July 31, 2016

Online learning for beginners: 6. How do I start?

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Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

This is the sixth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other five are:

Warming up

If you have been following this series of blog posts, you have already started. It shows that you have an interest. However, you should see these blog posts more as a warm-up than the real game. Warm-ups are valuable. They save you getting hurt when you start playing, but they are not the real thing. So here are at least two quite different strategies for getting started into the real ‘game’ of teaching online.

1. The professional strategy

I have outlined these as a series of steps, but some of these can be taken concurrently; they are more in order of importance than in sequence.

Step 1: Contact the professionals

There should be in your institution a group of people who specialize in supporting online learning. There may be a unit in your faculty or department, or a central unit, with a title similar to ‘Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘Centre for Learning Technologies.’ However  the people with the real expertise are often found in Continuing Studies or Extension departments, under such names as the Centre for Distance Learning or the Centre for Digital Learning. This is because historically such units were responsible for the design, development or delivery of distance learning, but as a result they were often the first adopters of online learning. They often work with faculties in helping develop for-credit online courses as well as non-credit courses.

Be careful, though. Some faculty development offices are staffed entirely by people who are experts in face-to-face teaching, but have no experience or may even be hostile to online learning – so make sure they do have the expertise. If not, some other steps are suggested below. Similarly, some IT support groups may have expertise in online learning, but others may do no more than provide training in the use of a learning management system or lecture capture system. You will need more assistance than that, although learning how to use the technology is important.

The reasons for contacting the professionals are obvious but still worth stating. First they may have access to money to provide release time for you to spend the necessary time to develop your first online course. Second, they should have instructional designers who can walk you through all the necessary steps to ensure a high quality online course. These professional departments should also have technical support staff who can help with the use of specific online tools, such as a learning management system, video recording, wikis and blogs, and web design.

When you first approach them, tell them of your interest. The first meeting needs to be an open, exploratory discussion between you and someone from the support unit. Keep an open mind. Listen to what they suggest and what they can offer, and whether this fits with your interests and needs. (Reading these blog posts and dipping into ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ would be a very good preparation for this initial meeting.)

Step 2: Get your department onside

Talk to your department head about what you are thinking of doing, and find out if there are colleagues in the department who are already doing online learning in some form or other. It will be much easier for you to get help and encouragement if the academic department already has a strategy or plan for online or flexible learning. Indeed, academic departments should be thinking about online learning at a program level. How much online learning should there be at each level as students progress through a degree program? Where would your course fit in this plan?

Unfortunately, academic departments often don’t have such a plan or strategy. But once you start moving into online learning, you should have a voice in initiating or shaping such a plan. The earlier you make contact with your department head and colleagues and let them know of your intentions, the better.

Step 3: Think about what kind of online course you are interested in

In the first and fourth posts in this series, I described a number of different types of online course, from blended, to hybrid to fully online, using recorded lectures (not recommended) or an instructional design approach (highly recommended). Also think carefully about the needs of your students as well as the pedagogical reasons for going online. What type of online learning will best suit your students? Teaching in a Digital Age will be particularly useful in helping you make these kinds of decisions (see Follow Up below).

However, in your context, whatever I may personally recommend, which makes the most sense to you in your context? For instance, if you are unfortunate enough to be in an institution where instructional design support is not available to you, then recorded lectures may be a better option.

Also, NOT doing online learning, because the support is just not there, should also be an option. Better not to do it than to do it badly. But make sure you have explored all the possibilities before coming to this decision, and let your head of department know why you are making this decision.

Step 4: Develop a work plan

All teaching, face-to-face or online, needs careful thought and preparation, but moving into teaching online for the first time is particularly demanding. Depending on whether there is already a curriculum and learning materials in place or not, it can take up to nine months preparation before an online course opens. If the course is to have a substantial amount of online work for students, then they need to know well in advance before enrolling. Students also need to be prepared for online learning (covered later in these posts).

