What is MOOC?

Online Learning MOOC

What is MOOC?

MOOC, which stands for the massive open online course, became one of those rare phenomena: an education innovation that captures the imagination of the public at large while moving at the speed of an Internet startup. 


This tutorial explores What is MOOC and how students use this online learning platform. And also explains the Business Model of MOOC.


Which automate the interaction between a school’s students, teachers, and administrators, and Internet-driven distance-learning programs, have only gone mainstream after the usual deliberation among stakeholders and the piloting associated with most technology initiatives.


And while these technologies have indeed transformed the learning landscape, only avid readers of education- or educational-technology-specific publications would have been aware of the ups and downs of their integration into the classroom.


Some argued that MOOCs were an innovation that could have emerged only from the startup culture of Silicon Valley, but educators at prestigious East Coast universities weren’t buying it.


After all, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had been offering access to nearly all of its teaching materials (including lecture videos and notes, syllabi, and even homework exercises and exam materials) via its OpenCourseWare initiative for a decade.


So rather than joining the queue behind other universities signing deals with venture-funded for-profit companies like Udacity or Coursera, MIT instead teamed up with Harvard to create their own competing MOOC provider: edX, a non-profit begun with commitments of more than fifty million dollars from the two Cambridge-based educational giants.


When large institutions that normally move into new educational arenas at a glacial pace start writing multimillion-dollar checks to try to quickly compete in an emerging market, that’s a story of interest to more than just the educational media.


And the fact that some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities spent 2012 and 2013 lining up to deliver classes via one of the emerging East- or West-Coast MOOC-consortia established MOOCs as something that could not be dismissed as a passing educational fad.


In fact, for all of the discussion of money and technology that have played out in both the educational and mainstream press since the MOOC story broke, the most a significant aspect of the rise of MOOCs may turn out to be the changes they have wrought within the culture of higher education;


As my Degree of Freedom project was wrapping up toward the end of 2013, the “Big Three” MOOC providers—Udacity, Coursera, and edX—were offering over 500 courses on varying disciplines, with a total enrollment in MOOC classes topping seven million.


And while this decision didn’t prevent other schools from taking the plunge, the Amherst decision communicated that participating in the “MOOC the movement” was not necessarily a requirement for every respectable institution of higher learning fretful of being left behind.


MOOC Benefits

open education

The benefits of free, open education for all were hard to dismiss when the first MOOC classes were emerging.


But once those classes had been in the field for a few semesters, there was suddenly data both boosters and critics of MOOCs could use to support their pro- and anti-MOOC arguments.


For critics, high attrition rates were an easy target, given that fewer than 10 percent of people who signed up for a MOOC tended to take it to completion.


And once institutions moved from agreeing to create a MOOC to actually building and delivering one, the amount of work involved, not to mention the challenges inherent in trying to teach tens of thousands of students simultaneously (all while balancing other teaching responsibilities), became the basis for a new set of concerns.


Tales of flame wars breaking out in the online comment forums, originally designed to replicate the civil discourse of the classroom, were part of that story, as were disappointments over the lack of engagement of many students, which caused one UC Irvine professor to abandon his course midsemester out of frustration.


And then there was the natural conflict between the claimed altruistic missions of MOOC providers to educate the planet and the need for these organizations to make money out of what was emerging as a massive Internet giveaway.


Usual methods of “monetizing eyeballs” (such as online ads) seemed anathema to the culture of education;


but proposed business models that would allow venture-funded companies to turn a profit led to suspicions that MOOCs could end up decimating traditional education in order to generate a return for investors or, in the case of nonprofits, generate the funds needed to achieve self-sufficiency.


Business Model of MOOC

Business Model of MOOC

One business model that has been actively explored by MOOC providers, licensing content to residential institutions of higher education such as state and community colleges, created the biggest MOOC controversy of 2013 when professors in the philosophy department of San Jose State University published a letter;


ostensibly written to Harvard professor Michael Sandel (one of the aforementioned “rock star professors” who teaches the popular ethics class Justice for edX), complaining that the school’s licensing of edX content was part of a scheme by administrators to replace paid faculty with third-party video lectures.


In fact, suspicion over this still largely experimental licensing model led one instructor of a popular Coursera course to pull his support from the project when the chance came to give the class a second time.


As MOOCs were going through this roller-coaster ride over the course of 2013, I was in the unusual position of standing still while public opinion was changing around me.


For my cautious enthusiasm over what massive open learning might eventually evolve into was neither zealous enough for those celebrating a MOOC revolution nor cynical enough to suit those participating in the backlash.


More importantly, as someone with experience watching popular technology trends play out in fields outside the politically fraught world of education, this trajectory of zeal followed by paranoia was fitting into a familiar trend: that of the “Hype Cycle” for new, disruptive technologies.


This Hype Cycle model, originally developed by the Gartner Group technology-consulting firm, maps out important peaks and valleys of perception that tend to repeat whenever an important technology-driven trend plays out.


According to this model, a “technology trigger” of some sort introduces something new into an established marketplace. This trigger might be a new invention, but more frequently it is the result of a once-experimental or peripheral technology becoming affordable or stable enough to become accepted as a standard.


MOOC's E-book Technology

MOOC's E-book Technology

For instance, e-book technology had existed for years in the form of products from different vendors who had created their own standards and devices, companies that struggled to build relationships with established publishers while working out new business models for book sales and distribution. But it was Amazon’s release of the

  1. Visibility
  2. The peak of inflated expectations
  3. Plateau of productivity
  4. Slope of enlightenment
  5. Trough of disillusionment
  6. Technology trigger
  7. Time


Kindle, a standard rapidly embraced by large numbers of major publishers, that served as the technology trigger for mainstreaming the replacement of older production and delivery systems (print, warehouse, delivery truck, and bookstore) with something new (the tablet reader fed by Internet download).


In the case of MOOCs, it was the emergence of companies like Udacity, Coursera, and edX, whose technologies could facilitate classes taken by tens of thousands, that triggered a MOOC movement that had previously been relegated to theoretical frameworks or experimental courses.


Once such new and promising technologies grab public attention, the next stage involves inflated expectations that tend to minimize any potential downside in favor of visions of a near-term utopia.


For e-books, the notion of instant gratification coupled with lower-cost fed expectations that any publisher that remained attached to print in any way was doomed to oblivion, especially in a world where writers could bypass publishers entirely to self-publish directly to the Kindle or to competing technologies like Apple’s iPad or Barnes and Noble’s Nook.


MOOCs passed through this “Inflated Expectations” stage in 2012 when 100,000+ person enrollments in newly emerging massive classes fueled expectations that Harvard- or Stanford-quality education would soon be available to all for free, solving problems such as third-world poverty abroad and the skyrocketing cost of higher education at home;


if not immediately, then at least over that fifty-year period Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun predicted would be needed before MOOCs came to rule an educational landscape consisting of no more than ten institutions.


Unsurprisingly, it was this very vision that terrified those professors who feared they might not be working in one of those ten theoretically surviving schools.


But even absent an entrenched establishment threatened by disruptive technology, inflated expectations invariably lead to disappointment as euphoric fantasies run head-on into the realities associated with the introduction of any transformative innovation.


Continuing with the e-book parallel, this technology was greeted with an initial backlash by those passionate about traditional printed books (a substantial group with significant cultural influence). But disillusionment with e-book technology was not simply fueled by nostalgia.


For e-books—with their eccentric form factors, layout limitations, and live (i.e., distracting) “hot links”—were proving to offer a different and not necessarily superior reading experience compared to the printed book.


