Sorting out “MOOCs”

It is a good season for “MOOCs”, Massive Open Online Courses, and you can spot several of them in full action. But the term “MOOC” has come to cover a range of wildly different  kinds of ehm… learning events. Indeed, for some of these, “course”, might be the wrong word.

It will probably not be long before we will start to use different words for different kinds of MOOCs.

In 2008, the term MOOC was coined to describe courses that were experimenting with the connectivist take on learning.

Later, the term was applied to free courses that were instuctor-led and structured around canned lectures and one course platform, but the need was felt to distinguish between the merely “free” courses and the courses with distributed contents, and matching leaner-centered approaches to the organization of the course. In came the distinction between cMOOC and xMOOC. But that good vs. bad model is not very useful to describe the range of approaches that exists.

Lisa Lane came up with three kinds of MOOCs, which are loosely divided by the dominant goal (they all have networks task and content).

  • Network based (the connectivist approach with a big role for community and content created by the learners, for instance CCK12)
  • Task based (developing a skill by doing, like the digital literacies course DS106)
  • Content based (instructor-led content acquisition, typical for the high-profile for-profit initiatives)

The content based kind of MOOC, is less about exploring new pedagogies and more about exploring new business models for higher education. Lisa Lane puts the big course platforms (Coursera, Udacity, edX) squarely in the content based category. And she laments the way “MOOC” has become a label for straightforward up-scaled instructivist courses. (http://lisahistory.net/wordpress/2012/11/five-short-years-to-mooc-corruption/)

But with EDCMOOC, the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course run by the University of Edinburgh on Coursera, you get a hybrid kind of MOOC with a big learning community that has organized itself outside of the course platform, months before the MOOC-part of the course had even started. Students are free to use the course platform for discussions, or to use their own choice of social platform. The only assignment is a peer reviewed final digital artefact. The content of the MOOC is also encouraging dialogue and reflecting on the affordances of online education, in the best of the connectivist tradition.

On the other hand, it does latch on to a course taught in Edinburgh, it is not a coreless MOOC (how Alex Couros planned the Educational Technology MOOC, ETMOOC).

It is not the course platform that determines the type of MOOC , it is the “design” or set-up of the MOOC and the organisation of its contents and interactions.

I am still looking for a better way to describe the different kinds of MOOC. If I find one, I’ll post it here, promise. The kinds of online learning events or sites that are being called a “MOOC” are so different, that we really need a new set of labels. Right now, we have one big term for things that resemble online unconferences and game-ified language learning programs. “MOOC” is such a catchy name that the press is slapping it on every big and free online course, but we need a better definition based on a set of attributes that goes beyond goals. And I don’t think a MOOC typology based on business models is what I’m looking for… Some elements that can lead to a better “grid” of MOOCs are:

  • Is there a strong core, a simultaneous for-credit course, for instance, or is it a donut-shaped cloud of dots (sorry, but you get my drift)?
  • Is it a learning event with a start date for interactions between a group of people who follow the same “course”, or can a learner start a sequence of learning packages anytime (Like Duolingo or hackdesign.org)?
  • What is the rythm of the introduction of new subject matter? (2 weeks in etmooc, which is nice)
  • Are there different paths possible: strong engagement/weak engagement?
  • Rock star tutors/teachers/leaders or peeragogy?
  • What is being measured, registered, penalized in terms of course analytics?
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