This is where having instructional design support becomes particularly valuable. A good instructional designer will walk you through the process and guide you on what and when you need to prepare. But even if (or especially if) you don’t have instructional design support, a flexible but detailed plan of what you will need to do is essential. And give yourself plenty of time to get all the ducks in line.

2. The amateur strategy: just do it!

Your institution may not be able to provide you with any support or all this might seem too much or unnecessary or you just want to get on with it, in which case, just go ahead. However, this should be a fall-back position out of necessity, not a first choice.

If you do decide to go it alone, I do strongly recommend you read Teaching in a Digital Age before starting, so you have some idea about what the possibilities are and some of the dangers. In particular, read Chapter 11, ‘Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age’, which includes nine steps to quality teaching, and Appendix 1, Building an Effective Learning Environment. This is not enough, of course, but better than doing nothing in the way of preparation.


  1. Teaching online is a professional activity with a strong knowledge base. It is not something to be done lightly or without proper preparation.
  2. In most cases, there should be professional help available. Seek it out and listen to what they have to say. If there is none in your institution, perhaps it’s better not to go down this route.
  3. Your online teaching strategy should really be part of a wider strategy for teaching and learning within your academic department. Your first online course should fit within this strategy; if there is no strategy or plan for online learning, get involved in creating one.


Hard to know where to begin here, other than read through ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ In particular read:

Contact Uncle Tony

As a last resort, if you have tried to follow all the steps in this post, but still have problems, drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca. I will need to know about the context you are working in, the particular problems you are facing, and why you can’t get help in your own institution or locally. I will then do my best to advise you.

Up next

‘Why not just record my lectures?’

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 5. When should I use online learning?

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Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Most subject disciplines now require students to know how technology influences their field of study

This is the fifth of a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other four are:

This question ‘When should I use online learning?’ is difficult to answer in a short post because there are many possible reasons, and as always in education, the answers are absolutely dependent on the specific context in which you are working, but the reasons can be classified under three main headings: academic, market, and policy/administrative.

Academic reasons

These boil down to relevancy and the changing nature of knowledge in a digital age.

Curriculum requirements

Technology is affecting the content of curriculum in nearly all subject disciplines. It is increasingly difficult to think of an academic area that is not undergoing profound changes as a result of information and communications technologies (ICTs). For instance, any business program now needs to look at the impact of social media and the Internet on marketing and on the delivery of goods. How are ICTs going to change financial investments and advising? In science and engineering, to what extent would animation, simulations or the use of virtual reality enable better understanding of three-dimensional phenomena, equations or formulae? In humanities and fine arts, to what extent are ICTs changing the way we express ourselves? How do we ensure our students are digitally literate and responsible? How do we prepare our students for a world controlled by massive technology companies who track our every movement and expression? It is difficult to think how these issues can be addressed without students themselves going online to study such issues.

Skills development

Also, the skills that our students will need to develop in a digital age will often best be achieved through the use of ICTs. In Chapter 1.2 of Teaching in a Digital Age, I give more detailed examples of such skills. Many of these skills are not only best developed by, but may not even be possible without, students spending an extensive period studying online.

However, I want to focus on two ‘core’ 21st century skills: independent learning and knowledge management. In a knowledge-based society, students will need to go on learning throughout life and outside the formal academic curriculum. Jobs are constantly changing as the knowledge base changes, and even our social lives are increasingly dominated by technological change. Independent learning – or self-learning – is a skill that itself can be taught. Online learning in particular requires self-discipline and independent learning, because the instructor is often not physically ‘there’. Thus gradually introducing learners to online learning can help build their independent learning skills.

Perhaps the overarching ’21st century skill’ though is knowledge management: how to find, analyse, evaluate, apply and communicate knowledge, especially when much of this knowledge is Internet-based or located, and constantly undergoing change. Students then need many opportunities to practice such skills, and online learning often provides a means by which this can be done in a cost-effective manner.

