July 24, 2016

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.

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

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

Conference in Africa: E-Learning Innovations

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The Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development, Nairobi

The Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development, Nairobi

What: The 4th E-Learning Innovations Conference and Expo provides an opportunity to showcase cutting-edge research, innovation and contemporary e-learning practices. The main theme: Powering Growth

Where: KICD, Nairobi, Kenya

When: September 12-16, 2016

Who: Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) is the conference host and convening partner. The Institute’s core function is to conduct research and develop curricular for all levels of education below the university. Website: http://www.kicd.ac.ke


  • Prof. Erwin Sniedzins, Gamification Architect
  • Gene Wade, CEO of One University Network
  • Prof. John Traxler, Research Prof. Digital Learning
  • Mr. Rajeev Gupta, CEO & Founder mElimu
  • Prof. Peter E. Kinyanjui, Chairman, KICD Council.
  • Mr. John Kimotho, Snr.Deputy Director / Deputy CEO, KICD
  • Mrs. Esther Gacicio, Assistant Director, KICD e-Learning section
  • Dr. Julius O. Jwan, Director & Chief Executive Officer KICD
  • Dr. Penina Lam, Consultant World Bank, CGAP Gateway Academy


To register, go to http://elice.co/product/elice-2016-registration/

To make a presentation at the conference, go to: http://elice.co/speakers-application/. Applications must be received by 15 August, 2016


Brexit and online learning in Europe

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Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Little England triumphs

Well, Little England has triumphed at last. The votes in suburban and industrial England and Wales were enough to defeat Londoners, Scots and the Northern Irish. So not only can we expect the future dismantling of the European Union, we will also probably see the end of the United Kingdom. Poor Queen – she must feel sick as a parrot as she considers the consequences. Also the old, as always, punished the young. The young mainly wanted to be outward looking Europeans; the old outvoted them, forcing them to remain in Little England (unless, like I did, they can escape).

It was not a surprise to me. Right up to the closing of the voting, and despite a last day uplift in the Remain support in opinion polls, and despite the bookies and the smart money, I was convinced that Britain would leave. Like most referendums, it was driven by emotion, not logic, and for many Brits, when they got in the voting booth, their emotions would take over.


Punish the bastards (the bastards being ‘them’, the invisible but omniscient ‘elite’ who have got us into this mess.)

Back to the glory days when Britain ruled the world and England won football matches.

No more Frogs and Krauts telling us what to do.

No more invasion by Syrians and terrorists.

How predictable. How sad.

It is a disaster that could have been avoided. David Cameron is staying on for three months ‘to steady the ship.’ Sorry, Mr. Cameron, but the ship has already sunk, and it was you who pulled the plug when you thought a nice little referendum would get those pesky Euroskeptics in your party off your back. What a petty motivation for destroying not only a country but a continent.

Well, of course, it won’t be as bad as that, will it? The panic and shock will slowly dissipate, the money people will work out new ways to make money, and Putin won’t be nasty and invade the Baltic states, will he? People are resilient and will find a new way through.

So let’s look forward and see what the implications are for online learning in Europe, which is almost as important as the Euro nations soccer championship (will England be disqualified now)?


In the 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of online learning happening in Europe, although there were several big open universities: the UK Open University was dominant, but there were also sizeable open universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. In online learning, some Norwegian distance education institutes, such as NKI, were launching online courses. When EDEN, the European Distance Education Network, started in the early 1990s it was mainly dominated by the big open universities, but it began to expand its membership by dropping institutional membership and moving to individual membership. This was important in bringing in many new participants, some of whom were European leaders in online learning. But the UK OU was still the major player, even though it was relatively slow in moving to online learning.

At the same time, the European Commission had launched a number of major funding programs that focused on ICTs (information and communications technologies) in education, such as the DELTA program. These were often large, unwieldy projects that required participants from several countries, particularly from those countries that were struggling economically or were ‘new’ to the EU, and also required sometimes a minimum of three industrial partners. Although such projects often got bogged down in trying to balance the interests of all the participants, were often slowed down by stifling bureaucratic requirements from the EC, and one or two participants from more economically advanced countries ended up doing most of the work, these programs were useful for widening the expertise in the area of online and digital learning across a large number of member states and brought new players into the game. However, in the early 1990s there were only 12 or so member states.


The most significant change has been the expansion to 28 states, incorporating most of the Eastern European countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The EC still has major programs that provide funding for ICTs in education projects (although digital is now the more favoured term). More importantly, many more countries all over Europe now have substantial experience in online learning, as was evident from the recent EDEN conference. Nevertheless, Britain is still a dominant force in this area and has been a major contributor to EC programs in online and digital learning.

Not only will the withdrawal of UK participants be a major blow for many of these European projects, but also UK universities and consultants in the field of online and digital learning will lose out on major funding opportunities and the opportunity to learn from working with European partners. This may not be as bad as in other areas of collaboration or business, because academics and educators will still go to international conferences and share experiences, but nevertheless there will be a net loss both for British and European online practitioners.

What went wrong?

