April 23, 2014

More reflections on MOOCs and MITx

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© Dave Cormier

Downes, S. (2012) What a MOOC Does – #Change 11 Half and Hour, March 1

An overly simplified version of the discussion so far

In the above post, Stephen Downes sets out very clearly his views on what MOOCs are and what they do, mainly in response to an earlier post by Clark Quinn, in which Clark argued that there should be some way to integrate both cognitive and social learning theory within the design of MOOCs.

In particular Stephen notes:

What we are trying to do with a MOOC is to create an environment where people who are more advanced reasoners, thinkers, motivators, arguers, and educators can practice their skills in a public way by interacting with each other. In such an environment, people can learn by watching and joining in. 

Also, in response to my question as to whether MOOCs really change the nature of the game, Stephen’s response is:

I’m generally pretty reluctant to compare MOOCs with what went before, and I’m generally pretty reluctant to suggest how MOOCs improve on the previous model, because what we’re trying to do with MOOCs is really something very different from what was attempted before. The best practices that previously existed, insofar as they were best practices at all, were best practices for doing something else. MOOCs don’t change the nature of the game; they’re playing a different game entirely.

Sui Fai John Mack also has an extensive commentary on MOOCs in his response: #Change11 #CCK12 MOOC – Critical Reflection

MOOCs as a new form of continuing adult education

First let me be clear: I think MOOCs are a very interesting and valuable development, as is MITx’s aim to offer open, automated certificates to anyone free of charge. They are different in many ways to anything that has gone before, particularly in their scale, and the fact they they are free.

However, in my view, they belong to an honorable and well established tradition of continuing adult education that has been offered by universities since the turn of the 19th century. They belong philosophically within the context of thinkers such as R. H. Tawney, Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire, who believed strongly in self-education, as part of their broader socialist views on equality, the need to open access to knowledge, and to educate the workers in order to break the existing hegemony, etc. (This does not mean that MITx for instance is aware that it is operating within such a tradition!). Furthermore, lifelong learning is critically important in the 21st century, butis not well done by most universities. MOOCs are an important development that supports lifelong learning.

However, MOOCs and MITx are more a threat to current university continuing education departments than they are to the traditional credit programs. In recent years, most university continuing education departments have been forced to move away from providing a free (or very low cost) public service to adult learners. Instead their mandate is to to provide profit to support the more formal side of the university. MOOCs are a direct challenge to this part of conventional universities.

However, MOOCs themselves are highly dependent, as Stephen acknowledges, on students already having a high level of understanding and an ability to learn independently, and to think critically. This is exactly what good quality formal education should be doing: developing and fostering such abilities so that learners can participate meaningfully in MOOCs and other forms of self-learning. Although there are still too many barriers to formal education, nevertheless there is much more access now to higher education than in the days of the socialist thinkers that spawned the adult education movement. Many students do need help and support to learn, which is why the demand for formal education programs has never been higher.

In this respect, I am quoting from someone who must remain anonymous because of his position as a senior administrator in a postsecondary institution:

A new educational paradigm? MOOCs are totally open for everyone who has access to the internet and enough time to participate. So far so, good. But who will benefit? It seems that those who meet the standards of discussion and the hidden requirements [of the presenters] can exchange and enhance their knowledge. Those who will not reach the academic level set by the organizers will remain lurkers who can only profit in discussing with the those in the crowd that can argue at the same level. But they cannot increase their skills. What’s that good for? The courses silently separate the elite from the mass. It looks like democracy but is quite the opposite of [real] teaching. Education normally tries to help people to enhance their understanding and make up their minds. MOOCs don’t take care of this. They are a non-educational approach. The new freedom and openness is a freedom for nothing.

I think this comment is unduly harsh. We should not expect MOOCs to meet all educational needs. I believe they provide a very useful purpose. But I don’t see them as a replacement for formal education. I agree with Stephen: they are playing a different game. The question is more one of effectiveness than purpose. Are the current formal programs providing the skills and knowledge needed in the 21st century, and indeed to participate meaningfully in MOOCs and other forms of digital self-learning? And can they learn from MOOCs and how they operate?






