A MOOC by Any Other  Name

MOOC: The Essay

Brainstorm here and defer judgement.

Alternative brainstorm

We’ll start MOOC MOOC by working synchronously and asynchronously to co-create a single short essay about MOOCs, a wild experiment in mass-collaboration.

One day. A mass of folks in a Google Doc. 1 essay.

If you’re new to Google Docs, and want a bit of helpful advice, take a look at Jesse Stommel’s article, Theorizing Google Docs: 10 Tips for Navigating Online Collaboration. Here are a couple of important highlights:

“A potential pitfall of this sort of work is a variation of the bystander effect, whereby participants will see a problem or gap in the document but assume someone else will fix it. The more collaborators involved, the more the effect is amplified.” So, make sure to jump in where you see you’re needed!

Embrace chaos. There is something slightly crazy about a shared writing space, especially when there are more than 2 contributing authors. A Google Doc can seem to write itself, a new digital ecosphere that bubbles with lively and chaotic energy. I’m frequently startled when I leave a Google Doc to realize that it will go on without me. If you haven’t collaborated within a Google Doc ... Don’t be surprised when weird and sometimes wondrous things begin to happen.”

Ready? Set. Go!


1. Consider these questions: What is a MOOC? What does it do, and what does it not do?

2. Collaborate as a group (a potentially very large group) in this document to write one exactly 1000-word essay that responds to both questions. (For a word count at any point, highlight the body of the essay, then go to Tools > Word Count in the main menu.)

3. Somewhere in the essay, reference (quote or cite) each of the following articles:

4. Include (and attribute) a single picture chosen via http://search.creativecommons.org/.

5. Revise and title the finished essay. Keep these instructions at the top of the document.

All this before 6:00 PM Eastern time.

MOOC: The Essay

(cc. Giulia Forsythe)


Definition & Origins

MOOC is an acronym for Massive, Open, Online Course. The term was first used by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier to describe a course on Connectivism (Siemens, 2005) that they offered in the fall of 2008 (http://mooc.ca/). With around 2,000 registrants, it was Massive by the standards of the day. It certainly qualified as Open, as anyone with an email address was able to register for free and receive the daily course email. The course was all Online, with no face-to-face participation. Although they described it as a Course, it was not intended to be as contained, bounded or structured as courses normally are (online or offline). The daily email, which provided links to all announcements, blog posts and Twitter messages that contained the course hash tag, was considered to be the centre of what was intended to be a learning experience. The learning, or collective sense-making, resulted from the interactions that participants had with each other and with relevant resources over networks that they created as their connections increased in number and complexity.


Stephen Downes is fond of saying that “the product of learning is not knowledge, the product of learning is a transformed learner.” The objective, then, is to create the conditions in which transformational experiences, both individual and shared, are possible. Individuals, collectives, and the network itself all grow, develop and change as a result of the collective experiences. Of particular importance is the clustering (Cormier, 2010) of groups within the networks, formed through the discussion of shared questions and ideas. This could be viewed both positively and negatively. On the one hand the effective forming of clustered groups could be considered a productive and useful outcome of the MOOC infrastructure. However, it could also pose challenges to courses that are established with more specific outcomes. It could be argued therefore that MOOCs are not designed to prescribe a course so much as a possible direction to look in. Connectivism 2008 was, however, taken for credit by a group of students, who had a more directed course to follow (Cormier and Siemens, 2010).

Moreover, it is apparent that there is a need for participants to be independent, resilient learners who are willing to engage in learning that is to some degree free from structure. MOOCs, like learning itself, are messy. Participation is driven by interest rather than requirement.  Individual outcomes are driven by participation. Participants contribute what they learn, and learn to the extent that they contribute. Meaningful conversations can be transformational. Learning and emergent networks, rather than the credentials, are the results. However it is difficult for many to approach learning in this way. This may be due to their previous educational conditioning.

One of the defining aspects Siemens, Downes, and Cormier bring to the MOOC is that the learners don’t just consume knowledge but produce it. This is not a matter of memorizing vs practicing. Instead, learners master a body of knowledge or set of practices by creating artifacts that make use of / illustrate their understanding, this very document in which we are writing, as case in point. How is this different from, say, demonstrating knowledge of literary theory by writing a paper? In one respect, it isn’t.  The social aspect of learning in the MOOC, however, transforms the process and the artifacts of the learning environment from a “walled garden” to a field of inquiry, a journey. As Michael Ondaatje writes “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.' Meander if you want to get to town” (In the Skin of a Lion, 1987 p. 146).