And as authors realized that their self-published Kindle editions were being downloaded by only a few family members, the role played by traditional publishers beyond layout, manufacturing, and delivery, especially with regard to building awareness of new titles, became apparent to authors and publishers alike.


In the case of MOOCs, the challenges inherent in delivering quality courses to huge numbers demonstrated that digital videos of Harvard lectures did not a Harvard education make. More pragmatically, MOOC courses seemed to vary enormously in terms of quality and workload.


And with no clear way to ensure that a student enrolled in a MOOC was the one actually doing the work, it was difficult to claim that any massive open course constituted the equivalent of a traditional semester-long college class.


In cases where college equivalency was claimed (or even proven), the complex process of turning MOOCs into genuine college credit made it an option for just an illustrious few.


And even when MOOC providers established programs to smooth the way toward obtaining credit via an established institution, few if any students signed up, indicating that the audience for MOOCs might actually not be college students seeking an alternative to a tradi-tional—and expensive—education.


As these genuine concerns met with some of the suspicion and paranoia mentioned earlier, a MOOC backlash occurred that sometimes manifested itself as outright hostility but was mostly expressed as cooling interest in MOOCs as a whole, which is why MOOC news stories toward the end of 2013 were far fewer than what we saw at the beginning of that year.


The point of the Gartner Hype Cycle curve is to demonstrate that neither the height of inflated expectations nor the trough of disillusionment are particularly productive with regard to allowing new technology to find its proper fit in the marketplace.


For that to happen, cooler heads need to prevail that are willing to embrace the new technology—warts and all—and allow it to evolve to the point where it can achieve its potential.


For just as e-book technology now coexists with older methods of production and distribution while also evolving to create new and unique reading experiences, so too can massive open


Even when MOOC providers established programs to smooth the way toward obtaining credit via an established institution, few students signed up, indicating that the audience might not be college students seeking an alternative to a traditional—and expensive—education. classes usher in an exciting educational future, but only if the MOOC experiment is allowed to run its course.


Finding the proper pathway up this “Slope of Enlightenment” to allow MOOCs to more rapidly reaching a “Plateau of Productivity” was the goal of my Degree of Freedom project, which provided ground-level, student-centric understanding of what worked and what didn’t in reality, live MOOC classes.


It is also the goal of this book, which should be thought of as a means to shorten and steepen the enlightenment curve by providing perspective on how MOOCs came about, what they consist of, their issues, challenges, and potential futures.

online courses

On the surface, MOOCs might just seem like general online courses, albeit with no fees and huge open enrollments. But by seeing where MOOCs fit into the evolutionary history of online education, we can determine how closely the MOOCs have taken today by millions of students fit (or don’t fit) the vision of earlier pioneers in technology-driven teaching and learning.


Whether a course can simply be thought of as the sum of its constituent parts. And in an era when companies outside the original MOOC “big three” are repackaging and rebranding existing content as massive online course offerings, we take a look at the question of how to best define “MOOC” and consider what might determine whether an online course fits into this category.


Much of the writing surrounding this subject uses the phrase “the MOOC experiment” to highlight the fact that individual MOOCs, as well as the MOOC concept as a whole, should be thought of as an experimental program playing out in public rather than a product being presented as already perfected.


Although cynics could dismiss this language as a means to excuse releasing sloppy or unfinished work into the marketplace, the scientific attitude ex-pressed by MOOCs being an experiment in new learning methods is deeply embedded in the DNA of those most heavily invested in their success.


The “perfect is the enemy of the good” is a phrase attributed to Voltaire, although that sentiment can be seen in the work of other thinkers before and since.


And in the highly charged, highly politicized, high-stakes world of education, innovation and reform are frequently criticized for providing “only” partial or gradual solutions to some of the many problems that plague education, such as lack of results, high cost, and limited access to resources, rather than providing immediate answers to all of them.


It is difficult to argue that no good can come out of the world’s most successful colleges and universities making classes taught by skilled and enthusiastic professors eager to share their knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection.


But even if we can avoid the fallacy of thinking that because MOOCs cannot solve all our educational challenges they aren’t worth pursuing, we still need to understand the nature of the benefits such programs deliver as well as who can benefit from them.


As with any book covering a fast-moving topic, there is always the risk that the words I’m writing now might seem outdated by the time you read them, especially since MOOCs (like many inventions that have come before) is a collection of technologies moving in directions even their creators never anticipated.


But with a grounding in where MOOCs came from, what they consist of, what challenges they face, and where they might be going, readers will stand a better chance of making better decisions regarding their own involvement with this promising and still potentially revolutionary new method of learning.




When looking for precedents regarding the symbiosis between technology and education, one could go back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe when a new communication technology, the printing press, became associated with a theology that stressed personal study of the Bible, which the new printing technology made more widely available.


This historic combination created the need for a more widely literate public, a need that could be met only by expanding education beyond clerics and aristocrats.


But it was the value of later Enlightenment figures placed on universal education that led to the creation of public school systems as well as the massive expansion of institutions of higher learning from the eighteenth century onward.


In addition to disrupting established methods of manufacturing and commerce, these innovations also created the need for increasing numbers of educated managers and technocrats.


Faith in the combined virtues of universal education and technical progress meant that from the nineteenth century onward, any new breakthrough in communications technology was almost immediately put to work toward the goal of educating the masses, with MOOCs being just the latest manifestation of this historic impulse.


Distance Education

Distance Education

When MOOCs are discussed in the context of distance education, an analogy is often drawn to correspondence courses first popularized in the 1840s by the UK’s Sir Isaac Pittman, whose correspondence colleges offered to train students in his new shorthand method by sending them instruction manuals through the mail.


The concentration of such programs in the Midwest reflected a mission for many of these newly created institutions to support educational outreach to rural communities that lacked easy access to the resources of a major urban campus.


These distance education programs were also heavily involved with government programs at the federal and state level (such as the creation of the Extension Service and foundation of Land Grant Colleges), which tried to improve the conditions of Americans living in underserved agricultural regions.


The undergraduate and even graduate degree-by-mail opportunities these schools offered also opened up opportunities for educational advancement to other dispersed communities such as military personnel.


The technological breakthroughs that made correspondence-based education possible during this era were Faith in the combined virtues of universal education and technical progress meant that from the nineteenth century onward, any new breakthrough in communications. 


The technology was almost immediately put to work toward the goal of educating the masses, with MOOCs being just the latest manifestation of this historic impulse. infrastructural (such as the expansion of rail and road networks, which enabled the mail to reach every home) and mechanical (the machine-powered printing press, which dramatically lowered the cost of printed books).


Low-cost printing, which was made possible as a result of modern farming and manufacturing techniques in the paper industry, fueled other informal means of bringing educational content to previously marginalized communities.


Public libraries, for example, which expanded into every community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were able to stock inexpensively produced books that a growing publishing industry was churning out in ever greater numbers.


This technology-driven downward price spiral also meant books were finding their way into private hands through familiar commercial channels such as bookstores and modern distribution techniques such as the traveling salesman.


Low-cost print and distribution opened up other avenues for books to reach the masses.


To cite one example, my father (a retired professor of literature) discovered what we would now term “The Great Books” in the library of his father, a factory foreman who had obtained them free as part of his subscription to PM, a left-leaning New York news daily that decided access to the classics was essential to uplifting members of the working class.


Electronic Media

Electronic Media

Lectures alone, either broadcast or recorded (or in the classroom, for that matter), were never enough to constitute the entirety of an educational experience, which is why it required a new generation of distance-learning pioneers to come up with new pedagogies;


that would stitch together the various components of a class, including lectures, reading assignments, graded homework, and tests, into something recognizable as a complete and genuine “course.”