Stephen Downes’ overview of e-learning: and a little history lesson

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Downes, S. (2012) E-learning Generations, Half-an-Hour, February 11

Stephen’s contribution

In general, I try to complement rather than repeat what Stephen writes (which is just as well, seeing how prolific he is). However, I’m highlighting his latest post, because it brings together all in one place an overview of his views on the development of e-learning, and in particular the different aspects and approaches to e-learning that have developed over more than 20 years. Especially for those studying online learning and e-learning, this post of Stephen’s is a very useful ‘one-stop’ resource. Stephen’s overview is particularly strong on linking technological trends to their application to e-learning, and he also provides an interesting perspective on the technological and conceptual aspects of MOOCs.

History before Downes

My only advantage over Stephen is that I am older, and have been teaching online longer. So I would like to complement what Stephen has done by pointing out that e-learning has even deeper roots than those discussed by Stephen. In particular I would like to recognize the pioneering work of Murray Turoff and Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They developed a networked collaborative learning approach that they called computer-mediated communication (CMC), which they used as a blended learning model, using NJIT’s own computer network, i.e. it pre-dated the Internet (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). So the emphasis on interaction rather than content management was there right at the start of e-learning.

In the early 1980s the Open University in the United Kingdom developed an audio-graphics system called Cyclops that worked over the public telephone system for delivery through its regional study centres (McConnell, 1983). This enabled faculty at the centre to communicate in real time with distance students. This was the forerunner of teleconferencing technology such as Elluminate and Blackboard Collaborate (click here for more details)

The work of Turoff and Hiltz was reinforced by staff at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who in 1983 developed a text-based online collaborative learning tool called CoSy that worked over telephone systems.

The very first article in the then new Journal of Distance Education in 1986 was entitled “Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education?” (Bates, 1986). This argued that the use of IT for communication between teachers and learners was far more important than trying to use technology to manage learning in a behaviourist way.

In 1988, the Open University in the United Kingdom added a ‘massive’ online discussion forum to its Introduction to Information Technology: Social and Technological Issues (DT200), with over 1350 students from all over the United Kingdom linked online, using dial-up modems over the telephone system (Mason, 1989). As an instructor on that course, it was an unnerving experience dealing with over 1,000 students in the same discussion forum, and many useful lessons were learned.

Other experiments were also taking place at the same in both Europe and North America – the list is too long to continue (see Harasim et al.,1995, for more examples).

Communication or content transmission?

My point here is that the use of IT for communication between students, and between instructor and student, has always been a key goal of many working in education. The learning management system came afterwards. LMSs have many valuable features, above all by providing an organizing framework for online learning, and can include tools for online discussion and collaboration, but unfortunately, too often LMSs have been used mainly as a place to dump content, and have, perhaps unfairly, been associated with information transmission rather than communication.

The other key development is that we have moved away from the confines of text-based or even synchronous audio to rich, multimedia environments that support a variety of approaches to teaching and learning. We now have many tools that sit comfortably outside the LMS – or can be easily integrated with it.

What can we learn from the history?

Thus the main consequences for me of more recent developments in e-learning are as follows:

  • the technology is much cheaper, more user-friendly and more reliable
  • as a result, it is more ubiquitous, and no longer the domain of educational or technology specialists: it’s being used by everyone
  • consequently, a great deal of e-learning is now informal as well as formal, and educators are still learning how best to work with this
  • e-learning is not one ‘thing’, but an historical development and process that means different things to different people
  • educational technology has moved from being something that supported classroom teaching and later distance education, to a force for radical change in our educational systems – but radical change based on the full potential of e-learning is something that still has yet to occur on any significant scale.
  • the challenges for e-learning are no longer technological, but ones of desire, organization and appropriate application based on prior knowledge, experiment, and evaluation.
  • we need innovative teachers and administrators, and thinkers such as Stephen and others, to continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, while at the same time not ignoring the lessons from history. As George Santayana wrote: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

In the meantime I strongly commend Stephen’s post. It is well worth reading.


