Charting the evolution of the MOOC: Where did they come from?

Most conversations that I have on the subject of online learning inevitably lead to a discussion of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs – their strengths and weaknesses, learner engagement in online spaces, teaching at scale, completion rates etc. I hear a range of opinions articulated in these discussions and as a strong advocate of online learning I enjoy the challenge these present. I think that the key to understanding MOOCs and to evaluating their place in the spectrum of online learning opportunities is to acknowledge the various strands of their evolution; to honour their history.

Last year I wrote a piece for the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on MOOCs, as part of a series of ‘101s’ (or entry level pieces) on innovative pedagogy. It detailed the evolution of the MOOC as a means of contextualising their impact on Higher Education. The text below borrows from this piece which can be found at the HEAtoZ toolkit.

So what is a MOOC?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a form of distance learning. They are massive in the sense they are open and free for anyone to participate in and therefore some MOOCs have thousands of students participating from across the globe. Openness also refers to the open-access philosophy of some of these courses (but by no means all) in which materials are made available under a creative commons license for reuse and adaptation.

How did MOOCs evolve?

Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) evolved from the Open Educational Resource (OER), movement as a way to connect open access digital materials to networks of learners, and may be considered a continuation in the development of distance education (Daniel 2014).

The term (MOOC) was originally articulated by Dave Cormier (University of Prince Edward Island, Canada) to describe a course developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes on Connectivism and Connectivity in Knowledge in 2008. This pioneering MOOC and those that immediately followed it were based on the connectivist pedagogical principles of learning socially from others within distributed networks. They were loose in structure and built around interaction. Participatory web 2.0 culture and an increasing use of, and competency with digital tools had provided an environment for the open model to thrive.

By 2012, Universities in the USA and UK, startled by the disruptive innovation MOOCs indicated for Higher Education and excited by the possibilities the model created for teaching and learning, began to create their own versions. This second phase of MOOCs was dominated by the rise of commercial platforms (Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Udemy) and seeded by ivy league institutions such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT. These xMOOCs (as they were later called to differentiate them from the connectivist or cMOOCs) were conventional in design. Using instructivist pedagogy they relied heavily on short videos and quiz assessments; interaction between learners was minimal. They pushed the notion of ‘massive’ by attracting ever larger audiences (some had over 200,000 registrants) and prompted the New York Times to call 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’ (New York Times 2012).

In recent years many of the larger platforms have diversified; developing MOOCs for the corporate market as leaders seek to maximise the benefits of low cost scalable delivery for organisational learning and development (Udacity, Curatr). As MOOCs came under a barrage of criticism in 2013 and 2014 (due mainly to high drop-out rates and uncertain business models) some universities attempted to shift attention back towards smaller online courses with restricted access. In an attempt to make the distinction clear Harvard labelled these courses SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses). Some of these bespoke courses have, arguably, become so far removed from the notions of ‘massive’ and ‘open’ that they can’t be considered MOOCs. Despite this diversification MOOC discourse is still dominated by the cMOOC and xMOOC binary, a division which is no longer accurate or relevant (HEA report, 2014).

Concerns have been raised about low completion rates in MOOCs (around 7% on average) and their lack of ambition to improve pedagogical practice (Parr, 2013; Toven-Lindsey et al., 2014). Traditional evaluation practices that value completion over the quality of learning are being challenged as MOOC participants engage in non-traditional ways and according to their personal objectives; often ‘lurking’ (better characterised as listening) rather than actively participating, and learning partially in complex patterns that bear little resemblance to traditional learning pathways (Milligan et al., 2013)

Where are MOOCs currently being used and how?

MOOCs are provided at hundreds of HEIs globally and cover subject matter as diverse as Midwifery (Open2Study), Human-Computer Interaction Design (Coursera), Financial Analysis and Decision Making (edX) and Greek and Roman Mythology (Coursera).

Each MOOC is contextually different, driven by a particular pedagogical approach, teaching style(s) and subject matter. The social learning platform FutureLearn (a subsidiary of the Open University) was launched in October 2013 and has since generated 3.2 million course registrations and is currently running the largest MOOC to date, with over 400,000 learners enrolled on an English Language Course. (FutureLearn 2015).

Critics have been sceptical about the level of ‘disruption’ that MOOCs actually pose to HE (Allen and Seaman 2013; Daniel 2014). Indeed they present a spectrum of innovation– at the conventional end of the spectrum learning designed for an offline environment is shifted wholesale into a MOOC, at the other end faculty are experimenting with creative pedagogy that pushes the boundaries of online learning and challenges traditional notions of education. An example of innovative practice is the Data, Analytics and Learning MOOC (University of Texas Arlington 2014) which offered a duality of instructional design by providing a conventional structured pathway through the material alongside a learner directed experience. The latter used social competency software (ProSolo) to provide learners with the opportunity to identify and manage their learning goals and create their own recognition pathways.

Read the full piece (with full referencing) including a discussion of the place of MOOCs in Higher Education and their potential benefitsat HEAtoZ.

I believe that the richest MOOCs thrive at the intersection of participatory web 2.0 culture and the open educational resource (OER) movement, where the connectivist pedagogical principles of learning socially from others through public networks is enabled. MOOC history is the foundation for any critical evaluation. It enables us to surmount the narrative about completion rates as an absolute measure of quality; to shine a light on pedagogical practice that transfers the approaches of face to face instruction directly into an online space – usually unsuccessfully – and which then reinforces negative assumptions about online learning. The history is the foundation of all these debates.

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