Do open online courses have a role in educational reform?

A few days ago, I posted a link to an upcoming open online course on my elearnspace site being run by the University of Illinois Springfield: eduMOOC. The Chronicle picked up on the U of I course and highlighted a point made by David Wiley that “MOOCs and their like are not the answer to higher education’s problems”. This prompted David to post clarifications on his view of MOOCs . I’d like to engage with a few of David’s points.

I agree with David’s assertions that MOOCs are effective for learning, that there is a productive place for them in education, and that the name sucks. I disagree with his assertion that the “massive” aspect is irrelevant, that MOOCs are not potentially significant in driving change (that’s a bit of a misstatement of David’s point, but I believe it is in keeping with the spirit of his post).

First – let’s tackle the name. Bryan Alexander and Dave Cormier coined the term at roughly the same time. It stuck because it reflected what was happening with CCK08 – it was open, online, and we had far more learners sign up than we had anticipated. But it seems that everyone hates the term “MOOC”. I have a colleague in Spain who told me that it means “mucus” in Spanish. On the Chronicle site, someone stated that sounds like the word “pig” in Gaelic. David says it’s goofy. Well, we’re agreed then – it’s not a great word. When I first heard the term “blog” I reacted with equal indignation – what a crappy term! But once a term gains a bit of usage and traction, it’s rather hard to change. Beyond agreeing, I don’t have a solution.

David states “Inasmuch as MOOCs seem to be allergic to structure, and go out of their way to avoid structures that would place any kind of requirement (or even moderately strong suggestion) on anyone, they appear to be an extremely poor fit for individuals who are not well prepared academically”. I personally don’t avoid structure and I don’t avoid assessment or grading. I’ve graded students in all three of the CCK offerings. For our upcoming MOOC, several universities are considering offering credit for the course (Georgia Tech and Athabasca U). Both will be building assignment criteria around the course to ensure credibility. Of the complaints David offers, this one surprised me a bit. From what I’ve seen of his presentations, he has been advocating for some level of disaggretation in education. MOOCs follow that trajectory: teaching is open, marking/grading/accreditation happens at an individual institutional levels. Teaching and assessment do not necessarily need to be connected. Learn globally, accredit locally.

However, this isn’t David’s main point here. He suggests that MOOCs are a poor fit for people who aren’t academically prepared. It’s an important consideration. If, in our attempt to open education, we throw barriers in front of learners, we are defeating our goals. I’m not sure how David defines a “prepared learner”. Going back to an Learning Management System example – in 2000 an LMS was a bit foreign, quite clunky, highly technical, and likely only worked well for prepared people with basic tech skills. Today, LMS’ have buried most of that complexity and they are easier to use. People are generally more technically literate as well – most of us have used social networks, social media, and the participative web. It’s easier to use an LMS and learn online when you’re comfortable with the medium. I have a hard time seeing David’s point here – the fact that people don’t have the skills to participate in distributed networks for learning and sensemaking is exactly why we need MOOCs.

The problem David sees is the solution I envision. This has been a sore spot for participants in each of our CCK courses. When the course begins, we inform learners that the process of clarifying confusion and disorientation – sensemaking and wayfinding in complex settings – is the learning. Grappling with pieces that don’t connect and finding a way to connect them is what the course is all about. In the process, learners may move toward a target where knowledge is defined and educators know what learners need to know or they may move more informally in directions that interest them without a goal of accreditation. Many (no idea if it’s most or not) learners that continue in the MOOC seem to settle into the flow of the course and begin to connect pieces. They don’t do this in isolation, however. We have high levels of support in terms of weekly live sessions, Twitter/blogs/The Daily, peer support, and in the learning analytics course we did in January, Dave Cormier started offering a “learner concierge” forum where irritated and confused learners could go with the expectation of getting help.

If the issue that David highlights is one of academic skills – such as when learners don’t have the skills to use a computer or to traverse distributed information, then, yes, he is right – we have a concern that needs to be addressed because people need unique skills to learn in open online courses. But, as with the LMS example, people are learning these skills. It’s not an insurmountable problem. Many schools and colleges teach study skills, critical thinking, and writing skills courses. However, if David states, which I believe he does with his examples of remedial courses, that people can’t learn basic content in this environment, then he is addressing learner capacity, not skills. The only way of addressing this concern is, as he suggests, to run and evaluate courses that target those learners. Even then, if learners don’t do well, we come up against the question of whether the shortcomings are due to learners not having needed skills (which should then be our real focus) or difficulty with subject matter in the distributed network environment.