Bates. A. (1986) Computer‑assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 1, No. 1

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L. and Turoff, M. (1995).  Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching & Learning Online Cambridge: MIT Press

Hiltz, R. and Turoff, M. (1978) The Networked Nation Reading MA: Addison-Wesley

Mason, R. (1989) An evaluation of CoSy on an Open University course, in Mason, R. and Kaye, T. (1989) Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education Oxford: Pergamon

Mason, R. and Kaye, T. (1989) Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education Oxford: Pergamon

McConnell, D.(1983) Sharing the screen, Media in Education and Development, Vol. 16, No. 2

Stanford profs explore new business model(s) for open learning

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© eLearn magazine 2012

Kolowich, S. (2012) Massive courses, sans Stanford, Inside Higher Education, January 24

This is an excellent article about two of the Stanford professors, and another from the University of Virginia, who have created a start-up company with private investment to create MOOCs (massive open online courses). There will be no accreditation from a university, but the professors will issue their own certificates for successful completion. They are looking at a range of possible business models, including charging $1 an enrollment, or taking a commission for every graduate who gets a job placement through their organization – or payment by results.

This is a very American solution to open learning, combining open access with capitalism. It will be interesting to see if it works.

What this does remind me of is the very early days of medieval universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Bologna, where students paid their professors directly, and travelled around to find the best professors – and where professors travelled to where the work was. I actually lived in a house half way between Oxford and Cambridge in Stony Stratford, on a road where 800 years before the professors had walked between the two universities. Now we have distance education where no-one needs to walk. Ah, progress.

#Change 11: Week 6: Managing Technology: final thoughts and closing

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I’m wrapping up this week of the MOOC by drawing attention to a few more excellent comments to my last post (and my responses), some final comments on change management and organizational culture in universities, and my views about participating in my first MOOC.

More participant contributions to Week 6:

Meg Goodine in Deck notes that her university ‘lacks a shared vision and measurable strategic goals for elearning. We’ve never really articulated what it is we are aiming to do with elearning or for introducing other learning technologies so it’s difficult to evaluate our success.’ Meg is not alone in her thoughts – there are many other universities where this is true. I suggest below one possible measurable goal for e-learning under Change Management and Organizational Culture.

A second post by Multilitteratus Incognitus argues that ‘change in the university will occur form within, but it won’t come from the IT department.’ I agree with him – in the end it has to come from both student and faculty pressure; however, a ‘good’ IT department that is enabling rather than controlling (and yes, they do exist in some institutions) can be a valuable asset in moving the change along once there has been some recognition of the need to change. But how do you get faculty on-side in the first place (see again Change Management and Organizational Culture for one suggestion).

A third post by Multilitteratus Incognitus discusses why there was comparatively little discussion during this week of the MOOC, and has some interesting thoughts about MOOCs from his extensive experience.

Colin from Scotland’s Learning in the Workplace examines in some deptha number of issues in learning technology management, in particular ‘enhancing the learning experience is an insufficient driver to justify innovation’ andtechnology is a barrier to innovation’ - definitely worth a look.

Lastly, Mark Johnstone, in his blog Nomad Learning, presents a view from the ‘dark side’: ‘The problem is not with technology but with the institutional structure of higher education itself. That structure cannot be expected to change simply because we have an LMS or think that we can produce “20th century learners” better online. Illich was right: the social function of institutions, and above all the university, is not to liberate but to deny access to goods, services, privilege and power.’ – well worth reading his post in full.

