John Daniel: Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility (BD14)

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What is a MOOC?


The term MOOC originated in Canada. Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander coined the acronym to describe an open online course at the University of Manitoba designed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, was presented to 25 fee-paying students on campus and 2,300 other students from the general public who took the online class free of charge (Wikipedia, 2012a).

The title itself evokes the aim of the course, which was to follow Ivan Illich’s injunction that an educational system should 'provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known’ (Illich, 1971). In this spirit all the course content was available through RSS feeds, and learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life and synchronous online meetings' (Wikipedia, 2012a).

We quote Illich to emphasise that the xMOOCs attracting media attention today, which are 'at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley' (Caulfield, 2012), appear to have scant relation to those pioneering approaches. The earlier tradition of what Siemens (2012) calls cMOOCs continues (see Cormier, 2010) but the focus of attention has moved to xMOOCs that are far from Illich’s ideals. Surprisingly perhaps, those who coined the term MOOCs and continue to lead much Web discussion about them draw little attention to this change. Downes (2012) comments wistfully: 'I was not surprised at all that once (the MOOC format) proved successful it would be adopted by the Ivy League (who would receive credit for its 'discovery') because this follows a well-established pattern in our field'. Perhaps the originators of cMOOCs believe that with time the movement will be drawn back to some of their methods and philosophy and indeed, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is beginning, timidly, to enrich its xMOOCs in this way.

No doubt the delayed reaction of the first movers is partly because the new wave of xMOOCs is so recent. Early in 2012 Stanford University offered a free, chunked course on Artificial Intelligence online and 58,000 people signed up. One of the faculty members involved, Sebastian Thrun, went on to found Udacity, a commercial start-up that helps other universities to offer xMOOCs (Meyer, 2012). MIT (2011) announced MITx at the end of 2011 for a launch in spring 2012. MITx has now morphed into edX with the addition of Harvard and UC Berkeley (edX, 2012). Since then similar initiatives from other well known US universities have come thick and fast. There seems to be a herd instinct at work as universities observe their peers joining the xMOOCs bandwagon and jump on for fear of being left behind.


Non-starts, dropouts, completers and cheats: early results

At the time of writing institutions offering the new wave of xMOOCs are reacting to the results of the first offerings. Both MIT and Coursera have had to defend the tremendous attrition rates in their courses. In MIT’s course 6.002x, Circuits and Electronics, there were 155,000 registrations. They came from 160 countries, with the US, India and the UK accounting for the majority of the traffic and Columbia, Spain, Pakistan, Canada, Brazil, Greece and Mexico rounding out the top ten. Of these 155,000 learners, 23,000 tried the first problem set, 9,000 passed the mid-term and 7,157 passed the course as a whole. 340 students, including a 15-year-old Mongolian, got a perfect score on the final exam, qualified by Anant Agrawal, who heads what has now become the edX initiative, as ‘very hard’. Commenting in MIT news (Hardesty, 2012), Agrawal noted that while the rate of attrition may seem high, ‘If you look at the number in absolute terms, it’s as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT’.

Consistent with its strategy of using its online ventures to improve teaching generally, MIT is following up on this prototype in several ways. In response to student demand MIT left the 6.002x website up at the end of the course. A group of 6.002x students have created their own version of the follow-up course, 6.003, Signals and Systems, using material from MIT’s OpenCourseware site. Students also wrote their own programmes (e.g. an online text viewer for mobile devices) to augment the MITx platform and MIT made these available through the course wiki. MIT is also making easier for students to 'customise the course content' by extending homework and exam deadlines. An interesting footnote was research on the course which showed that students much preferred ‘shaky hand drawings that took shape as the professor lectured’ to polished PowerPoint slides.


Can xMOOCs make money?