Whether we like it or not, an understanding and management of the use of ICTs is becoming critical in almost any subject area. Students will need to go online to study such phenomena, and to practice core 21st century skills. To do this students will need to spend much more time than at present studying online. (Again, though, we need to ensure that the balance between online and face-to-face time is also properly managed.)

Market reasons

Not only is knowledge undergoing rapid change, so are demographics. In most economically advanced societies, the population is aging. Over time, this will mean fewer younger students coming straight from high school, and more lifelong learners, perhaps already with post-secondary qualifications, but wanting to upgrade or move to a new profession or job and hence needing new knowledge and skills.

Also, with mass education, our students are increasingly diverse, in culture, languages and prior knowledge. One size of teaching does not fit all. We need ways then to individualise our programs. In particular, there are many pedagogical problems with very large lecture classes. They do not meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Online learning is one way to allow students to work at different speeds, and to individualise the learning with online options enabling some choice in topics or level of study.

The changing population base offers opportunities as well as challenges. For instance, your area of research may be too specialised to offer a whole course or program within your current catchment area, but by going online you can attract enough students nationally or globally to make the effort worthwhile. These will be new students bringing in extra tuition revenues that can cover the full costs of an online masters degree, for instance. At the same time, online learning will enable critically important areas of academic development to reach a wider audience, helping create new labour markets and expand new areas of research.


We all know the situation where a President or Vice Chancellor has gone to a conference and come back ‘converted’. Suddenly the whole ship is expected to make an abrupt right turn and head off in a new direction. Unfortunately, online learning often leads to enthusiastic converts. MOOCs are a classic example of how a few elite universities suddenly got the attention of university leaders, who all charged off in the same direction.

Nevertheless, there can also be good policy reasons for institutional leadership wanting to move more to blended or flexible learning, for instance. One is to improve the quality of teaching and learning (breaking up large lecture classes is one example); another reason is to expand the reach of the university or college beyond its traditional base, for demographic and economic reasons; a third is to provide more flexibility for full-time students who are often working up to 15 hours a week to pay for their studies.

These policy shifts provide an excellent opportunity then to meet some of the academic rationales mentioned earlier. It is much easier to move into online learning if there is institutional support for this. This will include often extra money for release time for faculty to develop online courses, extra support in the way of instructional and media design, and even better chances of promotion or tenure.


  1. It can be seen that while market and policy reasons may be forcing you towards online learning, there are also excellent and valid academic reasons for moving in this direction.
  2. However, the extent to which online learning is a solution will depend very much on the particular context in which it will be used. It is essential that you think through carefully where it best fits within your own teaching context: blended learning for undergraduate students; masters programs for working professionals; skills development for applied learning; or all of these?
  3. Online learning is not going to go away. It will play a larger role in teaching in even the most campus-based institutions. Most of all, your students can benefit immensely from online learning, but only if it is done well.


Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Education, of Teaching in a Digital Age, is basically a broader rationale for the use of online learning

Chapters 3 and 4 look at ways to individualise learning; see in particular:

Up next

‘How do I start?’

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.


EDEN Research Workshop, October, 2016

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The city of Olenburg Image: © Marcus Thielen, 2015

The city of Oldenburg
Image: © Marcus Thielen, 2015

What: Forging New Pathways of research and innovation in open and distance learning: reaching from the roots

The Ninth EDEN Research Workshop in Oldenburg, Germany, will bring together researchers from all walks of life and provide a platform for engaging in discussion and debate, exchanging research ideas, and presenting new developments in ODL, with the goal of creating dialogues and forming opportunities for research collaboration.

Workshop Themes:

  • emerging distance education systems and theories
  • management and organizational models and approaches
  • evolving practices in technology-enhanced learning and teaching


  • Olaf Zawacki-Richter, Carl von Ossietzki University, Oldenburg
  • Inge de Waard, The Open University, UK
  • Adnan Qayyum, Penn State university, USA
  • Som Naidu, Monash University, Australia
  • Paul Prinsloo, University of South Africa
  • George Veletsianos, Royal Roads University, Canada
  • Isa Jahnke, University of Missouri, USA

Types of sessions:

  • paper presentations
  • hands-on workshops
  • posters
  • demonstrations
  • ‘synergy’ sessions (to share and discuss EU projects)
  • training sessions

Where: Carl von Ossietzki University, Oldenburg, Germany. Oldenburg is a charming city in north east Germany between Bremen and Groningen.