At the risk of redundancy, also take a look at the following comments to my last post (click here to see them if you missed them). Several of these were posted after the week was over:

  • Jeffrey Keefer’s response to my request for ways to stimulate better conversations within a MOOC (and my response to Jeffrey)
  • Lucky’s excellent example of a learning technology project that did not get integrated and my suggestions about what is needed to make successful projects stick and spread (drawing on the literature of change management).
  • A ‘stunning’ set of comments from Glenis Joyce about a better tool than a webinar for a MOOC and the importance of applying best practice in change management in universities.
  • Norbert Boruett provides an African perspective when he argues that ‘there is need to have a collaborative and deliberate effort to have a global effort to assist all academic institutions to embrace technology for teaching and learning.’
  • Rita Kop suggests that an LMS like Moodle would have provided a better structure for the MOOC and has briefly alluded interestingly to gender differences in the choice of tools.
  • Scott Johnson is looking for ways to bring about real change in his institution and asks: How will our talents in building appealing techno content be delivered in a manner that actually results in learning?
  • John Mak deliberates on the differences between blogs, comments and forums

So between this and the last post, I think I’ve grabbed most direct comments about this topic. If you know of any others, let me know, and I will continue to add contributions here.

Change management and organizational culture

Glenis Joyce raised the issue of applying well tried best practices in change management to bring about change from within. Although we did not make explicit reference to the literature on change management, Albert and I did draw on such ideas and principles when writing the book. However, you have to be careful. Most change management principles have developed from successful businesses, and have to be applied with sensitivity and adaptation in a higher education context. In particular, change management requires you to respect and work with the prevailing organizational culture, which, in the case of most universities, is there to inhibit radical change or slow down even gradual change. So we immediately have a paradox.

Ross Paul, in a book I will be reviewing shortly (Paul, 2011), writes very well about university culture. In my view the centre of attack for a change management strategy in a university needs to be two pronged. The first must come from the institutional leadership. It is the responsibility of senior management to identify impending crises and prepare the institution in advance. Both Ross Paul, and interestingly last week Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail (Toronto’s national paper), wrote about the crisis in undergraduate teaching in Canadian universities (the same would apply in many other countries as well). The intelligent application of learning technologies could be one critical step in helping improve the quality of undergraduate teaching, through the re-design of undergraduate courses, putting more emphasis on interaction with tenured faculty and other instructors, and less on personal transmission of information. Thus tying e-learning strategy to improved quality of undergraduate teaching would be a big step forward in bringing about change.

The second prong would be to win the support of senior research faculty (the university ‘stars’) for the use of learning technologies. The key to organizational change and innovation is to move beyond the 10-15% of early adopters into the 35% of those willing to change if they see it is in their direct interest . The key 35% are the star research faculty in a university; if they move, the rest (except the 10-15% diehards) will follow. Universities try very hard to protect the time of their stars, so that they can focus on research. At the same time, undergraduate education needs the contributions and participation of research faculty (if only to stimulate a passion for the subject in order to provide high quality potential graduate students in their subject discipline). The trick then is to show how learning technology can be used to give the research stars the maximum influence in undergraduate teaching with the minimum expenditure of time. This comes back again to course re-design.

There are other possible strategies and ‘crises’ that might be addressed, but if technology really is to make a difference in teaching and learning, it needs to address and help solve successfully and convincingly some of the real problems being faced in post-secondary education. I really believe it can do this.

Last thoughts on this week’s MOOC

First, I really do commend Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier for developing and proselytizing MOOCs. They are a very interesting innovation, and have the immediate benefits of being open to all, attracting top quality participants, and covering leading edge developments in the field. I hope they continue in this direction. It really was an honour and a privilege to be invited to lead this week, and it opened up  to a much wider audience a topic I feel strongly about.

BUT….(there’s always a ‘but’). It really does feel like a beta software version. Nothing wrong with that – get the stuff out the door then improve it based on feedback. So here’s my feedback. I’ve never been keen on audio-conferencing or webinars. Too much like a lecture and not really in the spirit of a democratic open course. I know, my choice, but there must be better tools, such as the one suggested by Glenis Joyce, that enables asynchronous, continuous participation in one integrated ‘space’ on the Internet, so it is easier to track and find all the contributions from participants (I know, that sounds like a learning management system but we can do better than that). Navigation is important. The #Change 11 daily newsletter was invaluable but needs more organization so its’s easier to relate stuff to each topic. Probably a few more volunteers help on the organizational side would help. This is really a technical issue so over to you Stephen and Dave.

