What are MOOCs and are they so boring because they’ve been hijacked by Higher Education?

The question:

Is a MOOC something you would consider implementing at your organisation?

Me, kneejerk response: No way, no one would use it.

Slightly more considered response: Unless they had to. For say a H&S certificate

On further reflection: Some might need training and help on how to access and use it

Ok, hey, since this is about openness I’ll try and keep an open mind and at least read a bit about it before I shut it down. I’m glad I did because I learnt a thing or two, not least, what a MOOC actually is (or can be).

I’ll start with a bit of back-tracking. It’s not exactly fair to say MOOCs have been hijacked by HE.  HE in fact invented them. It’s just that they’ve been through a few phases…

Two categories of MOOC – XMOOC and CMOOC

It was interesting to discover through reading Velestianos & Shepherdson (2015) that there are in fact two different categories of MOOCS. I’ve clearly only ever experienced the xMOOC variety, and have, on every single occasion, left a trail in my wake contributing to the embarrassing statistic that 90% of courses remain uncompleted (p. 201). I just find them totally boring. Yet my repeat efforts have come from an optimism that one day I’ll find something different. Something that leverages the potential provided by our technologies and allowed for mass scale constructivism and participation. I tried within our organisation’s VLE, to create such an ideal. Open courses inviting teachers, trainees and students to share questions, ideas, resources, lists of places to access open source resources…All oblivious to the fact that I was trying to create a cMOOC! Uptake was pathetic. I’ll leave reflections on the reasons for that to another post.

So what exactly are xMOOCs and cMOOCs?

A MOOC, both types, is basically what it says on the tin:

M – massive (theoretically yes as it’s available to everyone on the planet)

O – open (but no to the above because not everyone has the skills, technology or other access requirements to truly meet the ‘open’ criteria)

O – online (yes, can’t be denied although some MOOCs I think can also be available offline)

C – course (can’t be denied on the face of it but some would still argue this point based on traditional academic criteria)

Some forms of openness then could be said to be more open than others.

Although both types of MOOC disrupt conventional thinking about teaching and learning, it could at least partly be back to that question of who holds the power – the user or the creator? Either way, MOOCs have caused shifts in practices by traditional HE organisations that could be viewed either as embracing modern pedagogies, or as a strategic move to supress the shift of balance towards new models of educational delivery.

cMOOCS, according to Velestianos (2016), came first and are based on my ideal of connectivism and participatory constructivism, user generated content with openness as a core value. The type of MOOCs perhaps that Gourlay was so affronted by in my previous post. I can almost sympathise with Gourlay’s frustration towards this model as although I’ve had closer glimpses of the ideal, I am still left immensely frustrated by how frequently opportunities for good modelling are missed or poorly executed. It somehow seems ridiculously hard to attain so apparently simple an ideal.

xMOOCs, on the other hand, are based on cognitivist/ behaviourist learning theories, instructor generated content and assessment outcomes are key and clearly defined. It is the xMOOC model primarily adopted by HE. In simplistic (and cynical) terms, it seems to me that first they put their degree courses online, then they made these mandatory parts of paid courses. A win win for the unis – Ai does the rest of their work. It’s also one means of ensuring that having gone to the effort of creating the courses, the students will bloody well have to complete them, regardless of how dull. At least, that’s how I found them. Page after page of read, watch or listen to this and then answer the questions.

That’s my opinion though, and research seems to point at the cMOOCs being largely guilty for the shocking unfinished stats – 90% fail to complete (Ebben & Murphy 2014 , cited in Valestianos, p.201) . Reasons cited have been many I was however, fascinated to read that within the fairly extensive list of reasons suggested for non-completion, all fault lay with the user and there was no glimmer of a suggestion that the content or learning design itself might be at fault! Reasons given included: the fact that it is free, user skills or knowledge not sufficient, user misunderstanding of instruction, user lack of time, lack of incentive, lack of use of forums and so on (Velestianos, p201).

Implementing MOOCS – what works and what not

The 2018 OpenupEd Trend Report on MOOCs (https://www.oerknowledgecloud.org/archive/The_2018_OpenupEd_trend_report_on_MOOCs.pdf) provides a great selection of MOOC based short articles looking at practical implementations, each with a different focus. It provides both an excellent toolkit and reference document for anyone wanting to find out more about MOOCS. It’s almost a handbook of considerations for administration or management of MOOCs.