Is the fad for xMOOCs sustainable? Under a Freedom of Information Act request the Chronicle of Higher Education obtained a copy of one of the agreements between Coursera and a partner institution. Young (2012) notes that Coursera 'isn’t yet sure how it will bring in revenue. In this respect it is following a common approach of Silicon Valley start-ups: build fast and worry about money later'. The build-up is indeed very fast. It is remarkable that university administrations, normally in thrall to cautious lawyers, are signing up with the xMOOC companies so quickly. Part of the reason is that the contract (e.g. with Coursera) is simple and flexible. Coursera claims no intellectual property rights to the courses, believing that the institutions should control the content completely. The universities are not bound to work exclusively with Coursera, although Coursera’s founders are not concerned that their partners will decide to go into business on their own or jump to another proprietary provider.

Where will the money come from? At the end of the Coursera partnership agreement a section on Possible Company Monetization Strategies lists eight potential business models. They are:

  • Certification (students pay for a badge or certificate)
  • Secure assessments (students pay to have their examinations invigilated (proctored))
  • Employee recruitment (companies pay for access to student performance records)
  • Applicant screening (employers/universities pay for access to records to screen applicants)
  • Human tutoring or assignment marking (for which students pay)
  • Selling the MOOC platform to enterprises to use in their own training courses
  • Sponsorships (3rd party sponsors of courses)
  • Tuition fees.


Modest MOOCs that work

Against this background we note another framework for public-private partnerships in online learning that has developed with little fanfare but already yields revenue for the partners and degrees for the students. This is the Academic Partnerships (AP) programme launched in 2008 by Best Associates, a merchant bank based in Dallas, Texas (Academic Partnerships, 2012a). So far, although it has global ambitions, AP works with some 20 public universities in the US (e.g. University of Arkansas at Jonesboro, University of Texas at Arlington, Lamar University). These institutions may be less prestigious than those flocking to the Coursera and Udacity platforms, but at least they have found a way of making money and achieving good degree graduation rates.

AP partners with these universities to convert their traditional degree programmes into an online format, recruit qualified students and support enrolled students through graduation (Academic Partnerships, 2012b). According to the AP website: ‘Several AP partner universities have already been able to freeze tuition and give faculty raises due to the success of their online programmes ... AP attributes this success in programme growth to close collaboration with faculty and administrative leadership and effective recruiting techniques that are designed to take public universities’ degrees to scale. Additionally, AP’s retention strategies have resulted in graduation rates that consistently meet or exceed the performance of the same programmes on campus. Similarly, students have passed licensure examinations in both education and health science programmes at rates comparable to or better than on-campus students… The online students recruited by AP comprise as much as 30 per cent of partner universities' total enrolment’ (Academic Partnerships, 2012a).

In this arrangement the institutions set the tuition fees, of which the commercial partner takes about 70% for providing the services of course conversion, student recruitment and support, and technology platforms (Learning Management System, Customer Relationship Management System and Enrolment System.) Student numbers in AP programmes are in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands (e.g. around 4,000 at UT Arlington and Lamar respectively). However, as noted, most of these students obtain degrees and professional recognition at rates at least as good as their on-campus counterparts.


At the heart of MOOCs are the platforms that enable the various operations involved in offering a MOOC to be done effectively. Siemens (2011) has described the race to create effective platforms in various fields. He notes (Siemens, 2012) that 'MOOCs are really a platform' and that the platforms for the two types of MOOC that we described at the beginning of the paper are substantially different because they serve different purposes. In Siemens’ words: 'our cMOOC model emphasises creation, creativity, autonomy and social networking learning. The Coursera model emphasises a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication'. He notes that in time the xMOOCs 'may well address the 'drill and grill' instructional methods that are receiving some criticism' (Siemens, 2012).

Partly because they are so different, and partly because they exist behind proprietary walls, we shall make only general comments about MOOC platforms. A fundamental question is whether proprietary MOOC platforms will gradually give way to open source solutions. This seems to be happening in the closely related domain of Learning Management Systems (Virtual Learning Environments) where the open source Moodle ( platform is becoming the industry standard rather than earlier proprietary systems such as Blackboard (Blackboard, 2012). Developing a MOOC platform, at least for xMOOCs, would appear to be a much simpler task than creating systems such as those required by the large open universities.


It will be interesting to watch the use of xMOOC platforms evolve. For the moment most participating institutions are happy to let a commercial partner bear the costs of building the platform and keeping it running. However, were universities to make xMOOCs such an important component of their work that the effective offering of xMOOCs became mission critical; they might be tempted to bring the platform ‘in-house’ in an open source cloud format. edX has announced its intention to make its platform open source.