In addition to embracing radio, television, audio, and video recordings, and eventually the Internet as educational communication tools, Open University, unlike similar distance education initiatives at the time, had no formal entrance requirements beyond the ability to pay (often subsidized) and willingness to participate in classes and complete assignments.


And while the digital computing and Internet technologies that would eventually underlie MOOCs were not in existence as Open University grew to serve hundreds of thousands of students in its first decades, OU’s program represents one of the first instances of the no-barriers philosophy that would become a cornerstone of massive online learning.


Computer-Based Teaching

Computer-Based Teaching

Early attempts to integrate technology into the class-room—one of the most interesting being B. F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine, a mechanical device that would feed content to students using a predetermined algorithm— never got much traction in the primary grades it was envisioned to serve.


But such inventions did create a template for subsequent devices and techniques to come that would use technology to diverge from the one-size-fits-all-at-the-same-time pedagogies that formed the basis of traditional classroom education.


It took the introduction of the digital computer, which offered information storage and sharing resources that facilitated communications and interaction, to provide a platform that would eventually replace disparate educational modalities (such as lectures on audio or videotape, readings delivered by mail, or exams taken on site) with a single point of entry for most if not all of the distance education experience.


Like all of the technologies mentioned so far in this blog, the computer was embraced almost immediately as an educational instrument—this despite severe limitations of early devices, which consisted of large centralized systems with which students interacted primarily via terminals capable of displaying only text-based characters.


PLATO (standing for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), a system developed in the 1960s by professors at the University of Illinois, is probably the most important early attempt to apply new computing technologies to challenges in education.


While built on networked mainframe systems that primarily time-sliced character-based content to “dumb” terminals, PLATO evolved to incorporate elements its creators decided were crucial to education.


For example, the need to display graphics as well as text led PLATO’s builders to innovate precursors to the graphical user interface eventually taken up by computer scientists at Xerox PARC, innovations that ultimately found their way into the Apple Macintosh and Windows systems we today take for granted.


And the importance of facilitating professor-to-student and student-to-student communication led PLATO’s makers to construct technologies that prefigured and inspired electronic mail, bulletin board systems, and all of the other online communications facilities that underlie today’s hyperconnected world.


As computers went through their rapid evolution from centralized systems based on mainframe and minicomputers connected to “dumb” terminals through low-cost and autonomous microcomputers to today’s powerful networked machines, education continued to find new uses for each advance in computing technology.


For example, early microcomputers that ran character-based operating systems or graphical operating systems were embraced by home and school users as educational tools that could run standalone teaching software, including educational games, flashcards, and automated homework exercises.


But it was the networked communication facilitated by the Internet’s rise in the 1990s that turned computing technology from a support tool to a potential replacement for the traditional classroom.


It should be noted that by the time the Internet (first created in the 1960s) started to enter the mainstream, previous limitations associated with desktop computers were becoming a thing of the past.


For instance, plummeting hardware costs meant computers with enough memory and storage capacity to run multimedia applications like audio and video had become commodities.


And by the time a new generation of online universities opened its doors, high-speed bandwidth was also becoming available and affordable (at least in the developed world) as the once familiar modem whistle followed by a blast of static was replaced by instantly available audio and video content from, among other places, institutions of learning.


Education has been transformed not only through advances in technology but by advances in teaching methodology and pedagogy, by educational reform movements (many emphasizing outcomes and testing), and by political decisions regarding how to prioritize the substantial sums government invests in education at the local, state/ regional, and national levels.


And even as these new ways of teaching and learning have been influenced by a rapidly expanding educational technology industry, they have also provided the intellectual foundation upon which many EdTech ventures have been built.


Anyone of these topics deserves its own historical account. But for purposes of continuing this blog’s storyline leading to the emergence of the MOOC, a list of relevant innovations related to online learning that started in the 1990s includes the following:


• The introduction of learning management systems (LMSs) into college campuses, which automated the interaction between students and professors (through features such as the automated distribution of syllabus material and submission of homework assignments), as well as professors and administrators (through systems such as centralized grading and reporting).


• The embrace of online teaching by traditional colleges and universities where, as described in a 2011 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (which incorporates survey research involving college presidents and students):


“More than three-quarters of the nation’s colleges and universities now offer online classes, according to the survey of college presidents, and about one-in-four college graduates (23%) have taken a course online, according to the general public survey. Among those who have graduated in the past decade, the figure rises to 46%.”




The Internet did not remain static as educators tried to figure out how to make use of its benefits while avoiding its pitfalls.


Upsides of the new communications medium included dramatic increases in efficiency and rapid expansion of reach, while downsides included a developing culture of distraction that threatened to disrupt class time;


not to mention a culture of giving things—including educational content—away for free that threatened to disrupt the business models undergirding higher education.


The emergence of social media products such as Facebook and Twitter provided the means to instantly create online communities, including communities of learners, who could participate in projects together regardless of geographical location.


And as free, cloud-based resources tore down barriers to content creation and distribution, comparisons began to be drawn between the education field and newspapers and magazines that were not able to reinvent themselves quickly enough to avoid decimation by an online revolution in media.


Discussion of the educational potential of these tools was taking place within a wider decades-long and fretful conversation over an education system claimed to be in a perpetual state of crisis, even as proponents of pedagogical and political solutions were providing competing answers to less-than-clearly understood questions.


This environment created a ready audience for anyone proposing technology-based cures (including magic bullets) for the ills of education, an audience that included parents staring down six-figure tuition bills that might buy their kids access to schools delivering ever-larger classes taught by adjuncts and graduate students rather than full professors.


Educational entrepreneurs and altruists, including countless emerging educational technology (or EdTech) ventures and educational nonprofits, were more than ready to provide their own alternatives in the form of educational products and programs,;


many of them leveraging the same all-but-free Internet infrastructure being used by large educational publishers and universities themselves to deliver a variety of proposed solutions to society’s educational ills.


One of these ills was the aforementioned ever-increasing size of classes, a problem that could theoretically be solved by allowing small online communities of learners to band together based on their interests and ability level to create more intimate educational experiences tailored to the needs of individual students.


But it would take until 2008 before one of these experimenters decided to deliberately increase class size as a means for improving education. And once the threshold of a thousand students in a single class was breached, the age of the MOOC had begun.


Opening Up the Class

Opening Up the Class

Before “massiveness” became the focus of attention in online learning, “open” was the key driver for a series of experiments in online education from which today’s MOOCs ultimately emerged.


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative was founded in 2002 to make content from MIT’s classroom-based courses available over the Internet to teachers, college students, and independent learners.


Today, material from over 2,000 MIT classes, cutting across all disciplines, can be accessed and used for educational purposes, and MIT is a member of an OpenCourseWare Consortium that makes available multilingual educational materials from countries around the world.


OpenCourseWare provides a powerful example of how institutions can share educational resources with the public. However, the contents of OCW libraries can vary considerably from institution to institution and even from course to course.


For example, only a small percentage of MIT’s OCW classes include video recordings of lectures, with the majority of courses covered by lecture notes and slides alongside reading lists, exams, and other text-based content.


And while anyone is free to follow along with a course syllabus (also provided for each course in the MIT OCW library), OpenCourseWare is generally not considered to provide a comprehensive substitute for structured MIT classes.


Throwing open the doors of existing structured classes to people not associated with the institution where Before “massiveness” became the focus of attention in online learning, “open” was the key driver for a series of experiments in online education from which today’s MOOCs ultimately emerged. The course was being taught was a logical next step in the evolution of online openness.


