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:

The reality of working with soft and hard technologies

Jon Dron’s presentation to ChangeMOOC this week is very timely. I am working on a University funded project to develop training materials which will be used around the country to deliver school training on a given topic. The materials will be in hard copy, on DVD and online.

This is an ideal opportunity for me to consider the use of hard and soft technologies.

The project is basically working with hard technologies, although it is making some concessions to ‘softness’, in that it is writing the training materials in such a way that users can add their own materials and to a very limited extent remix and repurpose them.

The technologies will be hard in that they will be branded and have copyright limitations. Interestingly there were only two of us on the team who had ever heard of Creative Commons before the project began!

But the major constraining factor in getting an appropriate balance between hard and soft technologies is cost. So – we have been told that we cannot use powerpoint for our presentations because these cost more to produce than PDFs. PDFs ensure that the presentation won’t shift when viewed from different systems, but a PDF means that if animations are included, each will need it own page and each page costs! So I see this as an example of a hard technology where the pedagogy is being bent to match the technology, which is being determined by cost.

It is also very apparent in this project that those who hold the purse strings call the tune – a disheartening process to be involved in.

So in this case, constraints are not enabling creativity, but definitely stifling it – not because its not possible to creatively overcome the constraints, but because those in power – those who hold the purse strings, don’t want to overcome the constraints.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen technologists and budget holders constrain creativity!

Getting the balance right between soft and hard technologies..

… this was the subject of Jon Dron’s fascinating talk to ChangeMOOC this week –

Why was it fascinating? Well – not being a learning technologist, nor any other type of technologist and in many ways somewhat technophobic, it made me rethink how I work with technologies and in particular the relationship between different technologies and pedagogy. Here are some of the key ideas that I picked up:

Technologies can be soft or hard and everything in between. Soft technologies are those enacted by people, e.g. knitting needles are a soft technology – they need people to be of any use. Hard technologies are the ‘physical stuff’. A fridge is a hard technology – it can function without being enacted on by people.

Many things can become a learning technology by the way in which they are used, e.g. a screwdriver and a stick – See

Technologies don’t have to be embodied in machines and things. It is the ways in which we use it that makes the screwdriver a technology and these processes are in our heads, not in the screwdriver. The legal system is a hard technology, used by humans. It is very rigid.

Pedagogies are technologies in the sense that they are the orchestration of beliefs and understandings of how people learn; the processes that bring about learning; the ways in which we orchestrate ideas to help people learn. Learning designs are pedagogies that have been hardened into technologies.

All technologies are assemblies, e.g. a screwdriver.

There is a continuum between hard and soft technologies. Neither is good or bad in itself. The degree of hardness or softness will depend on the situation. Some people will find an LMS over hard, but others will find a MOOC over soft.

We use hard technologies to make things easier and faster, by reducing the number of choices for users. Hard technologies are brittle and stifle creativity. They prevent us from doing things and that is why we use them.  They are complete. Hard technologies act as filters – they structure our spaces and limit what we can do. Pedagogies are bent to match hard technologies, rather than the other way round, as anyone who has used an LMS such as Blackboard will know. Soft processes can get filtered through hard technologies, so that we end up taking the path that the designers want us to take. Hard technologies take time and are hard to produce.

Soft technologies promote flexibility and creativity. The user has to orchestrate processes, which is more difficult. Soft technologies are incomplete and needy. Soft technologies are simple to produce but hard to use.

How do we get the right balance between hard and soft technologies, i.e. find something that is not too hard, or not too soft for any occasion? The easiest way is to assemble technologies – to make technologies softer add something or aggregate – to make technologies harder, replace the soft technologies with hard technologies.

Web 2.0 is soft but we need to find easier ways to assemble things. The design of MOOCs could further consider the balance between hard and soft technologies, to enable people to assemble things as they want to, but also to provide a guided path for those who want it.

Interesting ideas 🙂

Postscript – added 26-11-11

See Paul Prinsloo’s blog post Adjacent chaos/anarchy/growth/domination/futures #change11


Jon Dron’s powerpoint slides

2nd Networked Learning Hotseat – Nov 20-25

The Ist Hotseat was well worth attending – so I’m looking forward to this one.

Value of Nets, Sets and Groups

This year’s second Hot Seat discussion in the area of networked learning runs from November 20-25. Terry Anderson & Jon Dron will facilitate a discussion on Nets, sets and groups.

They start the week on Sunday 20th with an elluminate synchronous session at 1:00pm MDT. Check out your time zone here:

You can enter the elluminate room here:

The rest of the week the discussion will continue here: Nets, sets and groups: Different tools for different contexts

This week-long online discussion is freely open to everybody who wishes to participate, so come and join us as we begin the countdown to #nlc2012!

Conference InformationThe main conference information site is at:

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