MOOCs in perspective

To dwell on the earlier fads and disappointments that technology has generated in education would be pedantic. Innovators like to believe that theirs is the real revolution. But technology has been about to transform education for a long time. In 1841 the ‘inventor of the blackboard was ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors to mankind’. A century later, in 1940, the motion picture was hailed the most revolutionary instrument introduced into education since the printing press. Television was the educational revolution in 1957. In 1962 it was programmed learning and in 1967 computers. Each was labelled the most important development since Gutenberg’s printing press.

Since 2000 there have been countless claims that Internet and communications technologies (ICT) could revolutionise the format and delivery of education, not least because they absorb all those previous innovations. We noted earlier, for instance, that xMOOC learners preferred teachers to scrawl formulae on the modern equivalent of a blackboard rather than presenting them on slides. In my addresses as a KNOU Fellow (Daniel & Uvalić-Trumbić, 2012a; Daniel, 2012a,b,c) I have argued that modern ICT, what my former Open University colleague Marc Eisenstadt named the ‘knowledge media’, are qualitatively different from previous technological aids to education. That is because they lend themselves naturally to the manipulation of symbols (words, numbers, formulae, images) that are the heart of education, as well as providing, through the Internet, a wonderful vehicle for the distribution and sharing of educational material at low cost. But while the potential of ICT to improve and extend education while cutting its cost is not in doubt, the results so far have generally been disappointing (Daniel, 2012b, Toyama, 2011). We should bear the reasons for these disappointments in mind in trying to ensure that MOOCs contribute to these goals for improving education and are not just another flash in educational technology’s pan.

Several of the myths and paradoxes in the xMOOC universe relate to quality and pedagogy. A first myth is that university brand is a surrogate for teaching quality. It isn’t. The so-called elite universities that are rushing into xMOOCs gained their reputations in research. Nothing suggests that they are particularly talented in teaching, especially teaching online. A related paradox is that these same institutions once opposed the accreditation of the University of Phoenix, claiming that online teaching was inherently of low quality. Although Phoenix has engaged in dodgy business practices, it is likely that because it operates as a teaching-learning system the quality of its instruction is objectively better than the new wave of online xMOOCs. Certainly Phoenix’s completion rates, while nothing to boast about, are much higher: at between 30-35% for associate and bachelor’s degrees and 60% for master’s degrees (University of Phoenix, 2012).

Most countries around the world have quality assurance agencies for higher education. One of the criteria quality auditors and assessors take seriously is the rate of course and degree completion, partly to ensure value for the investment of public funds and partly to protect students from poor practice. Improving retention and completion has been a special concern for distance learning institutions and open universities. They take the view that students seek not merely access, but access to success, which the institution should do everything to facilitate while maintaining standards.

Against this background the current xMOOC completion rates of 10% or less would be considered disastrous anywhere else. In the xMOOCs’ defence, however, it must be said that these first offerings probably attracted a high proportion of the merely curious and tourists from other institutions checking what the fuss was about. As the number of xMOOCs multiplies they will likely draw a more purposeful clientele. It remains, however, that because xMOOCs universities measure their institutional standing by the numbers who fail to gain admission to their campuses, they will be cavalier about high wastage and failure rates. This has been called the Passchendaele approach, after the World War I battle in which tens of thousands of soldiers were thrown at the front and died fighting for a few metres of land.



This brings us to the central paradox in xMOOCs that Touve (2012) explores. The fundamental contradiction is that currently, for most xMOOC institutions, success in the course exam (called 'very hard' by MIT’s Agrawal (Hardesty, 2012)), does not lead to credit, but to a certificate. The consequence, as Touve stresses, is that what decides whether or not a student can obtain a degree is determined not by their mastery of the courses, but by the admissions process to the university. This is an untenable nonsense. To give but one example, the UK Open University, which has no academic admission requirements, has awarded over a million highly regarded degrees to its students. Entry to the Open University is easy; exit with a degree is difficult. Elite institutions, of course, usually define their quality by the numbers of applicants that they exclude, not by the teaching that happens on campus after admission. My late Athabasca University colleague Dan Coldeway called this the principle of ‘good little piggies in, make good bacon out’. It is a venerable academic tradition but hardly seems fit for the 21st century, not least for institutions that have suddenly discovered a mission to open up to the world. The best longterm hope for ending this dire contradiction is learning analytics, which are stealing up on higher education in an inexorable way.

