MOOC Reflections

A trackback a week or two ago to my blog from this personal blog post: #SNAc week 1: what are networks and what use is it to study them? highlighted me to a MOOC currently running on Coursera on social network analysis. The link was contextualised in the post as follows: The recommended readings look interesting, but it’s the curse of the netbook again – there’s no way I’m going to read a 20 page PDF on a screen. Some highlighted resources from Twitter and the forum look a bit more possible: … Some nice ‘how to’ posts: … (my linked to post was in the ‘howto’ section).

The whole MOOC hype thing at the moment seems to be dominated by references to the things like Coursera, Udacity and edX (“xMOOCs”). Coursera in particularly is a new sort of intermediary, a website that offers some sort of applied marketing platform to universities, allowing them to publish sample courses in a centralised, browsable, location and in a strange sense legitimising them. I suspect there is some element of Emperor’s New Clothes thinking going on in the universities who have opted in and those who may be considering it: “is this for real?”; “can we afford not to be a part of it?”

Whilst Coursera has an obvious possible business model – charge the universities for hosting their marketing material courses – Udacity’s model appears more pragmatic: provide courses with the option of formal assessment via Pearson VUE assessment centres, and then advertise your achievements to employers on the Udacity site; presumably, the potential employers and recruiters (which got me thinking about what role LinkedIn might possibly play in this space?) are seen as the initial revenue stream for Udacity. Note that Udacity’s “credit” awarding powers are informal – in the first instance, credibility is based on the reputation of the academics who put together the course; in contrast, for courses on Coursera, and the rival edX partnership (which also offers assessment through Pearson VUE assessment centres), credibility comes from the institution that is responsible for putting together the course. (It’s not hard to imagine a model where institutions might even badge courses that someone else has put together…)

Note that Coursera, Udacity and edX are all making an offering based on quite a traditional course model idea and are born out of particular subject disciplines. Contrast this in the first part with something like Khan Academy, which is providing learning opportunities at a finer level of granularity/much smaller “learning chunks” in the form of short video tutorials. Khan Academy also provides the opportunity for Q&A based discussion around each video resource.

Also by way of contrast are the “cMOOC” style offerings inspired by the likes of George Siemens, Stephen Downes, et al., where a looser curriculum based around a set of topics and initially suggested resources is used to bootstrap a set of loosely co-ordinated personal learning journeys: learners are encouraged to discover, share and create resources and feed them into the course network in a far more organic way than the didactic, rigidly structured approach taken by the xMOOC platforms. The cMOOC style also offeres the possibility of breaking down subject disciplines through accepting shared resources contributed because they are relevant to the topic being explored, rather than because they are part of the canon for a particular discipline.

The course without boundaries approach of Jim Groom’s ds106, as recently aided and abetted by Alan Levine, also softens the edges of a traditionally offered course with its problem based syllabus and open assignment bank (particpants are encouraged to submit their own assignment ideas) and turns learning into something of a lifestyle choice… (Disclaimer: regular readers will know that I count the cMOOC/ds106 “renegades” as key forces in developing my own thinking…;-)

Something worth considering about the evolution of open education from early open content/open educational resource (OER) repositories and courseware into the “Massive Open Online Course” thing is just what caused the recent upsurge in interest? Both MIT opencourseware and the OU’s OpenLearn offerings provided “anytime start”, self-directed course units; but my recollection is that it was Thrun & Norvig’s first open course on AI (before Thrun launched Udacity), that captured the popular (i.e. media) imagination because of the huge number of students that enrolled. Rather than the ‘on-demand’ offering of OpenLearn, it seems that the broadcast model, and linear course schedule, along with the cachet of the instructors, were what appealed to a large population of demonstrably self-directed learners (i.e. geeks and programmers, who spend their time learning how to weave machines from ideas).

I also wonder whether the engagement of universities with intermediary online course delivery platforms will legitimise online courses run by other organisations; for example, the Knight Centre Massive Open Online Courses portal (a Moodle environment) is currently advertising it’s first MOOC on infographics and data visualisation:

Similar to other Knight Center online courses, this MOOC is divided into weekly modules. But unlike regular offerings, there will be no application or selection process. Anyone can sign up online and, once registered, participants will receive instructions on how to enroll in the course. Enrollees will have immediate access to the syllabus and introductory information.

