October 23, 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. 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

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning

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Screen shot from my blog site analytics today

Screen shot from today’s analytics page from my blog site

Please forgive me here for a little self-indulgence. By sheer coincidence, two statistics converged yesterday.

2 million blog post hits

First, I passed the 2 million mark for the number of hits on this web site. This is by no means a challenge to Justin Bieber or Donald Trump, or even Stephen Downes, but I think it is a reasonable accomplishment for a relatively serious blog devoted to rather lengthy posts about online learning and distance education.

The web site is just under eight years old, having started in July 2008, and currently is averaging about 35,000 hits a month (which is remarkable as I have been posting less than once a week over the past few months, thus defying the first rule of blogging – publish daily). However, the continued activity despite the lack of many new posts in the last year is particularly satisfying, because it means that the site is being used as a resource, a place to go to regularly for information on online learning and distance education.

The table below gives a list of the most popular posts, but it should be remembered that the older the post, the more hits it is likely to get:

All time hits 2

For instance, ‘Recommended graduate programs in e-learning’ and ‘What is Distance Education?’ were posted on the original web site when it first opened. The largest supplier of free online learning (posted in April, 2012) is ALISON, and the number of hits reflects potential students looking for (objective?) information about ALISON, especially what its certificates are worth. In this case, the comments from ALISON users are probably more valuable than the original article.

A short history of educational technology‘ is a much more interesting phenomenon, being posted as recently as December, 2014, as a draft for my online textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. At the moment it is getting over 200 hits a day, and it appears that it is a set reading for one or more online courses.

On the other hand, ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ is seven years old, but is still very active from student comments, including yesterday. This post in particular reflects many potential students’ frustration with the lack of accredited online courses in engineering, especially in Canada.

What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs‘ is an interesting measure of the interest in MOOCs over time. Most of the hits came in the first year (August, 2012), although it is still averaging just under 200 hits a month, and 3,000 over the last year. However, in the last twelve months, ‘Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice‘, a draft for the book, has overtaken it with nearly 5,000 hits this year.

The data therefore suggests to me that the site is used as much by potential or actual students as by faculty and instructors – or at least it is [potential] students that drive the large numbers of hits.

And the best ever 3,190 hits in one day? Well, that was ironic. It was the day after I posted ‘Time to retire from online learning?‘, when I got almost 2,000 hits that day on that post. It’s been downhill (gently) ever since!

32,000 book downloads

Also yesterday ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ not only came out in a French version, but the English version has now passed almost 32,000 downloads of the book (18,003 from the BCcampus Open Textbook web site, and almost 13,928 from the Contact North web site).

Again, this isn’t the Da Vinci Code in best sellers, but these are downloads within a 15 month period for a 500+ page textbook aimed at faculty and instructors. My best-selling commercially published book aimed at faculty and instructors, ‘Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education’, published by Jossey Bass in 2003, never got close to 10,000 in sales.


So a lesson for writers: open, online publishing will almost certainly reach more readers than a commercial publication or an academic journal. Whether it will have as much influence will depend on other factors, such as judging the market, the quality of the book or paper, its timeliness, the need of the readers, and your prior experience in publishing. What open publishing will not bring you is direct income from the book, or promotion or advancement to an academic position, although that too may well change in the future.

For a more detailed discussion of whether open publishing is worthwhile, see ‘Writing an online, open textbook: is it worth it?’ Nothing that has happened in the last 12 months has made me want to change what I wrote then.


French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ now available

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French version 2

The French version of ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, L’enseignement a l’ère numerique‘, is now available from here.

I am very grateful to Contact North|Contact Nord for providing this professional translation.

There is now also a version in Vietnamese, ‘Dạy học trong kỷ nguyên số‘, translated by Lê Trung Nghĩa of the Ministry of Education in Vietnam, available through Dropbox here.

Spanish version, translated by staff in the Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de Buenos Aires, is almost complete and will be available from the BCcampus open textbook site (as will all the translations). I will provide an announcement containing the url when it is available.

A Chinese version, translated by staff at the Beijing Open University, will be available in August, 2016.

A Portuguese version, being translated by ABED, the Brazilian Association of Distance Education, will be available in time for its Annual Congress in September, 2016.

Turkish version is currently under consideration. I am awaiting more details.

Please note: under the Creative Commons license of the book, anyone is free to translate all or any part of the book, provided it is not used for commercial purposes and I am acknowledged as the author. I am sure that without this license, the book would not have become available so quickly in so many languages. However, if you do decide to translate the book, please let me know, so I can track its use and provide updates.


Examining ethical and privacy issues surrounding learning analytics

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Image: SecurityCamExpert, 2013

Image: SecurityCamExpert, 2013

Drachsler, H. et al. (2016) Is Privacy a Show-stopper for Learning Analytics? A Review of Current Issues and Their Solutions Learning Analytics Review, no. 6, January 2016, ISSN: 2057-7494

About LACE

One of the most interesting sessions for me at last week’s EDEN conference in Budapest was a workshop run by Sally Reynolds of  ATiT in Brussels and Dai Griffiths of the University of Bolton, UK. They are both participants in a European Commission project called LACE (Learning Analytics Community Exchange).

