ALTMOOCSIG Conference: MOOCs – Which way now?

MOOCs – Which way now? This was the question for the ALTMOOCSIG day conference (Friday June 27th) which was hosted at UCL.

As an independent consultant and researcher, I have to think carefully about where to invest my time and resources. This was a free conference (thank you ALT, Mira Vogel and Fiona Harvey), but of course there were expenses involved with travelling from Cumbria to London – but it was well worth it.

All the sessions I attended were interesting and thought provoking and there was a very good atmosphere – relaxed and friendly, but intent on discussing the issues. For an excellent post about some of the sessions see George Robert’s blog – Open online courses: ALT MOOC SIG.

Two sessions that I attended that George did not, were Ronald MacIntyre’s Workshop – ‘Open Education and the Promises we make’– and Matt Jenner’s session ‘MOOCs: it’s not about the money’.

In Ron’s workshop, our group had a lot of fun drawing what we thought about the promises we make in open education – or rather the wonderful Fiona Harvey did the drawing.


Overall, I think we decided that promises are being made in the name of MOOCs but many are not being fulfilled.  Not really a surprise. The divide between learners and their teachers is getting wider, as teachers and institutions focus on their ‘star’ status, marketing, brand and coffers. There was  quite a bit of cynicism around about the value of MOOCs, not just in this workshop but throughout the day generally, despite there being examples of excellent practice. Some that stand out for me from the presentations I attended were:

  • Patrick (Paddy) Haughian’s presentation – ‘Beyond the selfie – social learning in a connectivist environment’. Comments that Paddy made which interested me were:

‘Contribute content and allow the content to drive it’

‘Assessment is the problem’

‘It’s all about making – be creative – create artefacts’

These comments although reported out of context here, seemed to resonate with some of the thinking Frances Bell and I have been doing for our own presentation on rhizomatic learning (see Rhizo14: Emerging Ambiguities and Issues for further information).

  • Aidan Johnston’s presentation – Storytelling through MOOCs. The story in question was told in the context of the University of Strathclyde’s Introduction to Forensic Science MOOC, which attracted thousands of participants, who attempted to solve a murder case.

These presentations showed very good use of technology for creating and running a successful MOOC, but it must have been at some cost, particularly if, for whatever reason, the MOOC cannot be run again, e.g. presumably Strathclyde’s MOOC built around the story of a murder can’t be used again if the object was to solve the murder.

The other session I attended that George has not reported on, was at the end of the day when Matt Jenner got us to think about the benefits of MOOCs and asked us to use voting response systems to share our opinions, which was a very good way of covering a lot of ground quickly and having a lot of fun at the same time. See Matt’s blog for details – What’s the benefit of MOOCs?

As well as the (out of context) comments that I noted from Paddy Haughian’s presentation, there were a few other comments that I similarly made a note of during the day (also reported here out of context):

Diana Laurillard. ‘If you have to take a critical stance, you have to be on the inside.’  – an interesting perspective for researchers.

Fred Garnett.  ‘We need new metaphors for learning.’  ‘If you try and bring a community together, you create a hierarchy’.

Alexander Griffin.  ‘A good building is one that relates to its context. We have to understand our own context’. ‘Learning [is good] when you don’t know it. Teaching when you don’t know it is even better.’ i.e. don’t know that it is happening.

Shirley Williams. ‘It’s dangerous not to steward courses’  (with reference to Wenger et al.’s book Digital Habitats – stewarding technology for communities)

Ronald MacIntyre. ‘Widening access does not equal widening participation.’

How much further forward were we at the end of the day in answering the question – MOOCs – which way now?

Its no longer a question of whether it can be done;  institutions with the resources can design and run MOOCs which will be enjoyed by participants. MOOC conveners can learn from each other and the technology is available.

Cost clearly continues to be an issue – in terms of time and money, even though Matt Jenner tried to focus on the benefits of MOOCs, saying it’s not about the money.  Shirley Williams from Reading University talked about paying undergraduate and postgraduate students to support MOOCs, others talked about the cost of producing videos etc. and then there is the cost of the tutor’s time, especially if running a MOOC is additional to a tutor’s normal workload. Is this sustainable?

It seemed to me that people are beginning to wonder what it is all for – not what are the benefits, but who benefits.  I am always struck by how rarely the early MOOCs, such as CCK08 are referenced in this respect or at these events. What came through very clearly for me in CCK08 was an intention to think differently about pedagogy, and the necessity to think about how teaching and learning can be aligned with the needs of living in a digital age. Focussing on this still might help to answer the question – MOOCs – which way now?

5 thoughts on “ALTMOOCSIG Conference: MOOCs – Which way now?

  1. Crispin Weston July 1, 2014 / 2:53 pm

    I am interested in Diana’s comment. I am not sure that I understand what she meant, unless it was that no-one who is not involved in providing MOOCs is allowed to criticize them? Was that it?

  2. jennymackness July 2, 2014 / 6:43 pm

    Hi Crispin – thanks for your comment. I can’t speak for Diana. I think you would need to contact her to accurately interpret her comment. For me, it resonated, because I am finding it very difficult to research the Rhizo14 MOOC and rhizomatic learning from a participant perspective and remain objective and unbiased.

    Diana was talking about the ICT in Primary Education MOOC that she has worked on/convened –

    I interpreted what she was saying to mean – that you can’t really understand what is going on in a MOOC unless you are right in there as a participant. I think I agree with this.

    It’s not that no-one is allowed to criticise. That is everyone’s right. But for me, I could only take seriously criticism from someone who had experienced what was going on in the MOOC.

    My sense is (and perhaps there is the evidence for this) that there are some people writing/publishing research papers on MOOCs and criticising them, without ever having fully engaged in one.

    Hope this helps.

    Thanks for your comment,


  3. Crispin Weston July 2, 2014 / 6:57 pm

    Thanks Jenny.

    Perhaps, though Diana has not held back from criticising MOOCs which she has not attended on the basis of the outcome data. And in the end, if MOOCs are about learning and not just entertainment, I should have thought that the outcome data was what mattered more than the subjective experience of being on the inside.

    Anyway, thanks for the reply and for the interesting account of the event. Crispin.

  4. jennymackness July 2, 2014 / 8:07 pm

    Wow Crispin – Fascinating comment: I’m not at all sure that I agree 🙂

    >>I should have thought that the outcome data was what mattered more than the subjective experience of being on the inside.

    I think that MOOC research has shown how problematic outcome data can be – e.g. all that big data on drop out figures etc.

    The problem is that much of the ‘outcome data’ is from the institutional perspective and for the institution, and there is very little from the learner perspective and for the learner. To get at the learner perspective, we need to be ‘on the inside’. Subjective? Well Yes – but maybe pulling together learners’ stories, we will ultimately learn more about what learning in a MOOC is all about.

    In addition – given that learners are now learning in the open, and even if they are involved in an xMOOC, we won’t necessarily know where they are learning, what they are learning and with whom, then how can we know what the outcomes are, unless the learners themselves tell us? What have all those ‘observers’, who have not declared themselves, and whose outcomes we can’t see, learned?

    My interest is in emergent learning and we can only get at this by talking to learners – and listening to their individual (subjective) stories of their experiences. I don’t think learning is any longer in the control of teachers (if it ever was) and I don’t think learners most meaningful learning experiences are necessarily related to the teacher/learning designer’s intended learning outcomes.

    I think we may need to agree to differ 🙂

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