The course will include video lectures, tutorials, readings, exercises and quizzes. Forums will be available for discussion topics related to each module. Because of the “massive” aspect of the course, participants will be encouraged to provide feedback on classmates’ exercises while the instructor will provide general responses based on chosen exercises from a student or group of students.

Cairo will focus on how to work with graphics to communicate and analyze data. Previous experience in information graphics and visualization is not needed to take this course. With the readings, video lectures and tutorials available, participants will acquire enough skills to start producing compelling, simple infographics almost immediately. Participants can expect to spend 4-6 hours per week on the course.

Although the course will be free, if participants need to receive a certificate, there will be a $20 administrative fee, paid online via credit card, for those who meet the certificate requirements. The certificate will be issued only to students who actively participated in the course and who complied with most of the course requirements, such as quizzes and exercises. The certificates will be sent via email as a PDF document. No formal course credit of any kind is associated with the certificate.

Another of the things that I’ve been pondering is the role that “content” may or not play a role in this open course thing. Certainly, where participants are encouraged to discover and share resources, or where instructors seek to construct courses around “found resources”, an approach espoused by the OU’s new postgraduate strategy, it seems to me that there is an opportunity to contribute to the wider open learning idea by producing resources that can be “found”. For resources to be available as found resources, we need the following:

  1. Somebody needs to have already created them…
  2. They need to be discoverable by whoever is doing the finding
  3. They need to be appropriately licensed (if we have to go through a painful rights clearnance and rights payment model, the cost benefits of drawing on and freely reusing those resources are severely curtailed).

Whilst the running of a one shot MOOC may attract however many participants, the production of finer grained (and branded) resources that can be used within those courses means that a provider can repeatedly, and effortlessly, contribute to other peoples courses through course participants pulling the resources into those coure contexts. (It also strikes me that educators in one institution could sign up for a course offered by another, and then drop in links to their own applied marketing learning materials.)

One thing I’ve realised from looking at Digital Worlds uncourse blog stats is that some of the posts attract consistent levels of traffic, possibly because they have been embedded to from other course syllabuses. I also occasionally see flurries of downloads of tutorial files, which makes me wonder whether another course has linked to resources I originally produced. If we think of the web in it’s dynamic and static modes (static being the background links that are part of the long term fabric of the web, dynamic as the conversation and link sharing that goes on in social networks, as well as the publication of “alerts” about new fabric (for example, the publication of a new blog post into the static fabric of the web is announced through RSS feeds and social sharing as part of the dynamic conversation)), then the MOOCs appear to be trying to run in a dynamic, broadcast mode. Whereas what interests me is how we can contribute to the static structure of the web, and how we can make better use of it in a learning context?

PS a final thought – running scheduled MOOCs is like a primetime broadcast; anytime independent start is like on-demand video. Or how about this: MOOCs are like blockbuster books, published to great fanfare and selling millions of first day, pre-ordered copies. But there’s also long tail over time consumption of the same books… and maybe also books that sell steadily over time without great fanfare. Running a course once is all well and good; but it feels too ephemeral, and too linear rather than networked thinking to me?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

14 thoughts on “MOOC Reflections”

  1. I am hoping my #mooctober vow of no blogging about MOOCs does not pertain to commenting ;-)

    I enrolled in that same Coursera course out fo a desire to beef up my skills in SNA and maybe be able to understand a bit more of the stuff you do. After a week I was already behind, and now in the second week… its another MOOC I Started But Never Finished — in fact by batting percentage in this regard is 1.000

    The scale of participation is impressive, a scan of the introduction post in the forums boggled with the geographic range of students. Yes, this model is bringing educational opportunities to the wide world BUT – is this really the best we can export? The fact that some percentage of people might complete this work is impressive given its dated delivery form and poor materials. I found the videos stilted, and I dont need someone reading stuff from the screen to me in a video. I can sens the instructor has a vibrant personality but she is running from a rigid outline script. The saving grace was I could speed watch the video.

