Roles for Educators in MOOCs

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In the first Hotseat of the series for the Networked Learning Conference 2016, Mike Sharples asks a series of questions to promote discussion about massive open social learning. All the discussion questions were interesting and there was some overlap between threads, but for this post I would like to comment on some of the responses to Mike’s question:

What are the appropriate roles for educators (in MOOCs)?

12 people engaged in this discussion. I will be referring to their ideas but not citing them in this post. If you want to check who said what then the discussion forum is open.

Mike Sharples’ question referred to educators, but sometimes people were talking about educators, sometimes about teachers and the two words were often used interchangeably. The difference in meaning between these two words was not discussed, presumably because people didn’t think there was one or it wasn’t sufficiently important.

Going through the forum posts it is clear that we didn’t come to any conclusions. It was recognised that MOOCs, with their massive numbers of learners have raised questions about who is the teacher in a MOOC, can anyone be a teacher, whose role is it to facilitate discourse, whose role is it to scaffold learning and so on. It was also recognised that in MOOCs the teacher/educator’s role is likely to be distributed, either through a team of teachers or between learners, and that there are multiple roles that a MOOC teacher/educator could adopt (See references to Downes below). The argument was made that in a MOOC the learning environment has been reshaped by technology and needs multiple educators. Interestingly I could cite any number of MOOCs in which there is just one educator (i.e. it has been designed and set up by just one person), and this doesn’t only apply to xMOOCs. If we agree that one person alone cannot effectively teach/educate large numbers of learners at the same time, then are we assuming that, in the absence of teaching team, we are relying on learners to educate/teach each other?

This question of course led to a discussion about what is knowledge and who has it. What is the role of the teacher/educator in negotiated learning, social constructivism and situated learning? Are moderation and facilitation roles enough? A view was put forward that moderation is needed to monitor and manage abuse and facilitation is needed for orchestrating interactions, but what more does a MOOC educator need to do? What about knowledge and truth? What is the teacher’s role in the construction of knowledge in MOOC learning? Is it the MOOC teacher’s role to be a conveyor of authoritative facts and knowledge?

There was some discussion about authority and it was suggested that authority impacts negatively on learner autonomy, which in connectivism is a key characteristic of learning in MOOCs. The idea that a teacher is an authority was questioned (the reason given was that authority is imposed), but the teacher can (and should?) have expertise (expertise is not imposed, but recognised). The role of power and authority in the social construction of knowledge was acknowledged. Of course this discussion could apply to any teaching environment, not just MOOCs. I was left wondering whether separating authority from expertise is straightforward.

We didn’t really get to grips with the question of whether the teacher is ‘redundant’ in a MOOC. Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s CoI framework (see reference list below) and the importance of ‘teacher presence’ was referenced but not discussed, I suspect because the thread was about roles of educators/teachers, rather than about who is the teacher in a MOOC.

In reflecting on this forum discussion, I think that in focussing on roles, we never really got to grips with the question of who is the teacher in a MOOC and whether and why we still need teachers. It was suggested that teachers will never be erased from society but if that is true, what is it that teachers do (and here I mean trained teachers, or career teachers, as opposed to say parents as teachers), that others don’t or can’t do?

I enjoyed the week’s discussions even though I don’t feel much further forward in understanding the teacher’s role in MOOCs. However, looking back through my notes I see that I wrote: ‘A teacher is more than a collection of roles. A teacher has an identity – it’s something about who the teacher is and how the teacher is perceived by learners, as well as what the teacher does – it’s something about the relationship between teacher and learner’. If teaching as a profession is not going to ‘disappear’ (see Biesta’s paper in the reference list) and MOOCs are not going to disappear, then future teachers (those being trained now) will have to understand not only the MOOC environment and the roles they might need to adopt within the MOOC environment, but also have a clear idea of who they are and what they stand for. I was once asked in an interview for a teaching post to explain my teaching philosophy, what I believe in and what I stand for as a teacher, but that was long before MOOCs. Is this a question that MOOC teacher/educators need to be able to answer?

A number of references to literature were made in the forum which show how wide-ranging the discussion was (see below).