When: 4-7 October, 2016

Who: The European Distance and e-Learning Network and the Centre for Distance Education, Carl von Ossietzki University. The university is a partner with the University of Maryland University College in offering a fully online Master in Distance Education and e-Learning, which has been running for many years. The Centre for Distance Education has published 15 books on distance education and e-learning in its ASF series.

How: Registration opens mid-August. For more details on registration, fees and accommodation go to the conference web site

Comment: EDEN Research Workshops are one of my favourite professional development activities. They bring together online learning researchers from all over Europe, and it is a remarkably efficient way to keep up to date not only with the latest research but also the technology trends in open and distance education that are getting serious attention. The conference is usually small (about 100-200 participants) and very well focused on practical aspects of research and practice in online learning and distance education.


Online learning for beginners: 4. ‘What kinds of online learning are there?’

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©acreelman.blogspot.com, 2013

©acreelman.blogspot.com, 2013

This is the fourth of a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other three are:

In the third post, I pointed out that MOOCs were just one of the many different types of online learning. In this post, I will provide more detail about the various approaches to online learning, and will also provide a personal evaluation of each approach in terms of quality. This post will be a little longer than normal, as there are not only many approaches to online learning, but the field is also rapidly changing and developing.

Different approaches to online learning

In the first post, ‘What is online learning’? I pointed out that there is a continuum of teaching, from no use of online learning through blended learning, to fully online (or distance) learning. However, even within these categories, there are different possible approaches:

1. Online class notes


Students access Powerpoint slides and pdfs from a class web site which may be a part of an institution’s learning management system (see below) or it may be just a web site created by the instructor or made available by the institution. Usually the same slides or notes that are given to students taking an on-campus class are put up on the web site for online students, often on a weekly basis.  Online students access the relevant documents, and take the same assessments or exams as on-campus students, either remotely, in the form of computer-marked assignments, or on campus. If online students have questions, they can usually e-mail the instructor. Students usually work individually, although if a learning management system is available, there may be voluntary online discussion between students through the LMS’s discussion forum or social media.


This method is often used by novice online instructors. It requires, on the surface, little extra work for the instructor, once the materials are loaded.

The main problem is that such an approach is not adapted to the needs of online learners, who usually need more support than this model provides. The Powerpoint slides or pdfs do not allow for student interaction with the learning materials (unless they are re-written to do this). If there is a problem with the materials, in terms of the content not being clear, every student is likely to have the same difficulty. Instructors in this model therefore often find that they are overwhelmed with e-mail. If there are not activities (other than reading) scheduled for every week, students tend to get behind. Coming on-campus to do assignments or exams is also a problem for students who have chosen the online option because they have difficulty in getting to campus on a scheduled basis. Students in such courses often feel isolated and unsupported, and therefore such courses usually have much higher non-completion rates. And in the end, instructors find that this approach ends up being a lot more work than they anticipated.

2. Recorded lectures


The increased availability of technology such as lecture capture, which records classroom lectures on digital video and stores them for later downloading over the Internet, and desk-top cameras, has resulted in many instructors offering online courses built around recorded lectures. The lectures are usually the same as those for on-campus classes. Many MOOCs, as well as courses for credit, use recorded lectures as the main form of delivery.


This approach is again convenient for instructors, especially if they are giving a face-to-face lecture anyway and have technical help in recording and storing the lectures. However this approach suffers from many of the same problems as the class notes method above. An additional problem is that if the recording is of a normal 50 minute lecture, students often suffer from what is known as cognitive overload. Although students viewing a recorded lecture have the opportunity to stop and replay material, this can mean that a 50 minute lecture may take up several hours for an online student. MOOC designers, and TED talk designers, have realised this and often they have limited a single video to 10-20 minutes in length. Nevertheless this does not work so well in a full credit program with maybe 39 lectures over a 13 week semester. Providing transcripts of the lectures is not only time consuming and adds costs, but again increases the cognitive load for students. Lastly, there is considerable research that questions the value of lectures as a teaching method.

