The Direction of MOOC Research

After 2 years of MOOC mania, the time has come for increasing the output of MOOC research. But what direction is that research taking – what direction should it take?

At the beginning of the month George Siemens convened a MOOC conference – (with funding from Bill and Melinda Gates) – which was billed as the MOOC conference of all MOOC conferences – pulling together many of the big names associated with MOOCs. And, by all accounts, it was a great conference – the conversations must have been fascinating.

Given that I couldn’t attend, I have been watching the Twitter stream quite closely and am following the blog posts that are emerging now that delegates have managed to return home after being stuck in Dallas in an unexpected ice storm .

From my reading of some of the follow up tweets and posts it seems that despite the bonhomie, there were some divisions between the delegates, although they may not have been openly discussed at the time.

I was alerted to this first by a tweet from Stephen Downes who wrote:

#MRI13 – seeing more and more the gulf between my own approach to MOOCs and those from the xMOOC perspective…

And then by a blog post from Ralf St.Clair  who has suggested that there were three groups in the conference delegates and these were not necessarily compatible:

The first, and the most fun, are the techno-utopians. These folks believe that the issues of MOOCs are fundamentally technical, and once we have a better [insert tool here e.g. marking algorithm] then we really will have a widespread and powerful democratisation of knowledge.

The second group are the Educational Idealists, who fret about structure and pedagogy and rigour. That’s the group I belong to, through frankly I’d rather be in the first group. They have all the good tunes.

The third group are the Administrative Puritans, focused on return on investment, costs, and monetisation so that MOOCs can pay their (considerable) way.

Bonnie Stewart  also noted that there were groups who did not appear to know how to talk to each other and wrote in her recent blog post

I think ‘what’s next?’ is working out the conversation IN the metaphorical van. Some who see MOOCs as learning focus on the pursuit of its ever-more-finely-honed measurement. Others are more inclined to dismiss measurement as irrelevant to the networked synthesis of ideas that forms the backbone of their approach to education. A hundred more do something in between. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other. It became evident around the Arlington bar tables last week that the chasms between practitioners’ varying versions of learning and knowledge are so deep some aren’t even really aware that the rest of us are IN the van.

Then there have been a couple of blog posts from Martin Weller and Martin Hawksey that suggest that the emphasis on big data research might not be exactly what is needed  – It was easy to forget you were talking about learners, and not sales of baked beans. (Martin Weller).

These posts were interesting given that my own research into MOOCs has always been on the learner experience. Whilst there is a lot to learn from big data, we also need to keep the focus on the learner and try and understand the changes that are happening in learners themselves in these new open online learning environments. My experience is that it is difficult to square this interest in the unique individual experience with the massive number of MOOC participants.

There have also been interesting discussions about the role of theory in relation to MOOC research and the suggestion that we are moving from theory-led to evidence-based research – i.e. post-theory  ( See Martin Weller’s blog post and this post by Mike Caulfield). My own thinking is that perhaps we need more theory – not less – and in particular we need more discussion around the proposed theory of connectivism, which only a few researchers have, to date, been prepared to engage in.

Post conference reflections, tweets and blog posts are still coming in and the discussion remains very interesting.  Here are some of the posts that have caught my eye

Bodong Chen – Top Links from the MOOC Research Conference Twitter Backchannel (#MRI13)

Matt Crosslin – Give Me an M! Give Me a C! Blah Blah Blah To All This Theory

Keith Devlin – The MOOC Express – Less Hype, More Hope

Lori Breslow, Donald Clark, Professor Asha Kanwar, Stephen Downes – EduDebate: What Future for MOOCs

Michael Feldstein – Changing the Narrative

I picked up most of these from the conference Twitter stream  (#mri13 )

Lassoing the coltish concepts of Emergent Learning and MOOCs

Why is it that when we find something wonderfully creative, emergent and innovative, we often try to ‘capture’ it, constrain and contain it, package it, order it, thereby effectively destroying what it was about it that attracted us to it in the first place?

This question has arisen in two discussions I have been involved in this week.

Mooc framework graphic2-mini

On Wednesday 20th November George Siemens convened a 6 hour JAM to discuss a framework for MOOCs in Higher Education . What a wild gathering that was. Everyone talking over each other, darting in and out. It was frenetic and completely impossible to see the whole picture at the time (although it is now possible to go back through the archives) – but it was a lot of fun.

Amazingly it was possible to connect with others despite the chaotic feel to it all.  Shaun Kellogg  sent me an article to read after the event (thanks Shaun) and I felt I touched base with quite a few people. But I don’t envy George having to make sense of it all and even more I don’t envy him having to put together a Framework for MOOCs in Higher Education, which seems such a contradiction to me. I’ll try and explain.

I’m not sure how a framework fits with the openness that MOOCs try to promote – nor the diversity or autonomy. I associate a framework in Higher Education with an attempt to impose order, to bring institutions into line with each other, to see consistency, to agree on standards and so on. I can see that this could be done for MOOCs, but would this mean that MOOCs would lose their potential for experimentation, promoting creativity and innovation in Higher Education? Would those dreams of disrupting Higher Education, of searching for new ways to think about education, for democratizing education be lost? Would MOOCs become just another framework in a long list of frameworks?  These thoughts surfaced for me when one of the JAM participants said her institution needed a framework so that the MOOC designers would know what to do, because they didn’t know enough about pedagogy! For her, giving them a framework would answer this problem. For me not only is this a different and dismaying problem, but also very disappointing if that is what the Framework is for.