Technology-wise, there was little to prevent course content that was already automated and delivered to students on and off campus through a school’s online learning management system from being made available to people not connected with the college or university.


But actually inviting the public to take a course for free (where they would be working alongside traditional students who had paid to take the same class) was a radical step taken by educational envelope pushers like Dr. David Wiley of Utah State University.


In 2008, Wiley opened up one of his education courses to the world, allowing anyone interested to participate alongside his tuition-paying Utah State students.


These external students were asked to take part in all of the class work performed by Utah students, including submitting written assignments that Dr. Wiley graded like any other papers submitted in his classes.


And while Utah State did not provide official recognition or credit to external students taking the course for free, Dr. Wiley issued his own signed certificates of completion—prefiguring the types of quasi-official course-gradation documents that would come to characterize the MOOC reward system a few years later.


Now Wiley’s experiment drew fewer than ten external enrollees who took the course alongside fifteen Utah State students, so grading papers and personally signing certificates represented a modest increase in workload, well worth the effort for a professor dedicated to evangelizing the benefits of open learning.


But while that small Utah class was creating an important precedent for future open online course initiatives, further North another experiment would add massiveness into the equation.


The first course to earn the title of a MOOC was Connectivism and Connective Knowledge taught by Stephen Downes, senior researcher for the National Research Council of Canada, and George Siemens, associate director for the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Canada’s Athabasca University.


This 2008 course (which was repeated in 2011 and 2012) looks very different from the institution-based MOOC classes that would be making news from 2011 onward. For the connectivist approach to knowledge and learning that was the subject of the course also characterized the way the entire project was organized.


The connections model championed by pioneers such as Siemens and Downes sees knowledge and learning through the lens of how information becomes incorporated into the brain, an organic system in which billions of neurons form trillions of connections with learning measured in the net number of new connections created.


And once the Internet became large enough to facilitate a number of nodes that could be measured in the hundreds of millions (if not billions), it became possible to create a course based on this connectivist understanding of how people learn.


Unlike a standard online class delivering traditional classroom elements such as lectures, reading assignments, homework, and tests via a learning management system, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge was built around a variety of online communication tools with students forming organic communities through bulletin boards and chat rooms, social media products like Facebook and Twitter, or sharing services like RSS.


And as these communities formed, they linked up with other communities as the network defining the class grew and evolved.


In order to provide some connective tissue for the program, Downes and Siemens posted a daily newsletter containing links to recommended articles, videos, and other content that students were free to review, discuss, add to, or ignore.


And instead of attending scheduled lectures where the professors acted as sages performing from a virtual stage, students were invited to participate in bi-weekly presentations by the course leaders, by people the professors invited to speak, or by individuals drawn from the community of networked learners.


Under this connectivist framework, all material generated by the professors (such as presentations, reading recommendations, and discussion forums) was optional, with students free to use what they liked, create and share their own curriculum materials, and take the community-based conversation in directions never planned by the creators of the course.


The connective vision continues to generate a great deal of passion as well as a roster of online courses organized around its principles of decentralized networks.


But as class sizes for these types of courses stabilized in the three- and four-figure range, a new vision for the MOOC— the xMOOC—would start racking up enrollments of tens and even hundreds of thousands.




The origin of what we now consider to be mainstream MOOCs, which began with the Stanford open learning experiment and evolved into consortia of colleges and universities delivering online courses through companies such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX.


But while such classes may have become synonymous with the term “MOOC” in the educational and popular media, people involved with some of the earlier experiments in online learning described in this blog use the term xMOOC to distinguish the newer massive courses from the connectivist MOOCs (now referred to as cMOOCs) that came before.


Given that one of the saving graces of the otherwise unattractive MOOC acronym is its pronounceability, it’s no surprise that this pair of unwieldy variants failed to capture an audience beyond a small community of learning specialists.


And while it’s tempting to characterize xMOOCs and cMOOCs as representing opposing pedagogies or ideologies with regard to their approach to large-scale online learning, such reductivism threatens to blur more interesting distinctions and overlaps between the two ways MOOCs have manifested themselves to date.


After all, “xMOOC” is not a banner the current crop of MOOCs from companies like Coursera and edX chose to travel under but rather is a label assigned to later forms of MOOC classes by advocates for specific theories of connectivism.


And unlike cMOOCs, xMOOCs are not built around a specific educational theory or pedagogy, even if most of them can be characterized as replicating traditional classroom models designed around lectures, homework assignments, and assessments.


Also, as interesting as connectivist educational models might be, and as important as cMOOCs were in breaking down barriers to large-scale online classes, the number of people who have chosen to participate in xMOOC classes surpasses cMOOC participants by at least two orders of magnitude.


Now it is not at all clear whether the popularity of an MIT xMOOC like Circuits and Electronics (with an enrollment of over 150,000) is due to its xMOOC nature, the subject matter, or the fact that it is a free course from MIT.


But it does seem as though the emerging MOOC market is driven more by content and association with prestige universities than it is by either technology or pedagogical theory.


Regarding overlap between various flavors of MOOC, keep in mind the experimental nature of the entire massive open course undertaking, a culture of research, assimilation, and trial-and-error.


5. So, far from seeing cMOOC experiments in community formation as a rival pedagogy, many creators of xMOOCs see classes like Connectivism and Connective Knowledge as just one more set of precedents to draw from as they put together and continued to tinker with their own massive online courses.


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Family Tree

Mooc Tree

Rather than focusing on narrow x- and c-genera of the MOOC phenomenon, a better way to think about MOOC variants is by placing them on different branches of a far larger and more complex family tree alongside multiple variants of online learning, not to mention other modern teaching tools and techniques, all descending from a common pair of ancestors: technology and education.


With these two playing the role of Adam and Eve, descendants of the pairing of education and technology include not just multiple species of online education (which includes MOOCs, online colleges, and LMS-driven online learning within K–12 and higher education);


but a host of transformations within the classroom where teachers at all grade levels are drawing upon new technology-based resources to construct, enliven, and transform how learning takes place, implementing pedagogies quite at odds with the way education has traditionally been delivered.


For instance, “Flipped Classroom Models” involve replacing the usual sequence of in-class lectures followed by assignments and projects done at home with a new work-flow that involves students watching recorded lectures as homework, freeing class time for extended in-depth discussion or work on complex individual and group projects.


MOOCs are frequently brought up in discussions of flipping the class where it is assumed that recorded MOOC lectures will provide at-home video content.


But even before the advent of MOOCs, educators have been implementing this method of teaching by recording their own lectures or curating material from different commercial and noncommercial third-parties for both homework/lectures and in-classroom exercises.


The concept of “curation,” which involves teachers locating and procuring educational material from various sources and integrating it into the class, has also destabilized another mainstay of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education: the textbook.


Whereas public school districts once purchased individual texts for each student (or, as in my own kids’ schools, purchases two copies per student freeing them from having to drag heavy hardcover tomes home each day), they are now gravitating toward e-book versions of the same texts which are being supplemented by material found from sources like the open web.


Professors at colleges and universities who face less pressure than do K–12 teachers to use teaching resources— notably textbooks—selected for them (often based on compliance with state standards) have gone much further in replacing textbooks entirely with articles and other content pulled together into inexpensive custom coursepacks or delivered to students free through learning management systems or a library reserve service.


This move away from printed texts in both K–12 and higher education has led to changes across the educational economy, especially since the billions in textbook spending at the K–12 and college levels means that more education dollars are tied up in this component of the education process than almost any other, including spending on school technology infrastructure.