For me, MOOCs have been wonderful global learning experiences. This article from 2009 details the diversity of open courses – almost half of the participants don’t have English as a first language. That’s significant. I’ve been surprised at the number of learners from developing countries. A MOOC – even when it’s a messy, chaotic, imperfect, frustrating learning experience is still more accessible to many people than a wonderfully designed and well-delivered course. We’ve had over 10 000 participants in courses that we’ve done. Only a fraction of those were active participants. However, I continue to see a growing body of literature on MOOCs, I receive fairly consistent email feedback from people who have found them to be valuable, and I get a fair amount of positive feedback when I attend conferences. As imperfect as MOOCs are, and as much learning as we’re doing trying to figure out how to run them, they are having an impact.

David states, “MOOCs are not a solution to the problem of large and growing demand for higher education for people who are less well prepared”. What would count as a suitable solution to a complex problem such as this? No doubt, it won’t be a single solution. Growing demand for higher education, coupled with calls for increased accountability of the system, presents a complex challenge. What other solutions are being explored that reflect the realities of budget constraints, open content, decreasing faith in higher education as a good investment (at least in the US), and the rapidly growing higher education needs of developing countries such as India? With my involvement with MOOCs, I’m not stating “I have found the answer, follow me!”. Instead, I’m stating “I’m experimenting, join in”.

The concepts we’re exploring with MOOCs – distributed teaching, sub-networks, peer teaching, learner content creation, social networks, new methods of aggregating information, local institution accreditation – are important in reframing the higher education system of the future. MOOCs may or may not have a future. But the ideas we’re playing with and trying to understand will be foundational in any education system in a technology-infused world.

In terms of “massive”, David states: “There are 100s of 1000s of people in these games. “Massively multi-learner” might have made sense if the goal of MOOCs was to serve 100s of 1000s of people”. If I read his comments correctly, he is asking whether MOOCs are about “massive openness” or “massive in terms of numbers of learners”. I’ve always thought it referred to the latter. Massive openness makes no sense. We’ve had anywhere from 500 to 2000+ learners in open courses that I’ve offered with Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier. In those instances, massive means everything. Just as a city can develop advanced services for citizens (such as public transportation) when population density increases, open online course with large numbers of learners have more options than courses with small numbers of learners. We’ve seen courses with different language translations (CCK08’s syllabus was translated into five different languages), different sub-networks (SecondLife, face-to-face get togethers, learner-created live meetings), peer content and technical support, and universities offering credit for students who have participated in courses that we’ve offered. Sub-networks and learner-defined spaces of interaction are a function of the number of participants. If we only had 25 participants, activities and sub-networks wouldn’t make much sense. We need a level of “learner density” in order for the innovation to develop that we’ve witnessed in previous courses.

11 Responses to “Do open online courses have a role in educational reform?”

  1. Lanny Arvan says:

    George –

    Out of curiosity, I’m signed up for the UIS MOOC. Someone I used to work with started one of your earlier courses with Stephen Downes, but soon found it overwhelming and taking time away from work. I’m not time constrained now so am interested to see if the course is engaging for me.

    In your piece above, I was curious mainly about use of the word “teaching” and what activities that refers to in a MOOC. Is delivering a Webinar teaching? The few times I’ve done that, it didn’t feel like teaching to me. There was insufficient feedback from the audience to know whether the thoughts were getting through.

    And regarding learner incapacity, could you be more explicit about those skills you feel are necessary to succeed in a MOOC? My contention is that many students don’t write enough and when they do write about something they’ve read it doesn’t occur to them to fit it in with other things they’ve been exposed to. So they require a lot of cajoling to get them to try this and then more cajoling to get them to persist. Is this in the ballpark for what you are talking about? Or is it something else?


    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Lanny – from my experience, the teaching roles vary based on the course. I agree that simply lecturing in a webinar is not really teaching – even though this can be a good point of contact for learners. Feedback that we’ve received indicates that live sessions help participants connect with the facilitator as well as provide a forum for quick distillation of key concepts.