3. Webinars


These are ‘live’ sessions usually consisting of a lecture delivered over the Internet, supported by Powerpoint slides with opportunities for live online chat for the participants. Webinars can be recorded and made available for online access at another time. Again, ‘good’ webinars tend to be broken up into smaller 5-10 segments of presentation followed by either online voice or more commonly (for group management reasons) text comments and questions contributed by participants to which the lecturer responds.


Webinars come closer to mirroring a live face-to-face class than either class notes or recorded lectures, and need relatively little adaptation or change for instructors. While webinars tend to be more interactive than recorded lectures, again it is difficult to cover a whole curriculum through webinars alone. Also participants need to be available at a set time, which restricts the flexibility or availability for online students, although the availability of the recording can offset that to some extent. Webinars using a lecture format also suffer from the same pedagogical limitations for online students as recorded lectures.

4. Instructionally-designed online courses based on a learning management system

These are probably the most common form of online courses for credit and more importantly, they have proved themselves with high completion rates and quality learning.


A whole science of instructional design has been developed since the 1940s based on pedagogical theory, research on how students learn, the appropriate use of technology, and the evaluation of learning outcomes, and this approach has been applied systematically to the design of fully online and increasingly blended courses. Usually an instructor will work with a professional instructional designer to redesign a classroom course or even a new course for use by online, distance learners. The instructor will be asked to define desired learning objectives, or learning outcomes, the content will be chosen to support the development of such objectives, and organised into ‘blocks’ of study (weekly or more) so that the whole curriculum can be covered over the semester. Assessment will be linked to the desired learning objectives. Sometimes objectives are determined through an analysis of the assessment requirements for equivalent face-to-face classes, if these are not already formally defined. Decisions will be made about which media (text, audio, video, computing) to use in terms of their appropriateness for meeting the defined learning objectives. Particular attention is paid to providing regular student activities, and managing student and instructor workload. Online learning management systems are often used to provide a structure for the course, opportunities for instructor-monitored student discussion, and online assessment tools.


This approach has been used very successfully with the design of fully online courses, usually leading to high completion rates and good quality learning outcomes. In some cases, it has also been successfully applied to blended courses. It is from this approach that many of the best practices in online learning have been identified. It means working in a team, often consisting of a senior faculty member, and for large classes, sessional or contract instructors and/or teaching assistants, an instructional designer, and other technical support staff, such as web designers, that can be called upon as necessary. However, this approach appears initially to be more costly for an institution, and more work for an instructor. It can take up to two years to design and develop a large fully online course, although courses for small classes (less than 40) can be designed in a  much shorter period. However, if the course or program attracts new students, tuition and other revenues can offset many of the additional costs, for instance, paying for release time for faculty to work on course design and development.

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic © Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic
© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

5. Designs based on open education and emerging technologies


This is a bit of a rag-bag category for a small but growing number of online course designs that seek fully to exploit specific characteristics of new media and open educational approaches. These might include:

  • connectivist MOOCs‘ that focus on the contributions of all participants in an extended online network;
  • courses built around social media tools such as blogs, wikis, and e-portfolios;
  • approaches that exploit open educational resources, such as open textbooks and content freely available over the Internet;
  • courses built around emerging technologies, such as virtual worlds, gaming, and augmented reality.

Common features of such courses are increased activity and choices for learners, more diversity in course designs, and ‘agile’ or quick design and development. In such courses, students are often encouraged to seek, analyse, evaluate and apply content to real world issues or contexts, rather than the instructor being primarily responsible for content choice and delivery.