The LACE web site states:

LACE partners are passionate about the opportunities afforded by current and future views of learning analytics (LA) and educational data mining (EDM) but we were concerned about missed opportunities and failing to realise value. The project aimed to integrate communities working on LA and EDM from schools, workplace and universities by sharing effective solutions to real problems.

There are a number of reviews and case studies of the use of learning analytics available from the web site, which, if you are interested in (or concerned) about the use of learning analytics, are well worth reading.

The EDEN workshop

The EDEN workshop focused on one of the reviews concerned with issues around ethics and privacy in the use of learning analytics, and in particular the use of big data.

I am reasonably familiar with the use of ‘small’ data for learning analytics, such as the use of institutional student data regarding the students in the courses I am teaching, or the analysis of participation in online discussions, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. I am less familiar with the large-scale use of data and especially how data collected via learning management or MOOC registration systems are or could be used to guide teaching and learning.

However, the focus of the workshop was specifically on ethical and privacy issues, based on the review quoted above, but nevertheless I learned a great deal about learning analytics in general through the workshop.

What is the concern?

This is best stated in the review article:

Once the Pandora’s Box of data availability has been opened, then individuals lose control of the data about them that have been harvested. They are unable to specify who has access to the data, and for what purpose, and may not be confident that the changes to the education system which result from learning analytics will be desirable. More generally, the lack of transparency in data collection and analysis exacerbates the fear of undermining privacy and personal information rights in society beyond the confines of education. The transport of data from one context to another can result in an unfair and unjustified discrimination against an individual.

In the review article, these concerns are exemplified by case studies covering schools, universities and the workplace. These concerns are summarized under the following headings:

  • privacy
  • informed consent and transparency in data collection
  • location and interpretation of data
  • data management and security
  • data ownership
  • possibility of error
  • role of knowing and obligation to act

There are in fact a number of guidelines regarding data collection and use that could be applied to learning analytics, such as the Nuremberg Code on research ethics, the OECD Privacy Framework, (both of which are general), or the JISC code of practice for learning analytics. However, the main challenge is that some proponents of learning analytics want to approach the issue in ways that are radically different from past data collection methods (like my ‘small’ data analysis). In particular they propose using random data collection then subsequently analysing it through data analysis algorithms to identify possible post-hoc applications and interpretations.

It could be argued that educational organizations have always collected data about students, such as registers of attendance, age, address and student grades. However, new technology, such as data trawling and the ability to combine data from completely different sources, as well as automated analysis, completely changes the game, raising the following questions:

  • who determines what data is collected and used within a learning management system?
  • who ensures the security of student (or instructor) data?
  • who controls access to student data?
  • who controls how the data is used?
  • who owns the data?

In particular, increasingly student (and instructor) data is being accessed, stored and used not just outside an institution, but even outside a particular country, and hence subject to laws (such as the U.S. Patriot Act) that do not apply in the country from which the data was collected.

Recommendations from the LACE working group

The LACE working group has developed an eight point checklist called DELICATE, ‘to support a new learner contract, as the basis for a trusted implementation of Learning Analytics.’

Delicate 2

For more on DELICATE see:

Drachsler, H. and Greller, W. (2016) Privacy and Learning Analytics – its a DELICATE issue Heerlen NL: The Open University of the Netherlands

Issues raised in the workshop

First it was pointed out that by today’s standards, most institutional data doesn’t qualify as ‘big data’. In education, what would constitute big data would for example be student information from the whole education system. The strategy would be to collect data about or from all students, then apply analysis that may well result in by-passing or even replacing institutions with alternative services. MOOC platforms are possibly the closest that come to this model, hence their potential for disruption. Nevertheless, even within an institution, it is important to develop policies and practices that take into account ethics and privacy when collecting and using data.

As in many workshops, we were divided into small groups to discuss some of these issues, with a small set of questions to guide the discussion. In my small group of five conference participants, none of the participants was in an institution that had a policy regarding ethics and privacy in the use of learning analytics (or if it existed, they were unaware of it).

There was a concern on our table that increasing amounts of student data around learning was accessible to external organizations (such as LMS software companies and social media organizations such as Facebook). In particular, there was a  concern that in reality, many technology decisions, such as choice of an institutional learning platform, were influenced strongly by the CIO, who may not take into sufficient account ethical and privacy concerns when negotiating agreements, or even by students themselves, who are often unaware of the implications of data collection and use by technology providers.

Our table ended by suggesting that every post-secondary institution should establish a small data ethics/privacy committee that would include, if available, someone who is a specialist in data ethics and privacy, and representatives of faculty and students, as well as the CIO, to implement and oversee policy in this area.

This was an excellent workshop that tried to find solutions that combine a balance between the need to track learner behaviour and privacy and ethical issues.

Over to you

Some questions for you:

  • is your institution using learning analytics – or considering it
  • if so, does your institution have a policy or process for monitoring data ethics and privacy issues?
  • is this really a lot of fuss over nothing?

I’d love to hear from you on this.

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