    The demonstrations of using the software were not structured in a manner where I could easily follow along without a second computer or constant switching back and forth to stop the video, try it, rewind etc.

    The other problems is that principles are presented right away without any real engagement as to the WHY of doing this, we just launch right into terminology and software, and the first assignment to graph of facebook network was really just telling us to press certain buttons without any context of why we were doing this in Gephi.

    The failing is a lto mine, because I did not give it sufficient time, and once you are off the drum beat track of this kind of course, you really are lost.

    This I find a major failing of this as an online learning model- it fails to take advantage of the most valuable assets of being a distributed online class, of leveraging the web’s ability to accommodate for space and time. Instead it uses the age old model of classroom learning where everyone does the same task at the same time.

    A discussion forum with 1000 participants is a horrendous beast for a student to have to try and rely on as a means of co-networking. At best its a vehicle to ask problems and get responses from the people who monitor it, but the thought of actually reading, even scanning that makes me shriek.

    Whilst it boasts of the “O” in Open, you, as an outsider cannot see any of the materials (that would be the door opens one way), and me as a participant, are nto supposed to be sharing the work we are doing (e.g. blogging). This is the beast you get when you offer credit, or when credit is based on perfunctory tasks of homework.

    So I am sure I could muscle my way through this, the same way I did in the engineering class I took in grad school. But like @injenuity has tweeted, how does this model differ much more than having an online textbook? Again, it takes little advantage of the affordances of being online beyond delivery.

    If there was a metaphor, the xMOOC is pretty much a lecture, and whilst anyone can walk inside the door to listen, nothing that goes on behind that supposed open door can be seen or heard in the hallway. If you miss classes, you are hosed, and when the lectures end so does the opportunity for learning. You are also supposed to not talk to your classmates outside of class. You take a lot of pop quizzes.

    This is in opposition to say, being part of an open studio environment, where surrounded by other people doing similar work, you can do as much or as little as your time allows, the music is sometimes loud, and what you “learn” matches your affinity to connect with others in the space. And its more than okay to openly share what you do It never really ends either.. But, you do not get the little prize ribbons.

    1. As I’m the personal blogger mentioned above I thought I’d stop by.

      I registered for the SNA course out of interest in MOOCs and also to make more sense of the stuff here and done by Martin Hawksey. My reaction has been pretty much the same as in the comment above, and I feel slightly deflated.

      I found the first week enjoyable, but did not feel much understanding of the why. The 2nd week was theoretical with a lot of math and I’ve fallen probably fatally behind. By chance I landed on a comment thread yesterday flagging up the course delivery and the amount of math in week 2. It’s a shame as the presenter is engaging, as she showed in a G+ hangout on Friday, but the course is well, dull, in terms of content and delivery.

      I’m having a look at Networked Life, another Coursera err… course, for a different perspective, and I’ll be blogging about that next week.

      1. Hi @ann – thanks so much for the comment – I’m guessing you picked up the link from a trackback (which is interesting form the point of view of how things like trackback architecture can be used to support open/distributed/syndicated conversations).

        I have to admit to elements of this blog…erm… maybe not being as accessible as they could be. This is for several reasons, some of which I have reflected on, others which you should feel free to raise against me;-)

        1) it’s a personal notebook and I (and my web searching self from the future) am the primary audience;
        2) if the blog was a lot easier to follower, experience suggests I would get a lot more support enquiries as well as a lot more more traffic; and whilst I do reply to some comments, emails and tweets, some of them I ignore…
        3) I’ve been criticised for writing “concisely” before – in the case of, a lot of posts make most sense if you’ve been journeying with the blog for some time and have some sort of sympathy with how my thinking has been evolving (also see (1)).
        4) is a diary; as such , a large part of the narrative/context associated with any specific post may be bundled up in previous posts;
        5) I use links advisedly; where I think there is a point that: a) I am assuming, and/or b) think may need unpacking/further commentary/context, I try to link to it. Links in are typically used as proxies for where my head’s at; if I can link to a resource that frames that context, it would be a tautological waste of space reposting an idea that is already linkable to… which is to say, if you feel as if you aren’t keeping up with a post, maybe you need to follow the link to get a glimpse of some of the things I may have been thinking at the time (note: I’m directing that sentiment at a “general” reader, which is to say, any audience that may be reading this that is not me and my assumptions…;-)