Expectations that this money would eventually find a new home fueled massive consolidation and acquisition activity within the textbook industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s as investors bet that established publishers would have the resources and customer base needed to take the best advantage of a “move to digital” represented by the merging of content and technology.


But as those textbook behemoths struggled to wean themselves off high-margin book sales and find and implement new business models that stood the risk of cannibalizing existing businesses, another set of investors started placing bets on younger, smaller high-tech startups that could offer new educational products and services un-encumbered by existing high-profit product lines, legacy technology, or outmoded business practices.


And some of the beneficiaries of this investor interest (some would say speculation) in EdTech have been MOOC companies that have received tens of millions of dollars in funding in the belief that millions of “eyeballs” obtained through giving college courses away for free could eventually be converted into revenue.


Before leaving the subject of textbooks, it should also be noted that one of the factors that left educational publishers open to customer flight was pricing policies that raised textbook prices at nearly twice the rate of inflation.


While this also left publishers open to criticism and even political condemnation, these for-profit companies seemed a convenient surrogate for an attack on colleges and universities, whose costs were also spiraling beyond the reach of ordinary people leading to, among other problems, a trillion-dollar educational debt bubble that looms as the next great financial crisis.


While an analysis of the factors behind the exorbitant costs of college is beyond the scope of this blog, it should be noted that much of the discussion of MOOCs as a potential substitute for a traditional college education grows out of concerns that colleges and universities are pricing themselves out of a market;


and will need to be replaced (or at least supplemented) with different, less-expensive alternatives, alternatives that have the potential to disrupt the status quo.


As you can see from this history, the MOOC phenomenon is interwoven with and playing out against a backdrop of economics and politics, changes in educational pedagogies and approaches, and shifting expectations with regard to education resulting from the expanding capabilities and choices offered to students and teachers through new technologies.


But before looking at such controversies, we need to answer a more fundamental question of what is (and just as important what is not) a MOOC?


For anyone who has taken a massive online class from one of the major MOOC providers, the answer to the question of what constitutes a MOOC might seem obvious: the same lectures, reading and homework assignments, assessments, and discussions you would find in a traditional college class, albeit delivered in a digital format to thousands rather than live to dozens.


But, as I learned while taking dozens of such courses, when the content of a class moves from live to digital with the assumption that this material will be consumed by tens of thousands of students of differing and unknown abilities (including familiarity with the language in which the class is taught) working in widely ranging environments;


not only do the elements of learning take on different attributes but the rules that define meaning when these elements are linked together in a traditional classroom may no longer apply.


To take one example, the seemingly simple decision of putting a MOOC on a calendar rather than making the same course available on demand radically changes the nature of discussion in an online class, transforming it from a forum for working through ideas the class is grappling with week after week to an archive of insights primarily used to help students work through homework and assessments.


And then there is the question of what you earn upon completion of a MOOCs. some other online learning experience.


An online course that is part of an accredited degree program provides you actual credit hours you can apply toward a diploma, while an e-learning course in the latest version of Microsoft Office might earn you nothing more than some sort of informal certificate of mastery.


MOOCs, on the other hand, generally provide those who complete a course with a certificate bearing the name of a prestigious institution. With some effort, certain MOOCs can be turned into college credit.


But even if a massive course is taken purely for the sake of learning, the perceived value of a MOOC certificate can be higher than what you obtain by completing some garden-variety computer-based learning class, provided a student can figure out how to signal the value of their accomplishment to the wider world.


In this blog, we take a look at all of the parts of a course and how they fit together in order to answer the question of what constitutes a MOOC. And in an era when e-learning providers are repackaging and rebranding their material as MOOC classes, we will also use this analysis to determine what might fall outside the category of a massive open online course.




In many ways, the lecture is the most valuable component of any class in that it provides an expert (the instructor) an efficient means to deliver his or her expertise, built over years of teaching and researching a subject.


It has become fashionable to denigrate online classes, including most MOOCs, as simply taking “sage on the stage” lecturing that’s been the cornerstone of education for centuries and moving it onto the screen.


And while it is true that the lecture is an information transfer technique that has been the focal point of education (especially higher education) for centuries, there is a difference between maintaining a tradition out of inertia and sticking with a teaching strategy that works.


So are lecturing an anachronism or a tool that, like a hammer, leave minimal room for dramatic improvement?

One of the most widely read books on the subject of lecturing is Donald Bligh’s What’s the Use of Lectures?


This work synthesized existing research on the efficacy of lecturing and came to the conclusion that of the four things teachers claim students should be getting from their lessons (the acquisition of information, promotion of thought, changes in attitude, and development of behavior skills), information acquisition is the only object where data demonstrate the effectiveness of the lecture format.


This would help to explain why lecturing tends to predominate in higher education rather than in earlier grades.


For earlier schooling must include large components of cognitive and behavior training, requiring early-grade classes to include forms of classroom exercises and interactions less necessary in higher education courses that focus more on information transfer.


Bligh makes it a point to acknowledge that while research based on evidence of performance might demonstrate important general principles regarding the effectiveness of the lecture format, statistics in themselves cannot capture specific instances of inspiring teachers able to use their lectures to do more than simply transfer knowledge.


In the MOOC world, such teachers are often referred to as “rock star professors,” implying that educators most attracted to teaching a massive online course are the ones whose mastery of the art of lecturing allows them to transcend limitations of the lecture format.


And with a few exceptions, MOOC developers have taken to heart the importance of breaking lecture material into shorter segments. Most of the massive classes I took through edX and Coursera;


for example, “chunked” lectures (which tend to total between 1 and 3 hours of video per week) into 5–15-minute increments, while my classes from the early MOOC pioneer Udacity subdivided lectures into even tinier segments, most less than two minutes in length.


The fact that lectures are recorded also gives students access to video-player controls that allow them to speed up a professor they feel is taking too long to get to a point or back up to re-listen to a point that might have been delivered too rapidly, giving students far more control over the rate of information transfer and acquisition than they would have in a live classroom.


And while such controls are no more “high tech” than what VHS players allowed us to do thirty years ago, the ability to change speed, repeat, or skip micro-lectures has a pedagogical impact.


For instance, students already know about certain topics taught in a course can speed through or even skip videos on those subjects, while struggling students can repeat a lecture or return to it later, something that happens frequently during homework and assessment sequences.


Speed controls and subtitling also support students with special needs or learners for whom English (still the primary language for MOOCs) is not their mother tongue.


Many of these controls have been standard in conventional online learning systems featuring video content, but MOOC developers often have access to things traditional online courses creators lack;


such as production facilities and budgets that allow them to shoot on location or supplement “sage-on-stage” talking with interviews and recorded conversations, techniques that are beginning to create a new visual language associated with MOOC learning.


To cite a few examples, Harvard professor David Cox, who teaches an edX MOOC on neuroscience, has made it a point to get out of the building by visiting labs, hospitals, and other facilities where neuroscience research is taking place.


And Udacity’s Introduction to Psychology includes interviews with experts in animal behavior, sex and gender, and the facial expression of emotions, as well as skits and other types of creative performances.


Levels of creativity, not to mention production quality, continue to range widely across MOOC courses from different universities.


For example, during a year when I took over thirty online classes, I observed a fair share of lighting- and audio-challenged lecture videos, as well as continuity errors coupled with “outside the classroom” segments that were clearly repurposed student video projects.


But I also observed attempts to use lectures to generate the sense of intimacy lacking in other components of a heavily subscribed MOOC.


As an example, for over thirty years Professor Greg Nagy has used a traditional lecture format to teach a course entitled.