There are people closer to the action who are better placed than I am, but here’s my two cents worth, anyway:

  • Europe got too big, too quickly. It was difficult enough to get consensus with 12 countries with relatively similar economic and social contexts, even if the languages were different. Expanding to 28 countries covering an immensely wide range of languages, cultures and above all, economic circumstances without a change to the overall governance/political model has led to gridlock in decision-making;
  • as a result, the European Union has failed to deal adequately with its three most important challenges: the recovery from the economic recession in 2008; the immigration crisis; and its relationship with Russia. It has showed weakness in responding to each of these admittedly difficult challenges, with negative implications for the average Joe and Joe-ess in Europe and Britain;
  • Britain too suffered badly from the economic recession. Most of its major banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Many of those bankers are still in place, earning almost obscene amounts of money. Although the economy has picked up since 2008, the British government has been running an austerity-focused economic policy, which hits hard unemployed and low income workers and families. Many working class people in the former industrial parts of England have been unemployed through five generations, since the devastation of UK manufacturing industries in the 1980s. Both of the two major political parties have been run until recently by ‘establishment’ figures from public school/Oxbridge backgrounds. A major theme in the run-up to the referendum was the rejection of advice from ‘experts’ (economists, politicians, international leaders and think tanks, the Bank of England) who were seen as an untrustworthy elite who benefit from the status quo. The class war is alive and strong in the UK and getting worse, as a result.
  • at the same time, fed by a viciously simplistic and racist tabloid press, many middle class Brits feel that they are no longer getting the respect they feel they deserve; the Empire has crumbled and their culture is being threatened by a wave of immigrants. England is already full. Last year, Britain, which has a population of 54 million and is geographically smaller than the Canadian Maritimes, took 360,000 immigrants, compared to the whole of Canada (population 34 million), who took 260,000. There are genuine fears that immigrant numbers will increase much more over the coming years, as the Middle East disintegrates further. The Leave proponents deliberately played on these fears.

So in this referendum, there was what we have also seen in the run-up to the USA presidential election: a weird alliance of what appear to be extreme right and extreme left wing voters rejecting and overwhelming the moderate, ‘rationale’ centre in politics. However, unless the genuine grievances of these groups are addressed, we will see similar so-called ‘irrational’ political upheavals in the future. In particular, the widening gap between rich and poor needs to be addressed or we will all end up victims to so-called ‘irrationality’.


EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments

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Pesti Vigadó, where the conference dinner was held

Pesti Vigadó Concert Hall, where the conference dinner was held

The EDEN conference

I have just attended the annual conference of the European Distance and E-Learning Network in Budapest, Hungary.

EDEN is one of my favourite conferences because it always has a lot of interesting people attending and it is a quick way for me to stay abreast of what is happening in European online and distance learning. I provide here an overall report on the conference, but I will do a couple of other more detailed posts on the sessions I found particularly interesting.

There were just under 300 participants. My overall impression is that online and open learning are well and strong in Europe, and is now widespread. When I first started to come to EDEN conferences in the early 1990s, there were only two or three main players, but this year there were contributions from almost every European country. With the growth of online and open learning, there are many new people each year joining the field, coming from very diverse backgrounds. EDEN provides a pan-European opportunity to enable newcomers to learn about some of the basic principles and prior research and knowledge in the field, as well as allowing for the sharing of experience and networking, and reporting new trends and developments in online and open learning.

I was the opening keynote speaker, and talked about building effective learning environments, based on my chapter in Teaching in a Digital Age. I also gave the wrap-up to the conference, on which this post is based.

A concert at the Liszt Academy of Music

A concert at the Liszt Academy of Music

Policy, planning and management

This year there was a welcome number of contributions that focused on policy and management of online, open and distance learning.

Yves Punie of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Prospective Technological Skills reported that 70 million Europeans lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills, 24% had no upper secondary education and 45% have insufficient digital literacy skills, although 90% of jobs in Europe will require some sort of ICT skills. The Institute has developed a list of key digital competencies. He noted that while 21% of universities in Europe are now offering MOOCs, most have no overall strategy for open education.

George Ubachs of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities in his presentation on The Changing Pedagogical Landscape offered an interesting vision for universities that emphasised:

  • personalized teaching and learning
  • small scale, intensive education
  • rich learning environments
  • open-ness and flexibility
  • networked education and mobility

Leslie Wilson of the European University Association commented that:

MOOCs have forced Vice Chancellors to focus on teaching and learning

This is probably a true if sad statement.

I was particularly impressed by Melissa Highton’s report on the open learning strategy of Edinburgh University. It is a highly ranked, old research university in Scotland that has aligned its approach to open education to the university’s core mission. She said:

Not being open is a risk and not being open costs us money.

Laureate University is a global private, for-profit university with over one million enrolments, and with campuses in Europe as well as North America. The leadership at Laureate has decided that the whole system will move from largely face-to-face teaching to blended learning. Alan Noghiu described the strategy that is being used and the challenges the organization is facing in implementing the strategy.

