include visible forms of work produced, such as forum participation or
taking a multiple choice test so that a certificate of completion can be attained.
Finally, we have the issues around certification. Some MOOCs offer a certificate of completion
for everyone who completes certain work, others offer certificates to those who pay to be
verified as assessment takers; and other MOOCs simply do not offer any certification. Some
MOOCs, in lieu of a traditional certificate of completion, offer badges. As a MOOC learner since
2011 I’ve accumulate a number of certificates. The big questions are “so what?” and “now
what?”. Do these certificates of completion mean something to anyone other than me? Can I
use them as demonstration of some knowledge attained? If I can, who accepts these
certificates at face value? The issue of certification connects with many other issues such as
assessment and assessment practices, instructional design, academic governance, and learner
motivation, just to name a few. Learners might be motivated to earn a certificate, but would they
pay for it? And if they did, what expectation would they have in terms of college credit, if they
are taking an open version of a college course? Agarwal, in his example, drew a distinction
between Berkeley and Berkeleyx (2012). If the course is the same content and the same
instructor in both instances, what makes one worthy of credit and the other one not?
What’s clear is that today we are no longer just experimenting in the arena of pedagogies -at-scale,
but we also need to concern ourselves with the ecosystem that we are a part of. Offering
a college course, that is usually a paid commodity, as an open online course has implications
that cut across many other areas of the institution of higher education.
A critique of OpenCourses.gr
Since the inception of the xMOOC there has been a world-wide adoption of this pedagogical
and technological format. This means that we not only see US-based providers offering courses
in English on their respective platforms, but also we see providers offering courses in French
(e.g.: ulibre.ca, france universite numerique), in German (e.g.: iVersity, OpenHPI, imoox), in
Arabic (e.g.: rwaaq), in Spanish (e.g.: miriadaX, telescopio), in Japanese (e.g.: gacco) and now
in Greek as well. The project titled OpenCourses.gr just entered the pilot phase and the intent
of this project is to offer open academic courses, by Greek Univesities, to lifelong learners. The
platform that will be used to host these open courses is eClass, a home-grown LMS used by
universities in Greece.
While the offering of academic courses to lifelong learners in Greece is a laudable goal, this
project does have certain areas that ought to be examined critically if Open Online Courses are
going to be successfully implemented, and useful to the intended learners. Some of the issues
revolve around the foundational assumptions, and work done, to enable universities in Greece
to offer open online courses, some assumptions revolve around technological implementation,
and some around the pedagogy employed. These are all issues covered in the initial taxonomy
from the previous section.
In planning this MOOC platform project, the planning authorities created three tiers of MOOCs:
the “A-,” the “A,” and “A+”. The differentiation between these three tiers is all about the content
available in each tier. For instance, the “A-” course tier will contain course details, course
objectives, keywords and a glossary, materials will be organized into modules, which will
contain objectives as well, and lecture notes, slides and course bibliographies. “A” tier courses
will contain all of the “A-” tier requirements plus podcasts or voiced-over lectures using tools like
Adobe Presenter. Finally the “A+” tier will contain everything in the previous tiers plus exercises
and recorded lectures with the instructor. It’s interesting to note here that the language used to
describe the tiers is reminiscent of assessment rather than of pedagogy and learning. Relating
to this, the rubrics used to determine the tier of the course deal mostly with the content that will
be shared rather than what is to be learned and what the pedagogy and learning environment
will be like. This, in effect, creates OpenCourseWare rather than Open Online Courses. While
the two are connected, simply putting your lectures online doesn’t mean that you’ve created an
Another question with MOOC initiatives tends to revolve around which departments participate
in these efforts. In the case of the University of Athens, we see that there are a number of
departments across the social and physical sciences taking part in this experiment. However, in
terms of numbers, the departments that are in the STEM fields (science, technology,
engineering, mathematics) seem over-represented. This, as I was told, was because those
departments have technical support to assist instructors in getting prepared to offer their
courses in an open environment, while the social sciences are not funded as well and they don’t
have the staff support. Thus, it’s just up to the instructor to get everything done. This makes
those instructors reluctant to participate.
From a technological point of view, while the eClass platform seems quite interesting and useful
as a home-grown platform, the philosophical underpinnings, and assumptions, of this platform
seem to be of a platform that was developed to support web-enhanced courses. Web-enhanced
courses are those which meet on-campus for 100% of the class time, however they
have the technological support to disseminate information and lectures online, and contain tools
for learner support online. Unlike blended courses, web-enhanced courses have no seat-time
reduction. Software platforms created with these types of functional requirements are not
appropriate for courses that are meant to be fully online, especially courses where you
enrollments might reach the thousands.
This effort should be lauded since it creates a space where college courses are accessible, in
the Greek language, to those lifelong learners who are interested in college courses in their
native language. The Greek higher education system is exam-based, which means that not
every learner has an opportunity to study what they would like to study. Thus, open courses,
provide an opportunity to those who were not able to get into the schools of their choice. This
effort also aims to create an eLearning community of practice to support faculty teaching at
Greek universities. This is a great by-product of the open courses effort since Greek
universities do not yet have the capacity to offer distance education courses. With this
community of practice, and an interest in infusing instructional design practices into teaching,
we might see the birth of a Greek distance education system.
However, the current implementation seems to have taken the worst features of the current
western xMOOC platforms by focusing mostly on digitizing materials and lectures, and not
focusing on pedagogy. Materials are important, however materials disconnected from learner-to-
learner and learner-to-instructor interaction aren’t necessarily effective, and in my view don’t
constitute a course. We already have established repositories of knowledge in the form of
libraries. We’ve had mass produced books since the invention of the printing press. Just
because we have books, or a collection of books on a certain topic, it doesn’t meant that we
have a class on that topic. It’s important to interrogate what it means to have a class, and what
role materials, digital or analog, play in that environment that we call a class. Since this project
only just entered the pilot phase, it will be interesting to see who it evolves and how it grows.
Looking at this project as a whole, there are a few recommendations that I would provide for my
colleagues starting off on this MOOC project. It would appear that the focus of this project is on
getting a substantial number of course material online rather than thinking about the
pedagogical reasons for offering a course. This design decision means that each and every
course will consist of similarly formatted course materials regardless of the discipline and
pedagogical value. Instead of focusing on quantity I would recommend focusing on quality. Pick
a number of courses that you can analyze and create pedagogically appropriate Open Online
Courses for that discipline, and with a group of learners in mind.
Relating to this is the type of courses offered. Instead of focusing on STEM courses, which
appears to be the case, I would recommend offering a cross-section of courses, both courses
that are standard STEM courses, but also niche liberal arts courses that won’t be offered
elsewhere in the world. Offering a statistics course, for instance, might be useful to some,
however there are other statistics courses available already under open content licensing which
would allow people to translate and localize those materials. Courses that should be made
Open in a regional context should be courses that don’t exist elsewhere, courses that are
unique to the Greek locale. To do this, it might be required to offer technical and pedagogical
support to smaller liberal arts departments that don’t already have that capacity.
Finally, the platform used to host these courses should be considered carefully. eClass, the
platform currently used, as implemented, is very much a platform used for exhibiting content. It
is much more like a storefront than a course home page. For instance there is no way for
learners to interact with one another, to interact with the content in ways other than passive
viewing, or for individuals learners to keep track of their own progress in the system. These
issues will need addressing if the current project wants to move from an OpenCourseWare
project, which it currently resembles, to an Open Online Course project.
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