        A couple of questions I have been pondering that you may be able to (anecdotally) answer:
        a) what sort of effort are you looking to put in (what size “learning chunks” work best for you in terms of learning session duration (30 mins at a time? 1 hour?), as well sa “conceptual” granularity (ie how tightly focussed are the questions you are asking/seeking to have asked and then answered?); what did you expect to get from the course as a whole? what did you expect to get from each week of the course? what did you expect to get from each learning session in each week of the course? (and then going on back up the chain, how did you expect session achievements to translate into weekly and course level achievements?)

        I think we generally don’t know how to use the web effectively as a resource, don’t know how to use it to support formal learning effectively, and don’t know how to use it so support informal learning learning effectively, so I’m completely fishing for any ideas you might be able to chip in to this as a learner who was self-directed enough of a learner to: i) opt in to a MOOC; ii) start looking for additional related resources… You might think you were making your own learning pathway up – it’s nothing compared to the making up that’s going on from the educators’ side;-)

    2. @cogdog I was unaware of said #mooctober convention – not been paying attention, obviously (which is, erm, maybe perchance part of the point I was sort of making in this post;-) The “open studio” idea is, I think, a *really* powerful one (see also the Atelier-D OU project in this respect, and the OpenStudio gallery and peer commentary environment that OU maker Jamie Daniels originally put together for the original presentation of the OU’s digital photography short course (T189), though it’s also been used in the digital video course, T156. As ever, it’s **really** hard trying to find anything in the academic literature writing up some of the really useful: a) edtech; b) pedagogy, that went into this project (“if project not funded under research grant, then irrelevant”), and one of the reasons why I think someone should be supporting a Techcrunch, Academic. There’s a brief mention – but no screenshots – here. If I’d been on the course I’d have blogged the hell out of it… one of my biggest regrets is not getting a version of it to showcase/support peer critique T151 Digital Worlds game creations… If anyone has a public write up of it available, please, please, please post a link here.
      For what it’s worth, as well as the access to content, community and discussion bit, I think there is also thinking to be done on the personal experience of self-directed learning in the opt-in to MOOC like thing self-directed distributed learning context (other disclaimers/caveats may apply;-); e.g. see my crisis of confidence post Therapy Time: Networked Personal Learning; this is either: a) pure narcissism; b) a really hard to write personal reflection/anecdote; c) a ‘legitimate’ interview carried out on a self-selecting sample of one (and so acknowledged, a legitimate piece of evidence generated during an educational research project, or at least, an action research project;-)
      I am more than happy to burn some midnight oil with you et al. thrashing through these and related ideas in Vancouver next week;-)

    3. Pleased to read the comments about the SNA course as I had same reactions/problems. I have, however, had a great experience with Prof Kevin Werbach’s Gamification course. I think the model will evolve and improve as universities get feedback, start-ups moveintonthisnspace and hybrid free-payment models get developed.

    4. @tony I’m completely with you re the purpose of your blog – I have another blog which is marginally more for public consumption but even then I sometimes hesitate to put in a link for the same reasons you mention!

      Re the SNA course, having picked up bits about social network analysis from yours and Martin’s blogs I was hoping to get a more linear grounding if you like to support my own investigations into the use of Twitter at events. Time is perhaps not so much of a factor as the style – I’m not over-keen on video, but this may be because I spend so much time scanning text. In terms of achievement, some form of progress would be nice – after the first week I did feel that I could at least start using Gephi for my own purposes.

      As an informal learner I probably found the formal learning aspect of the course off putting, but the direction aspect is useful. I’m aware that I do too much reading and not enough doing. On which note…

    5. @ann I find that video – and audio podcasts – often serve as an introducer, reminder, reinforcer or clarifier that I often back up through referring to texts.