I would like to be clearer about what purpose the Framework will serve and how it will remain true to the initial aspirations of the early MOOCs, and to be reassured that this won’t be a backward step.

UPDATE 25-11-13 For a different perspective, see Matthias Melcher’s blog post ‘Wrapping and Grasping’.

scope-badgeSimilar stimulating discussions have been happening in the SCoPE community this week, around the subject of emergent learning – key questions being ‘Can you design for emergent learning?’ and ‘Can you assess emergent learning?’ There have been some wonderful comments which reflect on the difficulties in answering these questions.

For example:

Phillip Rutherford – writes in answer to the first question about designing for emergent learning:

To try and harness complexity and emergence is, by definition, to reduce it to a state of equilibrium, that is, stability which may see the notion of intentional design added to the desired objective but which in reality takes the learning out of the hands of the learner and places it in the hands of the teacher.

And Nick Kearney – writes in answer the question about emergent learning and assessment:

The issue about emergent learning (or whatever you want to call it) is that it escapes the prior definitions we have worked with in the field. There are three reactions, and they are present in this debate.

One tries to lasso the coltish concept and drag it back within the fold. Once the emergent learning generates evidence it becomes manageable within a system that fails fundamentally to trust the individual (this is so ingrained we mostly don’t even notice it).

Another notices emergent learning as an interesting anomaly, something worth studying, and of course measuring, and scoping and observing. Welcome of course, but I dare say, eternally marginal.

Then there is the view (not a new view) that understands emergent learning, once it is recognised as existing, as a fundamental and profound challenge to the way our society understands learning, knowledge and socialisation. If you recognise it you have to rethink education.

These comments, and many others in the SCoPE forums, resonate so strongly with my thinking and our work on emergent learning, and I now see more clearly why I have been struggling with the notion of a MOOC framework.

Our discussions in the SCoPE community will remain open until the end of next week  (November 29th). It is an open community, so if these ideas interest you, join us there.

Thanks to everyone in the forums for a stimulating week and to Nick Kearney, Phillip Rutherford, all SCoPE participants and George Siemens for motivating me to think about these ideas and write this post – and especially to Nick for the title of the post 🙂

cMOOCs and xMOOCs – key differences

As xMOOCs become more successful and begin to experiment with pedagogies that go beyond the didactic video lecture approach, I have been trying to understand the essential differences between the original connectivist MOOCs such as CCK08 and the current xMOOCs such as those offered by Coursera.

I have now had experience of two xMOOCs – Growing Old Around the Globe (convened by Sarah Kagan and Anne Shoemaker) and Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (convened by Al Filreis). Both these xMOOCs have been very successful. They have reached large numbers of people, established communities of learners around them, promoted interaction and discussion, involved participants in peer review and used teaching assistants to support participants. So if we take these as two of the best Coursera MOOCs, then what are the differences between these and the original cMOOCs such as CCK08, PLENK, Critical Literacies and Change 11? What follows is my current understanding, based on my experience in these MOOCs and what I have recently read and heard from Stephen Downes and George Siemens (see references at the end of this post).

CCK08, the first MOOC, was an attempt to put the theory of connectivism into practice. Connectivism as a theory is still being questioned, but

 ‘at its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks’. (Stephen Downes – What Connectivism Is).

I am not aware of any evidence that xMOOCs have been specifically designed to test out a given theory.

Connectivist MOOCs  (cMOOCs) are distributed in the sense that they do not run on a single website or with a centralized core of content; the content in cMOOCs is networked. Participants are encouraged to meet in locations of their choosing and organise themselves. xMOOCs are convened on a designated platform; they may offer alternative sites such as Facebook or Twitter, but the course runs principally on the main platform, where interaction takes place in discussion forums. Blogs, for example, are not a big feature of xMOOCs.

cMOOCs are designed as massive networks. The idea is that these networks are neither centralized, nor decentralized, but distributed so that the collapse of a given node or set of nodes does not cause the collapse of the entire network. cMOOCs are based on networked cooperation rather than group collaboration – (See Downes on Groups and Networks)

SD ALT-C slidesharecMOOCs promote diversity, the kind of diversity that comes with a mesh network. xMOOCs encourage a huge diversity of participants, but in cMOOC terms diversity is more than broadcasting the same message to thousands of people, i.e. the model of a centralized network. It involves diversity of approach and resources, i.e. participants are involved in determining the approach and creating the resources.

The original cMOOCs are based on long standing principles of open education and use open educational resources, i.e. they do not create content to go into the course, they use content that is already ‘out there’ on the web and ‘open’ and link to it. This avoids issues of copyright. xMOOCs build their content within the course platform and this is copyrighted, i.e. it cannot be taken and freely distributed outside the course.

cMOOCs connect participants and resources through immersion. They are intended to be disruptive, and to overwhelm participants.

MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete’ (Stephen Downes – The Great Re-Branding)

Through this they hope that participants will learn how to navigate complex learning environments and be critically selective in lines of enquiry they choose to follow. This model of learning is intended to reflect the current learning climate and environment in which we exist, i.e. a complex fast changing world where there is far more information available than we can ever hope to cope with or keep up with. cMOOC instructors model behaviour, but because the cMOOC environment is dynamic and continually changing, students cannot replicate the instructor’s behaviour – they have to self-organise. In contrast xMOOCs have adopted more of a transmission model of instruction.

Key activities in cMOOCs are remixing and repurposing, i.e. that content will be created, ideally co-created, through interaction with freely available open resources. Most xMOOCs do not allow for this, although I think EDcMOOC may be an exception, but I wasn’t a participant and this would need to be confirmed.

In a talk that George Siemens gave last night  ‘What are MOOCs doing to the Open Education‘ –  he said ‘Easy trumps ideology’ and that ‘openness’ is the cornerstone of innovation and creativity, but that the original meaning of openness associated with cMOOCs has become confused by the way in which xMOOCs have been designed. Openness is hard work. It is more than open access. xMOOCs according to George Siemens have taken the easy route. But despite this the advent of MOOCs of all types is disrupting traditional forms of education.  He also quoted Jon Dron’s comment ‘Soft is hard and hard is easy’, which I interpret to mean – it is easy (relatively speaking) to create a platform, such as Coursera, but hard to develop a learning space in which flexibility and creativity thrive.

Ultimately, whether we go down the cMOOC or xMOOC route (or a hybrid route) will depend on our fundamental beliefs of what education is for, either as teachers or learners (our educational philosophy). xMOOCs have attracted thousands of learners, so presumably thousands of learners are benefiting or believe they are benefiting. We still need more empirical research on learning in different types of MOOCs. I have learned from the two xMOOCs I have participated in and appreciate the skill and efforts of the tutors and what I have learned from co-participants, but for me cMOOCs remains the ideal. CCK08 was a transformative experience. It changed the whole way in which I think about education and I am still learning from that experience 5 years later.

Finally, I do not really see xMOOCs and cMOOCs as a dichotomy. For me there are the original cMOOCs which follow the principles clearly laid out by Downes and Siemens, which I have tried to summarise here, and the rest, which can be a whole mishmash of different approaches which offer more to less autonomy, more to less diversity, more to less openness and more to less interaction dependent on the platform they are offered on and the extent to which the principles summarised above are followed.

Further references

Downes, S. (2013). Connective Knowledge and Open Resources: Retrieved from:

Downes, S. (2013). Habits of Effective Connected Learners. Retrieved from:

Dron, J. (2011). The Nature of Technologies. Presentation to Change 11 MOOC. Retrieved from:

Parr, C. (2013). MOOC Creators Criticise  Courses’ lack of Creativity. Retrieved from: – (See also The Article – Full Interview)

Siemens, G. (2012). MOOCs are really a Platform. Retrieved from:

A wicked problem

This is taken from George’s blog. I have responded to his questions below.

I often hear educators talking about “education needs to change” (I do it too). This is the case for the K-12, higher education, and corporate training/education markets. 

As a small research project, I’d like to ask people to answer the following questions (on their blog, in YouTube, Seesmic, or wherever – please post a link in the comments section below):

  1. Does education need to change?
  2. Why or why not?
  3. If it should change, what should it become? How should education (k-12, higher, or corporate) look like in the future?


The questions imply that education is not changing. My experience is that it is always changing and has always been changing. In my career I have often been very ‘change weary’. Teachers are beleaguered by change on a regular basis.

So I’m assuming that George is thinking that radical change might be needed. I have been through some pretty radical changes in the past – one was the introduction of the National Curriculum in the UK in 1988. We went from discovery learning to a standards driven, linearly structured, constraining National Curriculum, pretty much over night. Many good teachers left the profession at that time.

So if education is always changing does it need to change now more than it did before? That again is arguable. My understanding of change management is that radical change is only really needed in a crisis. Is education in a crisis? I’m not sure that there is the evidence to say ‘Yes’ to this question. However, there’s no doubt that advancing Web 2.0 technologies are changing the way many people learn, so this will inevitably have an effect on education. Any change to education will need to be informed by this and there is evidence that this is already happening, e.g. this course.

For lasting change people need to feel ownership, but this is a slow process. People and education will change when there is a perceived need. 10 years ago a course like this would have been inconceivable, or maybe conceivable but not practically possible. This year it has happened and the voluntary uptake is evidence of a perceived need and the practical possibility.

There’s no real means of knowing what education should become. It’s a shifting target. Evidence from this course suggests that a good starting point would be to focus on teacher and learner autonomy and connectivity in small steps.  

We need change from both ends – from bottom up, with teachers and learners taking control of their learning and realising the potential of connectivity – but also from knowledgeable (dare I say educated!) leaders with vision.

There are no easy answers to George’s questions. Educational change is a wicked problem!