Second, I’ve ended this week feeling very similar to my feelings about the annual Vancouver Fireworks Festival, which stretches over a week and is watched by hundreds and thousands of people all round English Bay. Brilliant explosions and rockets firing off in different directions. I don’t go every night now, but dip in and out each year, depending on my other commitments (although I never missed a single night the first time). So great fun and very impressive, but not much lasts afterwards other than fond memories, until next year. So, yes, a definite advance in online learning, but still with lots of room for improvement and development.

I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I have and thank you for your time.

Next week

You will certainly get fireworks next week from Rory McGreal, on OERs for learning. Don’t miss this, it will be a fascinating week.

However, as a famous Scottish manager told his team before an important game, ‘Get your retaliation in first’, so in that spirit, you may want to take a look at my critique of OER’s (but only after you’ve heard from Rory!):

A reflection on the OER debate: Every Way but Loose


#Change 11: Week 6: Managing Technology: the discussion so far

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Comments to date on Managing Technology to Transform Teaching

It’s now Friday, five days into the week, and I’ve tracked the following comments or responses to the webinar and my earlier post on this topic:

ZML Didaktic (Austria): Good set of notes of the webinar and a few comments

Death by Structure Very interesting posting by Viplav Baxi with very thoughtful comments.

Umair comments on the need to change the classroom model.

x28′s new blog directly addresses one of the key questions for this week: can change come from within?

Multilitteratus incognitus discusses participation in MOOCs – not directly relevant to the managing technology topic, but I’ll be responding to this later

Paul Prinsloo in a deeply thoughtful posting discusses the ‘enhance’ vs ‘transform’ issue, arguing that even though there are still benefits in using technology to enhance teaching and learning, in fact in the end technology will transform it.

Squire Morley has excellent notes from the webinar and an interesting discussion

Jenny Mackness in Jenny Connected asks ‘Is our education system in crisis?’ and discusses the issue of whether change can come from within or without.

Jeffrey Keefer’s Silence and Voice wonders why there has been so little discussion on this topic, a point I will address below.

Jaapsoft in Connective argues that education is about relationships and changes will come from technologies that support relationships

Squire Morely has excellent notes from the webinar and a discussion that includes the issue of costs of technology.

Have I missed other postings? If so, please let me know and I will add them – or please add your comments directly below.

Discussion of the topic

I’m finding it difficult here to separate form from function. The nature of a MOOC clearly influences the form of participation and the nature of the comments.

Not surprisingly, the discussions were less than conclusive on whether change will come from within or from without the institution. In general, those who commented argued that change will come both from within (but slowly) and from without. I particularly liked Paul Prinsloo’s discussion of how technology changes the nature of knowledge, that even using technology to enhance traditional forms of teaching will effect change.

Change from outside

Surprisingly though no-one argued that if digital technologies are to be fully exploited that this is more likely to come from new ways of teaching and new forms of organization that will exist outside the traditional institutional models of schools, colleges and universities (an argument I was expecting from a MOOC organized by Stephen Downes and George Siemens). This also happens to be my view of what is likely to happen.

In other words, innovative teaching that fully exploits new digital technologies and which help develop the core skills and competencies needed in the 21st century will mainly come from outside the formal, public education system (or will be marginalized within the system). The inertia and the barriers to change within the public institutions are just too great, unless they reach a crisis point, by which time it is likely to be too late. This would fit the pattern of disruptive change argued by Christensen (2011).

The full exploitation of digital technology for teaching and learning is likely to come about in two distinct ways. The first will be through the privatization of education. Institutions such as the University of Phoenix do not face the current barriers to change of the public institutions (especially universities), and will move aggressively into providing more modern and more sustainable forms of digital education that will increasingly be attractive to employers and to students.