      As an informal learner, what sort of “packaging” or granularity of content do you prefer using (I’m wary of using the phrase “What’s your learning style/preference?” here because of the connotations/baggage surrounding that idea!;-)? And what sort of discovery route do you tend to use?

  2. Would love to hear your thoughts on the Mechanical MOOC course we’re kicking off soon. It uses a mailing list to loosely coordinate learner activity across a number of existing resources–MIT OpenCourseWare content, an study group hosted by OpenStudy, and exercises from Codecademy. It kind of splits the difference between broadcast and on-demand, and builds on existing content completely, so it costs nearly nothing to offer. There’s currently no certification, but it’s a skills based course so you finish with a demonstrable skillset. It’s also a relatively open format, encouraging participants to bring in tools and resources. More at

    1. Thanks for that link – (I think I should have mentioned P2PU in the post). It’s easy to forget how mailing lists offer a really effective many-many communication channel, with the added benefit that mail sits in your mailbox until its read, compared to the ephemeral nature of a social network status updates stream. As the course idea seems predicated on using found resources, It’ll be interesting to see the extent to which resources discovered and shared by participants come to be used as alternatives to, or instead of, the originally suggested resources?

  3. Tony, you say: “Note that Udacity’s “credit” awarding powers are informal – in the first instance, credibility is based on the reputation of the academics who put together the course; in contrast, for courses on Coursera, and the rival edX partnership (which also offers assessment through Pearson VUE assessment centres), credibility comes from the institution that is responsible for putting together the course.”

    I’m not sure you can so easily separate the reputation of the academics and the institution. An institution’s reputation is built on the backs of its academics. Historically, a ‘universitas’ referred to a community of scholars and in that spirit, Udacity is surely a university, although not yet in law. Your blog might also be a university if you can identify it as creating a scholarly community :-)

    We thought about this quite a lot when setting up the Social Science Centre. It is difficult to refer to the SSC as a university because it has a meaning in UK law, but when thinking through assessment and awards, we felt that the credibility of the teachers and the network of associate academics (‘peers’) is a sufficient mechanism to ensure quality, credibility and therefore reputation of our ‘universitas’.

    I suppose my point is, credibility of an award comes from the reputation of the institution, which is essentially a community of scholars. Some students know this anyway. I chose my grad school on the basis of where a particular scholar worked, not on the reputation of the institution.

    1. @joss Thanks for making that comment; I’ve been pondering the notion of “trust” recently, in part drawing on the ideas of agent logics (eg in sense of formal/agent logic models of trust to try to get my eye in…), and relating this to the idea that part the trust thing is contaminated by the idea that elements of trust are socially determined (eg in sense of not doing wrong by buying IBM because everybody else buys IBM). (Shades of the Emperor’s New Clothes again, an idea that I’ve included in several blog posts recently; hmm.. I wonder if there is an epistemic logic analysis of that story?! (and, indeed, other folk tales!)).

      Your comment also brings to mind the category mistake described by Ryle in which tourists wandering round Cambridge (or was it the other place?) confuse the buildings with the institution (same category mistake applies to the notion of “church” I think).

      I’ve not been keeping tabs on the New College of the Humanities thing, which is trying to bootstrap itself around all manner of traditional trusted reputational facets, or things like the Pearson College which to me has less of a feeling of trad-academic plausibility about it., but it’ll be interesting to see how their reputation (howsoever we might be able to track it) evolves over the next year or so… How’s the Social Science Centre playing out in terms of (what you think) other people think about it?

      In terms of using institution names as shortcut proxies to identifying quality (“it has a good name”), I think tradition is one of the trump cards? Economic theorists may witter on about rationality in decision making, but I think decisionmakers often aren’t rational, and their beliefs are often about things that are not true…

      In terms of choosing who/where to study with, I guess that in part may also be mediated by the extent to which you want to study a particular tradition with a specifically chosen mentor, vs getting some sort of widely recognised as “good” qualification that you believe has generic currency?

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