The Ancient Greek Hero to both Harvard under-graduates and to adults via the Harvard Extension School, making Greek Hero one of the oldest continually running courses at that institution.


As new techniques for delivering lecture-style content continue to evolve within the framework of the overall MOOC experiment, we should not lose sight of the observation made earlier that some teachers, whether they are called “rock stars” or just highly gifted educators, have so mastered the artistry of lecturing that they would be successful in any modality of instruction.


So while technical and production-level creativity and experimentation are some of the most exciting things to come out of investments being made in massive open learning, success or failure of the lecture;


still, the primary means by which information is transmitted to the student—usually comes down to the very traditional question of whether the teacher at the center of the course has the talent, skill, and flexibility to pull the whole thing off.




For instance, while college-level classes in math and science subjects where material builds logically from one lesson to another still tend to rely on textbooks that present those building blocks with a common voice, professors teaching classes in the humanities and social sciences have traditionally required students to read a variety of material from different sources.


In some cases (such as a Shakespeare class) the material students will read over a semester can still be consolidated into a single book. But for the most part, such courses require students to obtain a collection of primary and secondary sources that make up the reading assignments for a class.


Even before technology enabled low-cost electronic distribution of content, however, students were not required to purchase everything they would read for a class from the bookstore. For instance, in cases where an article or excerpt from a longer text was assigned as required reading, students have historically obtained this material.


From document databases or reserve room services offered through a college library, highlighting the criticality of the academic library with regard to the safe and legal distribution of academic content.


For in addition to providing secure access to texts, including rare and valuable documents, libraries have also been given rights to distribute copyrighted material in a controlled manner that allows library personnel flexibility not available to others in the academy, including professors and students.


In our digital age, a hot issue in education and library science has to do with how far legal principles designed for a hard-copy era, when documents were doled out in a physical location where activities such as photocopying could be controlled,;


still apply when that same material can be made available electronically to students who, in addition to reading it as part of a class, can copy and paste (i.e., make illegal duplicates) of library-licensed, copyrighted material in the privacy of their own dorm rooms.


In the case of MOOCs, these intellectual property issues are compounded by the fact that students enrolled in most MOOC classes normally do not attend the college or university where the course originates, meaning that institution-specific database-licensing arrangements and legal doctrines related to reserve reading do not necessarily apply to the bulk of enrollees.


The other issue MOOC creators have had to contend with regarding adding required reading to a massive open online course has to do with the notion of “openness.”


Like intellectual property rules, the subject of open educational resources, but for purposes of this discussion of reading, MOOCs are considered to be “open” to the extent that they are offered for free.


And if a free MOOC class includes required reading that students would have to pay to obtain, how open (or democratic) can a MOOC program really be?


Early MOOCs dealt with this issue by eliminating reading lists entirely or by making syllabus reading optional rather than required. While this worked (and continues to work) for some courses, such strategies serve to increase the distance between MOOC learning and a more comprehensive educational experience that takes place in a traditional college classroom.


As more MOOCs come to market, professors have been experimenting with different methods to make required reading part of their courses in ways that do not leave institutions vulnerable to copyright-related lawsuits or create out-of-pocket expenses for students.


Providing links to a public domain or open access educational content continues to be a popular strategy, most easily applied in courses where reading material is already publically available in legal, free formats.


But this method still leaves gaps, illustrated by my reading experience in The Modern and the Postmodern, a popular Coursera MOOC on modern intellectual history taught by Professor Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University.


During the first half of the course, which focused on eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophers and authors, those of us enrolled in the class were provided links to public domain versions of complete essays by writers such as Kant and Rousseau.


But as the class continued on to twentieth- and twenty-first-century thinkers, those links started pointing us toward YouTube interviews and other public, secondary content, rather than contemporary, primary (and copyrighted) work.


Owners of protected material are beginning to come to terms with the unique requirements (and opportunities) related to MOOCs being taken by tens of thousands of students.


For example, Greg Nagy—the professor behind the HarvardX Ancient Greek Hero course mentioned earlier—gave up royalties to a textbook he had written in exchange for making the content of the book available to all MOOC subscribers for free.


And as the MOOC phenomenon gained momentum in 2013, traditional textbook publishers began their own business-model experiments by offering students time-limited electronic editions of otherwise expensive textbooks at no cost during the length of a course, then providing them the option to buy the book at a discount after the course had been completed.


As institutions become more adept at navigating intellectual property rules and professors more experienced in leveraging open resources, new strategies for including robust reading requirements in a massive online course will continue to develop.


At the same time, exposure to a wider variety of resources and strategies related to syllabus reading is also providing professors with new perspectives that have helped them rethink the role reading plays in their traditional classroom-based courses.


Separate from all of these issues related to sourcing reading content are continuing concerns over whether students are being assigned enough reading or are actually doing the reading assigned to them in college classes, whether that reading is delivered as a textbook or custom course pack (either printed or online) or as a list of links to individual pieces of content.


Reading is one of the many subjects discussed in the 2011 book Academically Adrift, which challenges higher education claims of rigor as it applies across all academic activities at traditional college campuses.


So while information on completion of reading assignments within MOOCs does not yet exist, issues regarding this largely unmonitored course component transcend teaching modality.


But given the self-motivation required to complete a massive open online course successfully, it may turn out that commitment to reading is the differentiator between those who succeed in MOOCs and other experiments in alternative learning and those who get nothing out of them.


Discussion and Community

Discussion and Community

The advantages and disadvantages of online vs. live classroom discussion have been argued over since the advent of technology-based distance education.


Supporters also highlighted that online commenting systems give teachers the ability to enforce and monitor student interchange as well as provide those who might be hesitant to speak in a group the opportunity to participate in the discussion without the social pressures present in the classroom.


But critics argued that online discussion boards could never support the type of give-and-take achievable in the live classroom or small discussion group (never mind the all-night dorm room bull session) where genuine conversation, including the facial and body language that makes up so much of human communication, is a natural part of the face-to-face interchange.


The original bulletin-board-style commenting systems still prevalent in most online courses are an example of asynchronous communication, in which interchanges between students and teachers or students and students are not immediate but rather spread out over time (much like the commenting systems that allow readers to provide feedback to stories posted on online news sites).


But in the two decades since online education came on the scene, new Internet-based communication tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and other audio and video conferencing services—some of them built directly into learning management systems—have allowed teachers and students to participate in synchronous communication activities, replicating live classes or discussion sections at a distance.


Some of these services have been incorporated into popular social media systems like Facebook and Google+, which allow instructors to create social network sites associated with a class as well as give students the opportunity to create their own communities to facilitate discussion or joint work on a class project.


And as professors make blogs and social networking tools a component of traditional classroom-based courses (asking every student to create a weekly posting on a class blog as a homework assignment, for example), the distinction between live-classroom vs. online learning has become increasingly blurry.


Unlike other forms of student engagement that must be measured indirectly (through tools such as self-report surveys or assessments of comprehension), online discussions leave the type of data trail beloved by educational researchers.


For instance, a study by the Silicon Valley company Piazza, whose software powers discussion functionality for over 10,000 classes, looked at the online behavior of students in 3,600 courses from over 500 institutions over 18 months to see what trends emerged.


The research included some interesting findings, such as the observation that mandatory commenting seems to correlate with comment volume, but not necessarily with student comprehension.


Given that MOOCs tend to attract teachers and students confidence in their use of technology-based education tools, challenges regarding discussion and community formation within MOOCs derive not from the technological adeptness of users but rather from the sheer size of the community being asked to participate in the discussion.