The second means of change will be through open non-formal offerings, such as MOOCs, open educational resources, and possibly free or low cost new organizations, something along the lines of the University of the People or the Khan Academy, or regrouping of existing public institutions into new structures such as oerU. However, such regrouping will be at the margins of public institutions, not core. The main barriers to these developments are employer acceptance of such forms of education, which I don’t think will last for long, and academic credibility, which I think will be more serious.

Change from within

It is the threat to academic integrity that most concerns me about the failure of traditional institutions to change quickly enough from within. There are many important aspects of academic knowledge that could easily be lost through these new forms of learning and learning organizations, in particular, academic freedom, academic integrity, and a loss of scientific thinking.

This really needs a book to explore fully, but I would be concerned about the likely impact of the privatization of higher education on academic freedom and academic integrity. Academic integrity is more of a challenge to explain, but it is partly related to the quality of thinking and research needed at an advanced academic level, and the need to enforce standards when learners are increasingly demanding entitlement to qualifications, irrespective of performance. I see traditional public universities more likely to insist on these standards for all types of learning.

It would be better then if our current formal, public institutions attempted to change their methods of teaching to take full account of the potential of digital learning, while ensuring academic standards are maintained or enhanced. The full exploitation of digital learning and academic integrity are not contradictory, but without an institutional framework, they could become separated. Critical, evidence-based thinking and argument, scientific methodologies, and authenticated original work that is assessed through the application of high academic standards are more likely to be developed and maintained within an institutional framework, although the form and structure of such a framework may or probably should be very different from what it is now. However, I still struggle to understand how such standards are likely to be developed in an unstructured, entirely open or non-formal system of education, although open and non-formal education are excellent for the purposes of lifelong learning, once academic standards have been established and internalized.

This is a very lengthy way of arguing for change from within, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, and the consequences could be dangerous for the maintenance of of rationale and scientific thinking.

However, I would really appreciate your thoughts on this.

MOOCs and discussion

Related to the issue of the difference between academic and everyday knowledge, I was struck by the nature of discussion in this week of the MOOC. Jeffrey Keefer in his post asked:

Why so little discussion on something seemingly so valuable? Even after talking about this on the live #change11 session (with thousands of people registered and others informally participating),….and even with those finding this through other means,why so little discussion?

It’s a good question. (To be precise, Jeffrey was not just commenting on this MOOC, but on the lack of discussion in general on the web about the book). I tracked 11 comments related to my post in the MOOC. There were about 30 participants in the webinar and an unknown number of downloads of the webinar recording.

There could be all kinds of reasons for the shortage of comments on this week’s topic, but I was more struck by the form in which they occurred. Participants did not comment directly to my post for this week, but within their own blogs. I call this the syndrome of the selfish blogger. We all do this. If we have something interesting to say, we’d rather say it on our own web site than someone else’s (it would be nice though if the post was also copied to the site that originated the topic). I had to go and cull all the comments from the #Change 11 newsletter and from pingbacks to get them into one place, so I could comment on them as a whole.

The advantage of posting comments on the participants’ blogs is that the MOOC reaches a wider audience – all those who follow the blogs of the participants. The traffic on my site did increase by about 30% from Monday to yesterday (an increase of over 200 hits a day), mainly because of the MOOC.

However, no-one commented directly to my post, and up to the time of writing, no-one had taken advantage of the forums on the book site that are directly related to the topics covered this week (even Jeffrey commented on his blog, not to my post, which is somewhat ironic). Thus I failed to generate a conversation or set of conversations around this topic (at least so far, five days into the week). This is different from my experience of using threaded discussion forums in a learning management system, where I’ve been able to generate intense and prolonged conversations around topics. In my view, this is more likely to lead to deeper engagement and hence better learning and certainly a more structured discussion than the very scattered responses in this week of the MOOC.


  • Could I have done something that would have resulted in more comments, more discussion and more integration of the discussion in this MOOC?
  • Or is the topic itself the problem – just not of interest to most people in this MOOC?
  • Or are people just too busy to go beyond the webinar and a short response?

Over to you! (if you’re interested)


Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, Louis Soares (2011)Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education Mountain View CA: Innosight Institute