Learning analytics are ‘the use of data and models to predict student progress and performance, and the ability to act on that information’ (Siemens, 2010). They hold out the promise that individuals will eventually be able to have a complete record of what they have learned and mastered at the level of concepts and skills. Some MOOC institutions claim to be using learning analytics. Perhaps they should be careful what they wish for, because the widespread use of learning analytics would make it intellectually reprehensible to make recognition of mastery conditional on unrelated processes. In reality it may not matter if the xMOOC providers’ taboo on awarding credit stays in place, because holders of MOOCs certificates can trade them for credit elsewhere. Unfortunately in the US this is an expensive process. Kolowich (2012b), using the example of the University of Maryland, has shown that ‘students can expect to spend a minimum of $1,300 to convert the learning picked up in an xMOOC into three college credits. That is, of course, in addition to the hours and effort they sink into actually taking the xMOOC’. However, outside the US, where many xMOOC students are, there are more attractive possibilities. For over 30 years Athabasca University has offered a Bachelor’s degree with no residency requirement (i.e. students do not have to take any courses from Athabasca, the award can be made entirely on the basis of credit accumulation). Athabasca is also contemplating putting together a ‘Best First Year Online’ constructed entirely from open courseware (Pannekoek, 2012).


Earlier we quoted Armstrong’s (2012) conclusion that the Coursera course he took was innocent of any pedagogical input. Indeed, outside their schools of education, pedagogy is not a familiar word on the xMOOC campuses. It is a myth that professors distinguished by their research output are competent to create online courses without help. Bates has long argued that expecting individual faculty to develop online courses alongside their classroom offerings, which he calls the ‘Lone Ranger’ approach, is unlikely to produce courses of quality (Bates and Sangra, 2011). Good distance teaching calls for teams that support the academics with a range of skills. With such support MOOCs provide a great opportunity to develop new pedagogy. In a world of abundant content, courses can draw from a pool of open educational resources (OER) and provide their students with better and more varied teaching than individual instructors could develop by themselves. The University of Michigan (2012) (which made history by using OER from Africa in its medical school) uses OER extensively in its Coursera course Internet History, Technology and Security. UC Berkeley (2012) draws extensively on OER in its course on Quantum Computing.

Knox et al. (2012), a team from the University of Edinburgh, which is one of Coursera’s few non-US partners, gives an interesting account of getting to grips with the Coursera platform. Their course sounds to be more cMOOC in approach, although they consider cMOOCs remain on the radical fringe of higher education. They qualify the Coursera platform as 'conservative in terms of online pedagogical practice' but, like MIT, they see xMOOCs as an experimental venture and want to 'participate in an emerging pedagogical mode that is significantly undertheorised'. They conclude that xMOOCs are not simply 'ed-tech du jour' but worth serious engagement.


MOOCs for what purpose?

The final group of myths and paradoxes are related to the reasons for offering xMOOCs. The basic paradox is between the laudable desire, in the spirit of the open educational resources (OER) movement (UNESCO, 2012) to make knowledge the common property of humankind, and to find a business model that generates money for doing it. The business case for OER is developing nicely and OER will transform the availability of school textbooks (Butcher & Hoosen, 2012). However, the search is still on for reliable ways of making money out of xMOOCs, especially for the universities involved. It is unfortunate that Koller (2012) justifies xMOOCs in a particularly inept way by claiming that they are the answer to increasing access to higher education in developing countries.