Most recently MOOCs have come to be viewed as two distinct types: cMOOCs (connectivist) and xMOOCs (the Stanford/Harvard/MIT model) (Siemens, 2012). While cMOOCs emphasize connected, collaborative learning, many xMOOCs do little more than reproduce lectures and quizzes online (Vaidhyanathan, 2012), bringing the old, tired factory model to the masses. For xMOOCs, Massive is more important than Open, because their business model relies on what Chris Anderson called “the long tail” (Anderson, 2006). Nearly US$100 Million has been invested in Udacity, Coursera, and edX to date, and they will need to recoup these start-up costs. Venture capitalists are likely to be more interested in the financial capital that an online business can generate than in the social capital that a connectivist MOOCs creates. For some, MOOCs represent an opportunity to profit from the application of Web 2.0 business strategies to education; almost diametrically opposed to the pedagogical ideals established by Downes et al. in 2008.


Media coverage of sites including Khan Academy and the entrance of large academic institutions has spurred the recent notoriety of MOOCs.  MOOC’s have been presented as a panacea, with the ability to mitigate the escalating cost and increasing social disparities associated with higher education in the US.  Simultaneously, MOOC’s have been vilified as reductionist and barren transmission of content. MOOCs stir controversy, not least because of what Watters refers to as a “failure of acronyms” (Watters, 2012).

However, there are a significant number of questions to be asked: Will we lose the intimacy and the autonomy of the single-instructor classroom?  Will we abandon face-to-face learning?  Will the communities we know as colleges and universities falter in the face of free or inexpensive competition? Will this be seen as a second rate form of education? Will only those who have digital access and knowledge extend their learning?  Will we fail to expand our capacity for collaboration and innovation by trying to sustain the walled garden? How will these courses be monitored? How will they be validated and accredited and more over will they be viewed as a credible form of education by the commercial sectors who are not so aware of MOOCs? Moreover, MOOCs are not dissimilar to other models of educational practice in that there are bad versions and good versions (Davidson, 2012).

Brainstorm here and defer judgement.

What does a MOOC do?

What does it not do?

Allows a large number of people interested in the same topic to explore and learn together by producing knowledge collectively on the specific topic.

Expands ones learning network.

Exposes students to new ideas.

Exposes students to a very diverse population as it allows for students to participate from all over the world.

Forces students to use higher learning skills (evaluation and synthesis vs comprehension and knowledge) - more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom's_Taxonomy

Demonstrates collaborative and integrative abilities important to individuals, employers, survival

Encourages innovation ??

Can allow folks to work at their own pace and depth,

Creates community.

Helps participants to discover new tools for learning

Does not feed students with information.

Does not reward passivity

Does not measure individual input to the learning process (???)

Does not measure seat time

Does not always direct the learner to the right information to deliver the specific knowledge that they are looking for in a timely fashion.

From Mike James; MOOC’s fail students with dark age methods 2012

The alternative "modern" methods are not cheap. They require lots of well developed software and the knowledge of the subject expert to be melded together to produce something effective. When it is effective then it should work for a wide range of students and even auto-detect the few special cases where it doesn't work. Once the materials have been developed, the methods are easy to apply and easy to replicate and makes best use of students and lecturers.

There’s good video of George Siemens being interviewed by Howard Rheingold - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMfipxhT_Co.  It is a little old (May 2011) and a little long 21:55 min, but if you are still wrapping your mind around MOOC’s it’s helpful:  Some quotes:

“The content is the conduit (or catalyst) for the social connection. “

“A networked course doesn’t have a center.” (In response to a question about Moodle - “Moodle is too centralized for us.”)

“Making sense of the chaos is the heart of the learning experience.”  

“We are rebalancing the power relationships in learning.”           

Alternative brainstorm

I’d like to try a non-normative brainstorm, actually looking at what things called MOOCs are like rather than what they should be.

MOOCs are minimally like

MOOCs are not like

These criteria describe all MOOCs. A course has to meet at least these to be considered for a MOOC:

  • M: Give access to a larger group of students than a single class or institution could (this could be a small absolute number in case of very specialised subjects)
  • O: Are open access in the sense of not requiring a test of prior knowledge (though such may be recommended)
  • O: Do not require payment just for access to content
  • O: Use an online method of delivery ideally utilising multiple modes of delivering content (video, audio, text, animation)
  • C: Follow a course of study with timed elements towards a specified learning outcome
  • C: Provide ways of peer interaction for participants

These things might have some limited properties of a MOOC but not enough to be considered one:

  • Collection of freely accessible learning materials
  • Lecture series without an outcome
  • A continuous Personal Learning Network
  • An online learning or study support community
  • Large scale live online lectures/webinars

MOOCs can also have these properties

MOOCs could still be like

These criteria describe some MOOCs that are only shared by connectivist approach. They mostly differ by their interpretation of what Open means. Some people consider these to be essential.

  • Doing away with the constraints of the VLE and having students use the open web
  • Relying on open content
  • Including the generation and curation of content as part of the learning activities
  • Encouraging the creation of Personal Learning Networks

These criteria break or bend one of the minimal requirements but might still qualify as a MOOC.

  • Untimed learning communities working towards a learning outcome
  • Accredited online courses allied with a specific institution
  • Courses without specified learning outcomes, specifying learning experiences instead