A date for your diary: The next Hotseat in this series:

November 8-18, 2015 Sonia Livingstone: Boundaries and Limits of Networked and Connected Learning


Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35–49. Retrieved from

Can Mill’s empirical account of arithmetic be defended against the criticisms of Frege? 

Common Core Math is Not the Enemy

Downes, S. (2010). The role of the educator. Retrieved from:

Downes, S. (2013). We don’t need no educator: The role of the teacher in today’s online education. Retrieved from:

Edinburgh University. Manifesto for teaching online 2015. Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,9(3) Retrieved from:

Kop, R., Fournier, H., & Mak, S. F. J. (2011). A Pedagogy of Abundance or a Pedagogy to Support Human Beings ? Participant Support on Massive Open Online Courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(7) pp. 74-93. Retrieved from:

Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology, NY: Routledge

Niaz, M. (2000). The Oil Drop Experiment: A Rational Reconstruction of the Millikan–Ehrenhaft Controversy and Its Implications for Chemistry Textbooks. 37 (5). Pp. 480-508. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Retrieved from:

Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend

Ross, J, Sinclair, C, Knox, J, Bayne, S & Macleod, H. (2014). Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol 10, no. 1, pp. 57-69. Retrieved from:

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Edinburgh University’s updated Manifesto for Teaching Online – 2015

In June of this year I published a blogpost about the changing role of the online teacher, following an invitation from Lisa Lane to write a post for her open Program for Online Teaching.

In that post I included reference to Edinburgh University’s Online Teaching Manifesto, which they published in 2011.


This is an image of the 2011 Manifesto

This week the Digital Education Team have published an updated version of the manifesto and compared it to their 2011 version on their manifesto website and asked for comment.

I have not attempted to evaluate their update by comparing the 2015 version with the 2011 version, but I have found the 2015 version very interesting to read. It relates strongly to the research papers I have been reading this year and therefore would seem to reflect current issues and concerns related to online teaching, but it also leaves me with some questions – possibly related to areas of related research which I haven’t seen.

Here is the text of the manifesto ( in purple font) with my thoughts/comments.

Manifesto for teaching online: Digital Education, University of Edinburgh, 2015

Online can be the privileged mode. Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Comment: I can see why these sentences have been included, but do we need to oppose online and offline education. They can both be privileged and positive principles.

Update 24-10-15 I am copying Jen Ross’ comment here as it provides a useful reference for further thinking about this point and the point below about instrumentalisation of education.

I do think the field is moving towards more recognition of hybridity (I like Greenhalgh-Spencer’s take on this – ), but there is still a need (in my view) to address assumptions about what online education is and can be.

Place is differently, not less, important online. Comment: Al Filreis’ ModPo MOOC realises this and creates a wonderful sense of place. He talks about it in his keynote for learning with MOOCs 2015 

Text has been troubled: many modes matter in representing academic knowledge. Comment: This applies both on and offline.

We should attend to the materialities of digital education. The social isn’t the whole story. Comment: A strong point and resonates with research papers that point to the tyranny of social participation online. Ferreday and Hodgson and Lesley Gourlay have written about this.

Ferreday, D., & Hodgson, V. (2010). Heterotopia in Networked Learning : Beyond the Shadow Side of Participation in Learning Communities. Retrieved from

Gourlay, L. (2015). “Student engagement” and the tyranny of participation. Teaching in Higher Education, (March), 1–10. doi:10.1080/13562517.2015.1020784

Openness is neither neutral nor natural: it creates and depends on closures. Comment: This echoes Edwards’ writing on how “all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness” (p.3) and openness is under-theorised.

Edwards, R. (2015). Knowledge infrastructures and the inscrutability of openness in education. Learning, Media and Technology, (June), 1–14. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1006131

Update 24-10-15 Stephen Downes has challenged the ideas that ‘all forms of openness entail forms of closed-ness’ and that ‘openess is under-theorised’. See OLDaily. I should say here that I have probably done Edwards a disservice by quoting him out of context. His paper deserves reading in full.

Update 30-10-15 And here is a link to the Edinburgh Team’s response to this challenge. 