The main rationale for such courses is as follows:

  • they are more appropriate for developing the skills and knowledge learners need in a digital age;
  • they are more active and engaging for learners, resulting in deeper learning;
  • they make better use of new technologies by exploiting their unique teaching potential;
  • these approaches usually result in quicker and relatively low-cost course development and delivery compared with the instructional design approach;
  • they are transforming teaching into a more modern, relevant methodology that better suits today’s learners.

However, such approaches require highly confident and effective instructors with experience in using new technology for teaching, combined with the team approach described earlier. Above all instructors need to have a good grasp of both pedagogy and technology, as well as subject expertise. Direct instructional design and technology support is also essential. Most of these approaches are so new that there is relatively little research on their effectiveness. They are therefore a high risk activity for an instructor, especially those with little experience of online teaching.

This is a very abbreviated description of fast-developing, constantly changing approaches to online learning. You are especially encouraged to do the follow-up reading below.


  1. It is generally a mistake to merely transport your classroom teaching to an online environment. Online students work in different contexts and have different needs to students in face-to-face classes. Online courses need to be redesigned to accommodate the unique requirements of online learners.
  2. There is a strong body of knowledge about how to design online courses well. You ignore this at your peril. Consequences of ignoring best practices may include poor learning results, a much heavier work-load than anticipated, and dissatisfied students and superiors.
  3. It is best to work in a team. Instructional designers have knowledge about teaching online that most instructors lack. While you will always be in control of content selection, assessment and overall teaching approach, instructional designers need to be listened to as equals.
  4. New technologies have the promise of radically changing teaching, making it more relevant, more engaging for students, and more exciting and challenging for an instructor.


This is a very simplified account of the different kinds of online learning. For a more extensive coverage, see:

For more on the effectiveness of lectures, see:

For more on cognitive load and online learning design, see:

For more on instructional design, see:

For more on designs based on open education and emerging technologies see:

For more on emerging technologies in online learning see:

Up next

When should I use online learning? (This will be much shorter, I promise!)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 3. ‘Aren’t MOOCs online learning?’

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What are MOOCs?

Just in case you don’t know what MOOCs are (massive, open online courses), they are usually courses that use video recordings of lectures from top professors from elite universities, such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard, and computer-marked assessments, sometimes combined with unmonitored online student discussions and peer review. MOOCs are made freely available to anyone who wants to sign up. The main platforms for MOOCs are Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn. There are also quite a different kind of MOOC, called connectivists MOOCs, that are more like online communities of practice

The first MOOCs attracted over 200,000 enrolments per course, although numbers in recent years are more in the 2,500 range. Nevertheless it is estimated that there are more than 34 million participants worldwide registering in MOOCs each year.

Since the first ones launched in 2008, MOOCs have been rapidly evolving.

MOOCs vs online credit courses

Given all the publicity and hype over MOOCs, you could be forgiven for thinking that MOOCs are all you need to know about online learning. However, you would be sadly mistaken.

Online learning existed as a serious part of education at least 15 years before MOOCs arrived on the scene. The following graph shows the increase in online courses for credit up to 2012 in the USA post-secondary education system, before the first MOOCs were launched:

Allen and Seaman, 2013

Allen and Seaman, 2013

By 2013 at least one in three students in post-secondary education was taking at least one online course as part of a degree program. At the moment according to the U.S. Department of Education somewhere between 8-15% of all university degree course enrolments are in fully online courses. Online course enrolments continue to grow at rate (10-20% per annum) much faster than enrolments for on-campus courses (2-3% per annum) (Allen and Seaman, 2016).

So what’s the difference?