Drawing again from courses I completed during my one-year BA experiment, the general comments section for Professor Michael Roth’s Coursera class The Modern and the Postmodern alone included 468 unique threads that drew 4,315 comments viewed over 75,000 times.


And given that this general category represented approximately half the total comments generated for the course (other comments fell into categories such as study groups, assignments, and technical feedback), the volume of discussion taking place in online forums led some students to complain of feeling overwhelmed.


Highlighting this issue of overcrowding still further, the aforementioned HarvardX Justice class taught by Professor Michael Sandel required students to submit at least two comments in response to prompts associated with each week’s assignments.


This requirement led to weekly postings of thousands of student replies to the same questions, with each reply constituting a new forum discussion thread.


In theory, students were free to reply to one another's postings as well as vote each other’s comments up or down, with the expectation that this would cause the most thoughtful submissions to rise to the top of favor-ability rankings. But given the huge number of threads all related to the same topics, only a tiny percentage of posts received replies of any sort.


And as for voting, less than 1 percent of comments earned even one or two votes, with only a handful receiving more than ten, indicating that the vast majority of forum participants (including me) were largely talking to themselves.


MOOC developers have tried a number of methods to supplement message boards with other strategies to support community formation among enrollees in massive online classes.


For example, most courses kick off with a forum devoted to letting students find one another based on geographic proximity or commonalities in language or interest, with links providing students further information about existing course-specific “meet-ups” in their area.


While these tools are meant to help those enrolled in classes find each other so that they can form real-world study or discussion groups, the fact that MOOC students are so widely distributed around the world means such gatherings tend to get proposed only for high-density locations such as major cities.


And even in those locations, most stories surrounding meet-up attempts involve students getting stood up or physical study groups petering out after a few meetings.


This does not prevent students from creating online communities, which tend to be most widespread in classes where students are required to organize into groups to work together on a common project.


For example, an open class I took on entrepreneurship offered by Stanford University through the Novoed online learning platform asked students to form teams in order to perform research related to starting a new company based on the theories of startup planning and development taught in the course.


But for the majority of MOOC classes that do not have such team exercises as a focus, community formation continues to be an ad-hoc process among independent MOOC participants.


Other communication techniques MOOC providers have used with varying degrees of success include online conferencing, where a small group of students is selected to interact directly with the professor, with the rest of the class allowed to eavesdrop on their conversation and submit their own questions via social media.


Professors have also made occasional appearances in discussion forums, although having TAs help answer questions and guide conversation tends to be more common.


It has also become increasingly popular for courses to add “office hour” videos to the weekly lecture lineup in which instructors address specific questions arising in the forums.


Finally, MOOC vendors have recently been experimenting with programs like Coursera’s “Learning Hubs” in which online courses are taught in a physical classroom where facilitators lead the discussion and oversee work on class projects, combining the online learning experience with the traditional classroom model;


much the same way MOOCs are being implemented in less developed countries where they are used to provide the lecture component for conventional high-school and college classes.


While there is a general consensus that MOOCs still need to find the means to create intimacy within classes taken by thousands of students, it should be noted that within existing MOOC communities (where more than half of class participants are college educated, many with advanced degrees), discussion levels can be quite high.




Assessment can make an appearance in a number of places within a MOOC. For example, lecture videos are often punctuated with automatically scored questions (which usually don’t contribute to an overall grade) that assess the comprehension of information that has just been presented.


Homework assignments, which may or may not contribute to a grade, often consist of short quizzes or activities requiring students to post the results of their work into a multiple-choice form.


And final grades for most MOOC courses tend to be based on automatically scored exams, usually consisting of multiple-choice, matching, or fill-in-the-blank test items, and/or work products that are either self-graded or peer-graded based on a rubric supplied by the professor to student evaluators.


All of these assessment techniques are created with the assumption that classes consisting of tens of thousands of students require evaluation to be performed by someone other than a professor and his or her teaching team, which is why most MOOC grading is done either by computers or class participants.


Computer-based assessment has been widely used in education for decades, with learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle offering modules for creating familiar item types such as multiple-choice, multiple-response (multiple-choice with more than one correct answer), true-false, fill-in-the-blank, and matching items.


These systems, as well as various standalone testing products, also support student submission of more complex work (called “artifacts”) such as text-based short answers to questions, essays, or multimedia submissions that will ultimately be scored by a human grader.


On top of these advances in assessment delivery and scoring, educational publishers have been providing teachers access to large banks of test questions, usually associated with a particular textbook.


And teachers, including those moving a class they have taught for years or even decades into a massive online environment, usually have stacks of assessments they have generated during that time to repurpose for use in a MOOC.


Given all of this technology and content to fall back on, it is surprising that (based on many years of experience I’ve had in the professional testing industry) assessment continues to be one of the weakest areas in many MOOCs, including those that have made significant investments in other portions of a course, such as quality video production.


Given all of this technology and content to fall back on, it is surprising that the assessment continues to be one of the weakest areas in many MOOCs.


The core testing methodology used in most MOOCs is linear assessment consisting of automatically scored multiple-choice and similar test items.


But while the creation of such test items supports an entire industry of professional test developers who use scientific principles of test planning and item design and analysis to create valid and reliable exams for educational accountability, college entrance, certification, and professional licensure, very few of the assessments associated with MOOCs demonstrate the involvement of professional test designers. 


The continued use in MOOC assessments of true/false ques-tions—an item type eschewed by professional exam developers—testifies to the fact that exam creation in a MOOC is primarily based on using what course developers have at hand rather than on the creation of more challenging assessments designed to effectively discriminate between those who have mastered the material and those who have not.


This general observation regarding assessment strength should not imply that every course lacks a rigorous measurement of learning.


While the use of professional test design principles, coupled with some creativity, could dramatically improve the effectiveness of machine-scored assessments, MOOC developers have primarily looked at ways to grade subjective material, such as natural language short answers and essays, as a means to make their courses more challenging.


For instance, the edX version of the popular Harvard course Science and Cooking required participants to generate weekly write-ups of lab experiments students performed in their own kitchens with self-grading performed by the students themselves using scoring rubrics provided only after a student’s work has been submitted.


While such self-grading has been applied in other courses, most rubric-scored assessment of subjective material within MOOCs is done via the mechanism of peer grading. This is a process whereby students submit an assigned piece of work, most frequently an essay, that then gets put into a pool and distributed to other students for scoring.


Students submitting their own work are generally required to grade the work of classmates, which usually involves providing numeric scores along multiple rubric criteria as well as qualitative commentary on three to five other student essays.


Those numeric results are then averaged to calculate a final grade, and students can see the scores associated with their own work, as well as student commentary, at the end of a grading period.


Some informal research that indicated a sizable correlation (88%) between how a professor would have graded assignments compared to the result of the peer-grading process described above was used to bolster claims that peer grading is a reasonable option for basing MOOC scores on the evaluation of complex artifacts by the student body rather than a professor.


But even if such gross correlation numbers turn out to hold across a wider variety of courses, the fact remains that creating assignments that need to be human scored by hundreds or thousands of un-trained evaluators inevitably leads to the creation of essay questions and grading rubrics built around ease of scoring rather than complexity of the assignment.


And given the global nature of MOOCs, the language skill of students acting as both writers and evaluators plays an as-yet-unmeasured role in the peer-grading process, especially in cases where writing quality is one of the rubric-based scoring metrics.


As with linear test development, professional test design principles provide insights that could inform the creation of better assignments associated with stronger rubrics as MOOCs continue to develop.