Can we stop talking about digital natives? Comment: From Prensky’s work  – which has been much criticised – but has at least raised the issues.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.

Digital education reshapes its subjects. The possibility of the ‘online version’ is overstated. Comment: This is not super clear to me. Does subjects mean disciplines or people? And how is the possibility of the ‘online version’ overstated?

There are many ways to get it right online. ‘Best practice’ neglects context. Comment: Another point also made by Al Filreis in his video – and others have written about this. Just this week I saw a tweet about it.

Distance is temporal, affective, political: not simply spatial. Comment: And also cultural?

Aesthetics matter: interface design shapes learning. Comment: Interface design certainly shapes learning but is that the same as saying that aesthetics matter? ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ ?

Massiveness is more than learning at scale: it also brings complexity and diversity. Comment: This has always been Stephen Downes’ point, i.e. that a purpose of massiveness is to increase diversity.

Online teaching need not be complicit with the instrumentalisation of education. Comment: Does any teaching need to be complicit with the instrumentalisation of education?

A digital assignment can live on. It can be iterative, public, risky, and multi-voiced. Comment: Again, Al Filreis in his video discusses how this happens in ModPo.

Remixing digital content redefines authorship. Comment: The issues around this have been discussed in Ward Cunningham and Mike Caulfield’s Fedwiki. Frances Bell’s blog post might help to explain this. Basically in Fedwiki it is very difficult to track the original wiki page author once a series of edits have been made.

Contact works in multiple ways. Face-time is over-valued. Comment: Face-time can be both over-valued and under-valued. Many courses recognise the importance of face-time and try to replicate it online.

Online teaching should not be downgraded into ‘facilitation’. Comment: Good to see this, i.e. the importance of ‘teaching’. I know that the Edinburgh team have been considering the role of the teacher in online learning in their recent work. See

Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35–49.


Ross, J., Sinclair, C., Knox, J., Bayne, S., & Macleod, H. (2014). Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 57–69.

Assessment is an act of interpretation, not just measurement. Comment: I’m not sure what assessment as an act of interpretation means. Assessment as more than just measurement, i.e. assessment for learning generates as much interest today as it did when Black and Wiliam wrote their paper Inside the Black Box

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139–148. doi:10.1002/hrm

Gibbs and Simpson’s article is also useful in this respect.

Gibbs, G., & Simpson, C. (2004). Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning. Learning in Teaching in Higher Education, 1(1), 3–31. doi:10.1080/07294360.2010.512631

Algorithms and analytics re-code education: pay attention! Comment: Is this a warning? What should we be doing about this?

Update 24-10-15 Thanks to Jen Ross and Sian Bayne for sending me the link to the e-book edited by Ben Williamson which provides the information relevant to this point in the manifesto. See Jen and Sian’s comments below

Williamson, B. (ed.) 2015. Coding/Learning: Software and digital data in education. Stirling: University of Stirling.

A routine of plagiarism detection structures-in distrust. Comment: Agreed – so what are the alternatives? Clearly plagiarism can’t go unchecked?

Online courses are prone to cultures of surveillance. Visibility is a pedagogical and ethical issue. Comment: Can we assume surveillance to be a bad thing? This statement implies it is, although I’m not sure that is the intention. I can think of at least one course I have attended where more surveillance would probably have been a good thing.

Automation need not impoverish education: we welcome our new robot colleagues. Comment: I suppose it depends on what the new robot colleagues do – what roles they play and how people understand and interpret those roles. Sherry Turkle’s writing about technology and human vulnerability seems relevant here.

Don’t succumb to campus envy: we are the campus. Comment: I’m not sure what this means – maybe because I’m not attached to an institution. I don’t think in terms of campuses.

Hopefully the Edinburgh Team will be expanding on this manifesto. It’s not all self-explanatory to me, but I do appreciate their focus on what it means to be a teacher in a digital age.

The role of the educator in networked learning will also be discussed in the first Hotseat for the Networked Learning Conference 2016,  which is now open and will be facilitated (is that the right word?) from October 25th by Mike Sharples.