Finally, Alan Tait reported on a study by the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) on student success factors, which identified the following as critical to student success:

  • pre-study information, advice, guidance and admission;
  • curriculum or programme design that matches the needs of students;
  • intervention at key points and in response to student need;
  • assessment to support learning as well as to judge achievement;
  • individualised and personalised systems of support to students;
  • information and logistical systems that communicate between all relevant participants in the system;
  • overall managing for student success.

This seems to me to be a list that proponents of MOOCs should bear in mind, as well as those offering more formal qualifications at a distance.

The use of multimedia and emerging technologies

Susan Aldridge of Drexel University presented some very interesting examples of educational uses of virtual reality, augmented reality, serious games and holography, including examples used in forensic investigation, meteorology, and medicine. One of the augmented reality tools she demonstrated, Aurasma, is free.

Danny Arati of Intel mentioned the University of Nottingham’s The Periodic Table of Videos, where each element in the period table has a short video about it.

The Periodic Table of Videos, University of Nottingham

The Periodic Table of Videos, University of Nottingham

MOOCs and online learning

I was surprised at how much importance European institutions are still giving to MOOCs. There were by far more papers on MOOCs than on credit-based online learning or even blended learning. Even the Oxford debate this year was on the following motion:

We Should Focus in the Short Term More on MOOCs than on OER

I was relieved when the motion was resoundingly defeated, although I am still a little disheartened that open education is still mainly focused on MOOCs and OERs, rather than on the broader concept of open textbooks, open research, and open data. It was noted that MOOCs are a product while open education is a movement, and it is important not to lose the idea that open education is as much about social justice and equity as it is about technology, as was pointed out by one of the participants, Ronald McIntyre.

Learning analytics

There was an excellent workshop organised by Sally Reynolds and Dai Griffiths from the European Commission funded LACE project: Learning Analytics Community Exchange. The workshop focused on privacy and ethics issues that arise from the use of learning analytics.

This is such an important topic that I will do a full blog post on it later. In the meantime, if you are interested in this topic, see the LACE report: Is Privacy a Show-stopper for Learning Analytics? A Review of Current Issues and their Solutions.

The foyer of the Gresham Hotel

The foyer of the Gresham Hotel

Bits and Pieces

There were several other interesting activities at the conference that are worth reporting:

Pre-conference workshop for young scholars. This was an interesting forum where editors of three of the journals in the field discussed with young (or more accurately, new) scholars how to get published.

Book and wine session This informal late evening session provided an opportunity for participants to share their reviews of interesting books. This is an event that could be expanded to cover both ‘classics’ in the field, as well as books on new developments.

Posters There were about a dozen posters. Again, I would like to see more posters at conferences such as this. A well designed poster can be read in a couple of minutes and impart as much if not more information than a 20 minute oral presentation, and can be seen by everyone at the conference, unlike a presentation at a parallel session, some of which, such as the horrible ‘speed-dating’ sessions, resembled having a fire hose of information turned on you – or am I just a visual learner?

Given that so many new people are moving into online and open learning all the time, much more needs to be done at conferences such as this to encourage sessions where prior knowledge and best practices are brought to the attention of new participants.


Overall, this was another excellent conference from EDEN in a wonderful location (it is the first time I have been immersed into Turkish baths). The next one will be next year in Jönköping, southern Sweden.

Art Nouveau stained glass windows at the Hotel Gellert

Art Nouveau stained glass windows at the Hotel Gellert

All photos: Tony Bates

State support for public higher education is declining in the USA

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Young Invincibles 2

Young Invincibles (2015) 2016 State Report Cards Washington DC: Young Invincibles

This is a very interesting state by state report card on the support for public higher education in the USA since the economic recession of 2008. Key results:

  • states have cut per student spending by 21 percent since 2008. Only two states spend as much as they did before the recession (Alaska and North Dakota). Six states are now spending less than two thirds of what they were spending in 2008
  • tuition and fees at both 4-year and 2-year institutions rose 28 percent since 2008 (inflation rose 14%).
  • in 2008, students and families paid approximately 36 percent of the cost of public college; in 2014 that percentage increased to 50 per cent.
  • the gap between white non-Hispanic adults and Latino adults with postsecondary degrees grew by 2.2 percentage points between 2007 and 2015

As interesting as the result is the organization that did the study. Young Invincibles is:

a national organization, representing the interests of 18 to 34 year-olds and making sure that our perspective is heard wherever decisions about our collective future are being made. We do this through conducting cutting-edge policy research and analysis, sharing the stories of young adults, designing campaigns to educate on important issue areas, informing and mobilizing our generation and advocating to change the status quo.

It can be seen that state funding of public higher education in the USA has declined significantly over the last six years, even though the economy in general has more than recovered (U.S. GDP in 2015 was $1.5 billion higher than before the recession kicked in).

This is clear evidence in the decline of political support at a state level for publicly funded higher education in the USA over the last six years. Once again it is young people who are paying the price.

In Canada we didn’t suffer as badly during and following the recession and I suspect public funding of universities is if anything slightly higher today in most provinces per capita than it was in 2008. However, can anyone give me the exact figures?