  • MOOCs have much higher numbers of initial participants generally than online credit courses; MOOCs can have anywhere between 2,000 to 200,000 participants who sign up, whereas online courses for credit can have anywhere between 20 to 2,000 registered enrolments. Fully online courses for credit usually though have 100 enrolments per course or less;
  • MOOCs, with very few exceptions, do not provide credits towards degrees, although a certificate may be issued (for a price) for those that complete computer-based assessments. However, even the institutions offering MOOCs do not accept successful completion of their courses towards credit in their own institution;
  • MOOCs have very low successful completion rates (less than 10%, usually closer to 5%) whereas fully online courses for credit often have completion rates as high or just below those for equivalent face-to-face courses. For instance in Ontario in 2011, completion rates for all fully online courses for credit in the Ontario public post-secondary system were within 5% of completion rates for face-to-face classes in universities, and within 10% for two year colleges; in other words roughly 80% or more of students in fully online courses for credit will successfully complete;
  • MOOCs provide almost no personal learning support for learners from qualified instructors, whereas most successful fully online courses for credit have a strong instructor online presence;
  • MOOCs generally charge no fee to participate (although a fee may be charged for a certificate of completion); fully online courses for credit normally charge the same fee as, or slightly higher than, those for campus-based courses or programs.

In other words, MOOCs are just one, more recent, form of online learning. They are more like continuing education programs, except they are free. Think of them as a modern form of educational television.

MOOC participation Image: Phil Hill

MOOC participation rates Image: Phil Hill, 2013

The hype

Much has been made about MOOCs disrupting the higher education system (Christensen, 2010), being a solution to educational problems in developing countries (Friedman, 2013), and being a threat to the existence of universities. Leslie Wilson of the European University Association has commented that MOOCs have forced Vice Chancellors to focus on teaching and learning (which I find a somewhat sad comment: why weren’t they focusing on that before MOOCs came along)?

However, after all the initial publicity, MOOCs have settled down into an important but relatively small niche in post-secondary education, a form of continuing education that still struggles to find a successful business model that works for the universities that supply MOOCs.

Why then all the fuss?

Good question! There is a combination of factors that have resulted in the publicity and hype.

One of the most important is that the development of MOOCs was largely driven by faculty (and mainly computer-science faculty) from highly prestigious, elite universities such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard. This has resulted in a bandwagon effect of follow my leader from other universities. Whatever the faults or weaknesses of MOOCs, these elite universities have made online learning highly visible, whereas before, although online courses for credit had been slowly gaining ground, online learning was still seen as peripheral and slightly disreputable.

MOOCs also coincided with a time when states in the USA were making big cuts in higher education budgets due to the 2008 financial recession, leading to lack of tax revenues; many saw MOOCs as an alternative to high cost, campus-based universities. Over time, this argument has become less convincing, partly due to the lack of recognition for credit of successful MOOC completion, and partly due to the difficulties of developing the high level of skills needed outside the purely quantitative subject areas with so little learner support .


  • Most faculty will need, at least in the short-term, to focus on online courses, blended or fully online, for credit, not MOOCs. These for credit online courses will need different approaches in terms of course design and learner support from MOOCs, if high completion rates are to be achieved and high level learning skills are to be developed in students;
  • For some ‘star’ faculty in subject areas where the university is particularly or uniquely strong, MOOCs will still be an attractive proposition, boosting both the star faculty member’s reach and reputation, and the brand of the university;
  • MOOC design will evolve, probably converging towards the designs used for successful for-credit online courses, but this will likely increase costs; at the same time, the design of for-credit courses may also benefit from some of the lessons in ‘scaling’ from successful MOOCs;
  • there are many other forms of online learning besides MOOCs, and within online courses for credit there are many different approaches; it is important to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these variations in online learning, so the appropriate choices can be made. This is the topic of my next post in this series.


If you want to know more about MOOCs, and their strengths and weaknesses, here is some suggested further homework (if you read/watch it all, possibly 2 hours of reading/watching):

Up next

‘What kinds of online learning are there?’ (to be posted early in the week 25-31 July, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.


Allen, L. and Seaman, J. (2016) Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson Survey Research Group

Downes, S. (2016) Connectivism, MOOCs and Innovation, Stephen Downes, July 25

Christensen, C. (2010) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York: McGraw-Hill

Friedman, T. (2013) Revolution Hits the Universities New York Times, January 26