It does also provide useful insights – As well as my first introduction to the term ‘MobiMooc’ John Taxlers piece (p.22) “Community MOOCs – Back to Basics, Back to the Future provided interesting perspective on the debate and tensions surrounding ‘free’ and ‘open’ resources and the evolution of the MOOC. He argues that the MOOC has “moved dramatically away from its innovative and imaginative connectivist origins and that there is an unhelpful tension between ‘free’ and ‘open’ resources.”

He continues

“The idea of the MOOC was born out of experiences with large open distance learning courses in higher education that suggested a new pedagogy, where the numbers and connections would create a new learning paradigm, called connectivism (Siemens 2005). The subsequent story of the MOOC is however not straightforward (Moe 2015). The idea of the MOOC has, in the eyes of many people, become however co-opted by formal institutional perspectives and purposes, and now has been transformed into a highly interactive media-rich experience broadcast by universities on a small number of specialised and dedicated platforms such EdX, Coursera and FutureLearn. The early idealism of the wisdom of the crowd has been replaced by a globally competitive and corporate ethos (Hill & Kumar 2012) but the MOOC in its different incarnations has much to offer learning. This dichotomy has subsequently been expressed as the division between cMOOC and xMOOC respectively, xMOOc being the eXtended MOOC based on traditional university courses, cMOOC being the Connectivist MOOC based on original pedagogy (Ping 2013)”

I can only agree with Traxlers sentiments regarding a return to ‘Community MOOCs and its roots in connectivism’

Exploring Open Pedagogy

I was scandalised that Velestianos and Shepherdson’s narrative placed the blame for the failure of MOOCs, at least in terms of completion, entirely on the user so I decided to look for research on the pedagogies behind MOOCS. Something beyond the broad constructivist/ cognitivist categorisation. My attention was caught and somewhat side-tracked by a document entitled “Student Perceptions of Open Pedagogy: an exploratory Study” (Hilton et al, 2019). Ahh! Finally, here was a document that looked at an aspect of pedagogy but also the user experience, for a change!

The most striking thing about this paper is that it seemed to consider itself fairly innovative for ‘examining the pedagogies connected with use of Open Educational Resources (OERs). This at first surprised me, and then began to irritate me as it was repeated. Not something for the community to be proud of considering the amount of peddling they’ve had from all types of educational organisations but I’ve somehow always felt that HE gives only a perfunctory nod to what really generates learning, just something to theorise about. There doesn’t seem to be any real excuse for the lack of research into the pedagogy behind OERs, especially as we are told (p.276) that the term ‘Open Pedagogy’ was first used in 1973, pre-technology, to describe “less formal discussions and students co-creating the content”.

The paper provides a useful discussion on the wide-ranging definitions that could be applied to the term and cites many of the internet’s familiar instantiations such as forums, video and photo hosting sites, chat spaces, blogs, wiki’s and so on, all as part of a massive open pedagogy. They are all threaded throughout our lives in a form of co-created content. It’s unsurprising then that the findings of this relatively small-scale research, that implemented well, and not entirely instructed by Ai, overall the students reported that they would prefer to attend a course based on open pedagogy over traditional. It made a good read, approaching the question from a different perspective. I also found it useful to find the rare findings on why students DIDN’T like it.

These included things like ‘lack of structure, too much choice, doing the teacher’s job for them…’. All useful if considering implementing an open pedagogy course.


So, to answer the original question: would I recommend implementing a MOOC at my organisation?

I guess I’ve modified my answer somewhat: Yes and no!

No to a stand-alone MOOC. Still no hope of anyone accessing it unless mandated.

Yes as part of a flexible Learning Experience Platform (LXP) where it could become part of a selection of choices of ways to learn a specific topic. It would need to be part of an open pedagogy in order to have any chance for survival…

Other useful links:

The OER Knowledge Cloud: https://www.oerknowledgecloud.org/

The Extended Argument for Openness in Education: https://learn.canvas.net/courses/4/pages/the-extended-argument-for-openness-in-education?module_item_id=52578


Hilton III, J., Wiley, D., Chaffee, R., Darrow, J., Guilmett, J., Harper, S. and Hilton, B. (2019) Student Perceptions of Open Pedagogy: An Exploratory Study, Open Praxis, vol. 11, no. 3, p. 275 [Online]. Available at https://www.oerknowledgecloud.org/record2616 (Accessed 11 April 2020).