Already, at the 2009 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education, the president of the 300,000-student University of South Africa (UNISA) labelled OER a form of intellectual neocolonialism (Daniel & Uvalić-Trumbić, 2012b) – although UNISA has now become an important player in the OER movement and the OERu. However, as Bates (2012) comments acerbically: ‘these elite universities continue to treat xMOOCs as a philanthropic form of continuing education, and until these institutions are willing to award credit and degrees for this type of programme, we have to believe that they think this is a second class form of education suitable only for the unwashed masses’. It is a myth to think that providing not-for-credit open online learning from the USA will address the challenges of expanding higher education in the developing world. Bates adds: ‘please, is it too much to ask for a little humility? (Probably, from so-called elite institutions)’!


MOOCs, both cMOOCs and xMOOCs are a fascinating development. This essay has taken a critical stance because the discourse about MOOCs is overloaded with hype and myth while the reality is shot through with paradoxes and contradictions. However, an important process is underway that will chart new paths for the universities involved and for higher education generally.

This development may fall apart. We noted some earlier Internet ventures of elite universities that started with fanfare but were wound up shamefacedly only six years ago. This time, however, the scale of the involvement is such that something will survive, even if some who can well afford it lose money on the way. We envisage that MOOCs will have an important impact in two ways: improving teaching and encouraging institutions to develop distinctive missions. But first, we agree with Bates (2012) that what MOOCs will not do is address the challenge of expanding higher education in the developing world. It may encourage universities there, both public and private, to develop online learning more deliberately, and OER from MOOC courses may find their way, alongside OER from other sources, into the teaching of local institutions. We have long argued that higher education must find ways to address the needs of those at the bottom of the pyramid (Prahalad, 2004) but institutions in those countries will eventually do that using technology and it is unlikely that they will make fortunes.

We also agree with Bates that current xMOOCs pedagogy is pretty old hat but this will now change fast. Even if Coursera gave its partner universities great freedom in course formats in order to sugar the pill of signing the contract, this will quickly produce a great diversity of approaches and much healthy experimentation. By the end of 2012 various actors from the media through student groups to educational research units will be publishing assessments of xMOOC courses. These will quickly be consolidated into league tables that rank the courses – and the participating universities – by the quality of their offerings as perceived by both learners and educational professionals (Uvalić-Trumbić & Daniel, 2011).

This will not please the participating universities. Elite universities in the UK thoroughly disliked the state-approved teaching quality assessment system that operated there between the 1995 and 2004 (Laughton, 2003). Eventually their presidents successfully petitioned the authorities to close it down. My own conclusion was that behind the fog of methodological arguments about the difficulty of assessing teaching quality, the real problem was that some elite universities did poorly and some lesser-known institutions did well. By the time results of teaching quality assessments by discipline had accumulated over ten years a small former teachers’ college ranked in the top ten (out of ~100) and the Open University was in 5th place, one above Oxford. The difference with the xMOOCs assessments and rankings is that no one will be able to abolish them by appealing to authority. Institutions that rate poorly will either have to quit playing xMOOCs or raise their game.

This, in turn, will put a focus on teaching and pedagogy to which these institutions are unaccustomed, which will be healthy. At the same time academics all around the world will make judgements about the intellectual quality and rigour of the institutions that have exposed themselves in this way. Other combinations of institutions and commercial partners will join the fray and a new pecking order will emerge.

In contrast to the copycat rush to jump on the xMOOCs bandwagon, this may encourage more institutional leaders to share Harold Shapiro’s scepticism about the ability of traditional universities to expand seamlessly into new areas. With luck the dream of the great American educator Ernie Boyer (1990) may even come true. In 1990, in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, he wrote: 'We need a climate in which colleges and universities are less imitative, taking pride in their uniqueness. It’s time to end the suffocating practice in which colleges and universities measure themselves far too frequently by external status rather than by values determined by their own distinctive mission'.

The broader purpose of Boyer's book was to encourage the emergence of a scholarship of teaching alongside the scholarships of discovery (research), integration (multidisciplinary) and application (development). Placing their xMOOCs in the public domain for a worldwide audience will oblige institutions to do more than pay lip service to importance of teaching and put it at the core their missions. This is the real revolution of MOOCs. MOOCs may also have the long-term effect of helping to cut the outsize costs of higher education, which in the US have increased by 360% above inflation since 1986 (Archibald & Feldman, 2010). But that is another story!



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