For example, grading of subjective work (such as the essays that are part of SAT and ACT) makes use of “first-pass” automated essay scoring technology as well as methodologies designed to maximize inter-rater reliability through a combination of design principles and training that could be incorporated into the MOOC peer-grading process.


One advantage of the traditional classroom is that it includes a single arbitrator (the teacher) who has ultimate say in grading decisions, something ultimately lacking in MOOC grading procedures that provide little or no room for appeal.


To a large extent, MOOCs have avoided complaints (at least by students) by making it easy for anyone who puts genuine effort into a course to get a passing grade.


Most MOOCs are pass/fail, for example, with cut scores in the 60 to 70 percent range, sometimes with higher grades of 80 to 95 percent leading to a certificate reflecting special distinction.


And the fact that many courses allow students to take the same test more than once (sometimes as many as 100 times!) means students can guess their way to a passing grade, even if they have learned none of the material.


This highlights another set of reasons why testing seems to be given less attention in a MOOC than it would get in a traditional classroom environment.


First off, there are security concerns based on the fact that, despite honor codes and some anti-cheating experiments by MOOC providers, there is still no way to ensure that the person submitting an assignment is the person who has done the work.


And even if such work does originate from the student enrolled in the course, there is no way of telling what resources they had on hand when they took (or cheated on) an exam or wrote (or plagiarized) a writing assignment. This lack of security leads to the reasonable fear that harder testing might simply lead to more cheating rather than more learning.


And then there is a tendency among many MOOC professors to want to keep as many students as possible from dropping out of a course before the last set of lectures, which may limit their interest in more numerous or challenging assignments that stand the chance of scaring students off.


The fact that no tangible reward is associated with passing a MOOC should mitigate cheating problems (at least until MOOCs start being associated with something of value—such as genuine college credit), and in the absence of such college equivalency, choices of course difficulty have been appropriately left in the hands of the professor.


But by making tests, homework, and other assignments too easy (by design or just by lack of interest in significantly improving them), MOOC courses may be robbing students of the chance to put their learning to work, which can limit a course’s overall effectiveness.


So until challenging assessments designed to verify and reinforce learning become a higher priority, MOOCs may continue to be perceived as a lighter alternative to what currently takes place in the less massively enrolled physical classroom.


Organizing a Course

Organizing a Course

Like any course, a MOOC cannot be considered simply to be the sum of its parts—such as lectures, reading, discussion, and assignments/assessments—especially given the unique characteristics and requirements these components have in a massive learning environment.


Rather, the way those parts are put together, especially with regard to decisions relating to time and level of rigor, has a significant impact on the nature of the student learning experience.


To take an extreme example, the connective cMOOCs are so different in their organizational structure and expectations compared to xMOOCs (which more resemble traditional college classes) that cMOOCs and xMOOCs are best seen as completely distinct learning experiences, even if both happen to support free education of large numbers of students.


Within the family of major MOOC providers, the majority of courses from companies such as edX and Coursera share a similar approach to scheduling, with courses put on a calendar in which students engage with the same material each week until a fixed deadline is reached, at which point all work is required to be submitted for final grading.


This is in sharp contrast to “on demand” courses, such as those offered via the MOOC provider Udacity, in which students can start the course whenever they like and work through the lessons at their own pace, with no fixed deadline for completing the material.


Each of these two modes of course timing (scheduled vs. on-demand) has advantages and disadvantages. For instance, putting classes on a calendar tends to create a sense of urgency to complete coursework on time but at the cost of the kind of flexibility, you get from on-demand classes.


And once organizations such as Coursera and edX have more courses “in the can” and ready to repeat, there are no technical reasons for not offering on-demand options for some or all of their materials.


But the choice of timing strategy can dramatically affect the nature of a class, particularly with regard to the discussion, given that scheduled classes can be built on the assumption that students will be interacting with the same material at the same time.


Even with all the previously noted challenges intrinsic to high-volume discussion boards, the bulk of comments posted to forums associated with scheduled courses involve students discussing issues related to the week’s course material.


In contrast, I discovered that discussion for on-demand courses tends to focus on students supporting one another on tests and homework assignments with a limited interchange on more general topics.


Testing is another area affected by whether or not a course is on a fixed schedule. 


For even with all the security challenges mentioned in the previous discussion of MOOC assessment, deadlines at least put an end to the relevance of a particular quiz or exam, in contrast to an on-demand course where the same test items might live on for much longer, leading to issues of question overexposure.


Now the security advantage of scheduled courses is diminished if professors overseeing them do not choose to swap out their assessment items each time a course is given. But assessment is one more area where decisions regarding how a MOOC is chronologically structured can dramatically affect important elements of the course.


Another time-related choice MOOC developers get to make that can dramatically influence the nature of the student learning experience is the overall length of a course.


For instance, courses I completed that attempt to cover all of the learning objectives found in an existing full-semester college course tended to mirror the 12- to 16-week length of a semester-long class.


Developers of such courses also generally place more demands on students with regard to required reading, frequency, and difficulty of assessment, assignment of peer-graded work, and/or requirements to participate in online discussion boards.


In contrast, professors who want to focus on a specific set of topics, rather than replicate a full-semester experience, tend to gravitate toward creating shorter courses, with six to eight weeks becoming an increasingly popular format for class length.


Unsurprisingly, classes that go on for one to two months, compared to three to four for full-semester classes, often have higher enrollments and lower attrition rates. But given that level of demand with regard to reading, homework, and assessment tends to be lower for short vs. long courses, MOOCs seem to be stratifying based on differing tiers of overall rigor.


Decisions on the nature of a course (such as length, level of demand, and pass/fail requirements) are ultimately made by professors based on the mission they choose for their courses.


And given the modular nature of MOOC components, experimentation with MOOC courses of varying lengths and demand levels is both natural and liberating, preventing a one-size-fits-all model from gripping this new educational medium.


All this variability needs to be taken into account when entering the fiery debate over whether or not MOOCs should be treated as the equivalent of traditional college courses. For as my year taking courses with widely ranging course timing and strategies suggests, by intention all MOOCs are NOT created equal.




When Sebastian Thrun realized that the free online version of his Stanford Artificial Intelligence course was going to be taken by tens of thousands of students, the biggest challenge he faced was not technical or pedagogical but political: would he be allowed to associate the name of Stanford University with whatever documentation he ended up providing students who completed the class?


Thrun and Stanford eventually came to an agreement that allowed the university’s name to appear on a carefully worded certificate of completion stating explicitly that the online course should not be considered equivalent to an actual paid-for Stanford for-credit course.


And with this compromise, a reward system that tapped the prestige of well-known institutions of higher learning without necessarily putting those institutions’ economic interests at risk was ready to become the norm for MOOC graduates.


But as we reach the end of this discussion over what makes a MOOC, the significance of a complete document bearing the imprimatur of a well-known and respected college or university should not be minimized.


Today, students are free to enroll in an online university and spend money on courses that can ultimately turn into credit toward a degree with no ambiguity whatsoever regarding institutional support for a graduate’s final diploma.


And students also have a wide range of learning options to draw from, such as academic lectures from iTunes U or eLearning lessons from commercial entities such as Lynda, that leave them with nothing at the end of a course other than, perhaps, a vendor-specific certificate of mastery that means little or nothing too important audiences like employers.


But MOOCs create an intriguing ambiguity in which colleges and universities are extolling their own contribution to free public learning, implying that earning a MOOC certificate of completion represents genuine academic accomplishment;


while simultaneously not rewarding this accomplishment in the way they reward students who have studied the same material with the same teacher in a classroom or online format that is not a MOOC.