      Great question about skills that learners need in a MOOC. It’s a bigger topic than I’ll address here (but I really do need to post more on this), but I see skills in terms of technical, motivational, conceptual, and knowledge-related. For example, learners need to know how to create a blog post, how to add their blog feed to the Daily, how to login to a live session, etc (technical). Learners also need to spend a certain amount of time on course topics – either in writing, reading, multimedia producing, or sharing activities (motivational). Learners also need to find their way through the distributed information and social network and be comfortable navigating uncertainty and, in the process, form connections between different elements (conceptual). Finally, learners need to understand the knowledge architecture of the topic – this is often more important for testing and evaluation purposes, but is still important in informal learning.

  2. As I said on the Chronicle, if you don’t like the term MOOC, call it a Distributed Online Web Network Educating Students.

    • gsiemens says:

      Stephen – we can certainly go with that acronym, but we will have to trademark it and then we will require you to change your last name so as to not encroach on our intellectual property.

  3. [...] in Netlogo Published on June 24, 2011 in open content and research. 0 CommentsGeorge has written a great response to my Feelings about MOOCs. He quickly zeroes in on my main argument about MOOCs, and [...]

  4. Frances Bell says:

    I commented on David’s post at but also wanted to respond to some of your points here George. As you know, I have argued that connectivism is a phenomenon rather than a theory
    I was really interested in what you say about different institutions building their own criteria around the MOOC to validate their own assessment. This reinforces the MOOC as a free-standing experience. I, like many others was fascinated to participate in CCK08 (and to a lesser extent CCK09) but not interested in the for-credit aspects. What really interested me was the great learning network I built (still visible in my Twitter network).
    For me personally, CCK08 worked least well when it felt like a course with you and Stephen as ‘teachers’ of fixed ‘knowledge’, and worked best when it felt like a festival or unconference where people could meet up and exchange ideas, testing their own practice and theories against that of others. So some ‘MOOCs’ could develop where they also disconnect from curriculum as well as assessment, moving back to CoPs such as which significantly pre-date the MOOC concept.
    I’d be interested to know how you and Stephen reacted to mine and Ailsa Haxell’s contribution to CCK11 in March this year that was much more interactive than the usual lecture-style presentations. I thought I sensed some discomfort;)

  5. Hi Frances – I enjoyed the presentation that you and Ailsa delivered in CCK11 – the interactive approach was similar to the “live slides” method that Dave Cormier and others have experimented with in other courses. There certainly wasn’t any discomfort on my part wrt the format! The concepts you were presenting, however, were complex: activity theory, actor network, and connecivism. Anyone of those topics can cause mental fatigue in isolation, never mind in one presentation :) .

    Your point about building a large network is interesting as a side benefit (or in your case, primary intent) of MOOCs. I’ve heard that mentioned several times by people who were in involved with CCK08. I wonder if that benefit will become easier or more difficult to achieve if MOOCs start to proliferate…

    • Frances Bell says:

      I always try to attribute the Cormier live slides approach;) I have experimented twice with it and recommended only last week to JISC Netskills seminar organisers. In CCK09 as a self-organised slot with 6 x presenters (each 3 mins talk +7 mins audience talk) where several CCK08ers found a space and a voice different from forums and blogs. In CCK11, I don’t think that Ailsa and I attempted the impossible of presenting those complex topics, rather that we exposed aspects of them to participant discussion.
      I have always been fascinated with the concept of networks of Communities of Practice/ interest communities and how (in Wengers’ terms) knowledge (often fragmentary) can be propagated across CoPs via boundary-crossing objects (people and ideas). An individual’s network exists separately from the entities that are MOOCs and CoPs but can have significant overlap with them. For me, my CCK08 transferred fairly seamlessly to Twitter.

  6. [...] take the issue of MOOC’s. I’ve read and re-read this week’s arguments between Siemens and Wiley and I just end up feeling like an idiot. Those guys know their stuff, and there must be [...]

  7. [...] Connectivism « Do open online courses have a role in educational reform? [...]

  8. [...] Downes, and I have employed), Chronicle of Higher Education article, David Wiley’s response #1, my response, David Wiley’s response #2, Dave Cormier’s response, David Wiley’s response #3, Stephen’s [...]