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. (

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
  • 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?

Carving out a piece of cloud #EDCMOOC

Ever since the course on Coursera officially started, the Google+ and Facebook groups have been hit by a tidal wave of new members. It’s more important now than ever to make decisions about my own focus and filters.

I would really like to find a cluster of like-minded souls in the #EDCMOOC cloud! Do give me a shout in the comments, Google+ or on Twitter.

My learning goals:

  • Use a set of interesting tools and theories surrounding digital culture(s)
  • Be part of a sustainable learning community
  • Learn about learning
  • Figure out the principles at work in MOOC

My interests, as far as MOOCs are concerned:

  • Learning design, instructional design, MOOC design
  • Connectivism, connected learning, learning communities
  • Digital Humanities
  • Higher Education
  • State of affairs in the big European e-learning projects and in particular in Belgium, France and The Netherlands
  • Digital literacy

My contribution:

  • Creating images and mash-ups
  • Layout
  • HTML and CSS
  • Figuring out blogs, feeds and Twitter
  • Languages: Dutch, French, English, in no particular order
  • Historical perspective (check out my “about” page)

Currently, I’m keeping track of #EDCMOOC through:

  • Coursera
  • Google+
  • a blog post here and there (Hoping to narrow it down to a personal selection matching my interests)
    For instance, Chris Swift’s Blog is interesting to keep up with the EDCMOOCcommunity:
  • #edcmooc on Twitter

Placing their xMOOCs in the public domain for a worldwide audience will oblige institutions to do more than pay lip service to importance of teaching and put it at the core their
missions. This is the real revolution of MOOCs.

Making Sense of MOOCs, Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility, by Sir John Daniel, Sept. 2012

Placing their x…

The Connectivist MOOC. The MOOC for MOOC’s sake.

Some MOOCs are wonders of instructional design scaled to a massive audience. They are open as in “free to join”. A good example is Duolingo, originally a Carnegie Mellon University project for language learning.

In this article about Measuring the Success of Online Education, on the NY Times blog “Bits”, Duolingo is cited, and the numbers are indeed impressive. A bookkeepers dream.
And of course, as prof. Cathy Davidson says in this lecture on Youtube, if teachers can be replaced by computers, they should. IF.

Other MOOCs, are open in an “open source” kind of way. The workings of the course are out in the open. Course materials are out on the Internet. Participants are a diverse mix of subject matter experts, intermediates and beginners, and they can participate as much or little as they want, tune in and out at will. People are encouraged to define their own course objectives, and to link up and cluster off with people with the same interests. Feed aggregators serve to mash up an overview. There is a DIY, peer-to-peer, festival kind of vibe to it.

This is a set of guidelines to make a MOOC like that work. Gleaned from the Peeragogy Handbook, Chapter 11. (free PDF )
1. Participants should discuss internal aspects: Discuss goals, self-motivation, intended outcomes.
2. Prepare by acquiring the necessary digital skills.
3. The distributed and varied nature of discussion and course material, is in itself content/a learning adventure.
4. Weekly heads-up through synchronous sessions.
5. Overview of the proceedings, like a daily newsletter. Important: the course-specific hashtag to keep everything findable.

Examples of this kind of MOOC, the connectivist ones, the ones happy to explore what MOOC means, are MOOCMOOC, by Hybrid Pedagogy (see their Canvas site:, and DS106 (Digital Storytelling, University of Mary Washington and throughout the Internet, various times a year).

Get ready to MOOC

Let’s get some vocabulary straight first.


MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Course.

Massive” stands for the scale, a MOOC is open to an indefinite amount of students, and that can mean a positively huge amount. At this point the number of students registered for the EDCMOOC has reached the 36 000 mark, and counting. Instructors cannot possibly keep track of the amount of interactions and content produced by tens of thousands of students, so students organize themselves, turning a myriad of social platforms into their learning environment.

Read more on learning in a MOOC:

Online” means that the courseware is online and the learning is meant to be done online. It’s not just open courseware that belongs to a real-life course, the content is structured for online use.

  • There are several big providers of free MOOCs:
  • Coursera (for-profit start-up by professors from Stanford),
  • edX (nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the MIT),
  • Khan Academy,
  • Udacity.

Open” says that there is no pay wall, registration process or other impediment to entering the course. Open also refers to a certain absence of a fixed path or strong guidance from an all-seeing, all-knowing teacher. Descriptions that pop up are “edupunk”, or “DIY learning”. It is “open” as in open door, but also as in open source.

The acronym rings a bell, “MOOC” makes me think of “MUD” (Multi-User Dungeon, multiplayer real-time virtual world) and “MOO” (MUD object-oriented), but it’s a whole other animal. Or not?