Jansen, D., Brown, M., Read, T., Barcels, E., Sedano, B., Lapworth, A., Aydin, C., Traxler, J., Fueyo, A., Hevia, I., Valesco, S., Creelman, A., Witthaus, G., Friedl, C., Staubitz, T., Karachristos, C., Lazarinis, F., Stavropoulos, E. and Verykios, V. (2018) The 2018 Openuped Trend Report On Moocs, Netherlands, European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) [Online]. Available at https://www.oerknowledgecloud.org/record2260 (Accessed 11 April 2020).

Veletsianos, G. and Shepherdson, P. (2016) A Systematic Analysis and Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013–2015, The International Review Of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, vol. 17, no. 2, [Online] Available at: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2448/3629

8 thoughts on “What are MOOCs and are they so boring because they’ve been hijacked by Higher Education?”

  1. If I told you I’ve completed an interesting xMOOC would you believe me? I mean, I’ve also done one that’s insanely boring… very difficult to read because my mind was rebelling.
    But I did one that was genuinely engaging, practical and relevant to me.

    The big MOOC platforms are exactly that, platforms… so the quality of the MOOC largely relies on the organisation marking it. I say largely because the platforms themselves run quality checks and what *they* deem to be a good quality course does not necessarily make for an engaging course.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Vicky. Thanks for your comment and yes, I would believe you! More backtracking to do as I’ve since been reading and exploring a bit more. There’s another post coming up…I’d love to hear a bit more about your positive xMOOC experience if you feel inclined? What made it good and were there any not so good bits? What was the most rewarding and challenging for you?


      1. OK, so full disclosure. I work for/with the people who made this MOOC. But I am a very honest person, and if I didn’t like it, I would just never mention it 😉 I am not the type to say they like something just because they are affiliated with it. This is the MOOC if you want to read the description: https://www.coursera.org/learn/getinmooc

        BUT it was through work that I heard about it. I had just started working in a learning technology role and it was recommended to me. So I’ll bullet point below why I liked it:

        1. It was relevant to me at that time (just in time learning I guess would be the trendy way of describing it) and the right level (beginner wanting to use technologies)
        2. It was well designed by people with direct experience… i.e. people who teach with technology
        3. There were a lot of independent and focussed tasks for me to do. These included:
        building a shell MOOC course ; adding a Twitter feed; using Twitter polls; making a quiz; making a screencast
        4. The tasks were clearly and simply explained
        5. There were some tasks I didn’t wish to do and I felt confident as a learner to ignore these
        6. I had time to do the course
        7. There were some excellent panel interviews with industry experts including Diana Laurillard
        8. It was only 3 weeks long and felt manageable

        The main thing I learnt from doing the course (I don’t recall whether this was an explicit teaching objective) was that you do not need to use bespoke teaching technologies, there’s a range of technologies you can use, most of which IMO are better in terms of UX).


      2. That’s brilliant Vicky and really interesting. Thanks for taking the time to give some detail, very useful. Also for going for ‘disclosure’. As part of my module I have to have a closer look at either Future Learn or a Coursera. I’ve tried a few Future Learn in the past so now I have my choice has been made for me – heading there now. Thanks! But sorry in advance (just in case) as the next step is to blog about it! I think on the radio when giving sports results they say something along the lines of ‘turn the volume down now if you haven’t watched the game yet…’


  2. Hi Oriel,

    Really loved your summary and thorough discussion of this topic. So glad to see Vicky’s response and your dialogue. I am a newbie in the field and learning from both of you. I probably prefer the cMOOC myself.

    I have tried a few MOOCs that I didn’t have time to finish as part of H800 and exploring. The learn Moodle by Moodle was huge and a bit boring but lead you through step by step in learning to use it. This week I started a 4 week one for Instructional Design on Coursera through Illinois Urbana Champaign.
    Will let you know how it goes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Denise, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Vicky’s tip was great, pity you didn’t have it when you needed to learn Moodle! But I’m a bit envious of you doing all those courses. The one on instructional design sounds great, I’ll look forward to hearing about it.


      1. To be clear, I didn’t just enjoy your blogs, I learned so much from your summarisation of MOOCs so your time was well spent for this learner. Double bonus with Vicky’s contribution 🙂 And well I registered for the course but something will have to give….. I am keeping up with the UCL one from Vicky! It is really beginner level but fills in some gaps you might miss learning informally 😉 and some of the tools suggested are useful like https://piktochart.com/ for infographic which is a ‘thing’ to study – who knew. From the looks of it you already wrote your TMA02 and got funding so well done you woman! To be continued….


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