© 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?







  1. Great post!

    This is right on target with things I’ve also been pondering. I think that your situation of MOOCs with adult continuing education is fine because it does fit well with Freire, etc., but I would point out that post-secondary institutions in the US experienced a 235% increase in adult learners on campus over the age of 40 between 1973 and 1993 (I hear it’s similar in Canada but I don’t happen to have stats). Nevertheless, I think MOOCs generally belong on campus and not just in continuing education. Since the world is changing so quickly, it’s important to help students build the skills to navigate this new environment… work on building lifelong learning skills in undergrad.

    Regarding the competition between Continuing Ed and MOOCs, I’m a little less certain on what a proposed model might look like—I suspect that accreditation might be the piece that creates more harmony between the two. Both really do have similar mandates from what I can tell (doesn’t CE cross-subsidize to allow programs for marginal learners to exist?). I’d be very interested to hear/learn more about others’ takes on this aspect.

    As a former MOOC participant, an independent learner and an HRD practitioner, here are some of my messy thoughts on the experience: I think that efforts to reduce learners’ barriers prior to or early on in the course may provide a greater experience. Conducting a pre-course needs assessment might be one way to help to identify major areas of need. I also think goal-setting activities and storytelling early on, in addition to modeling behaviour throughout the course could help learners to grow more independent in this setting. However, this again raises the issue of the amount of attention the for-credit students receive versus those who are not—when there are thousands of participants, how does one assist? Volunteer mentors? Is this enough?

  2. Hi Tony,
    Here is my full post response:

    Below is my response to Tony’s post on more reflection on MOOC and MITx
    Here is my previous post where I shared my views on MOOC. Here Dave has also elaborated on what we could learn through the lens of rhizomatic learning and MOOC based on Cynefin Model.

    What is the value of MOOC, especially to HE? I think there is already a trend towards learning with the affordance of technology, tools, social media and different COPs and networks by both educators and learners in HE. Would we need to gain a better understanding of what these mean and what the impacts are on HE?

    MOOC provides an environment upon which learning with complex learning ecology is experimented and explored, so as to inform learners, technologists, educators and administrators (k-12, HE) and managers, engineers and learners from various businesses on the pros and cons of learning using various platforms or spaces in a complex digital landscape. That is the reality of what “authentic learning” means, and how it could be structured in a typical (future online) classroom environment, with networkers interaction with the networks, other people in the world, and a global environment. This would also help people to develop creative, innovative (though sometimes disruptive) solutions and practices in response to changing environment and demands, and to wicked problems. This would unearth the often good and best practices in simple and complicated cases, as experienced by each others in our institutions, and to refine the ideas for emergent learning, through interaction, participation and engagement in the networks and communities.

    These networked learning environment (MOOC) would provide more opportunities for experts, educators and facilitators, knowledgeable others and novices to share and learn together, without the hindrance and silo effect that is typical in a typical formal organizational setting. The communities that emerged from the MOOC would also form the basis of networked learning, as I have shared in my previous posts here, here and here.

    Staying as a lurker may also be a good way to learn too, for some people, as these lurkers have the opportunity to see how “experts”, “knowledgeable others” and active participants facilitate, interact and share with both similar or dissimilar views or opinions, and thus gain a better understanding on how these would impact on HE, K-12 education, the economy, etc. There are certain assumptions that I have made here. Without a MOOC as a precursor, I reckon we may just be looking forward to some networks, networkers, or opinion leaders, without any places (such as blogs) to share and discuss facts, opinions with dialectic discourse among us.

  3. >But I don’t see them as a replacement for formal education. I agree with Stephen: they are playing a different game.

    But what game are they playing? Are you suggesting MOOCs are replacing ConEd?

      • You’ve noted what are two main issues: scale and economics. Compared to ‘traditional’ ConEd courses, MOOCs operate in a much larger public forum, and with (generally) larger numbers. The price to participate in a MOOC is (largely) the participant’s time, whereas there is typically a monetary fee involved in a ConEd course.

        But what organization will operate MOOCs without recouping its costs?

  4. I am a college professor and am interested in the MOOC phenomenon primarily because it seems to have the potential to reduce demand for college professors. If Stanford can award hundreds of thousands of degrees online, why would anyone go to a lesser ranked institution (e.g., Iowa State U., where I work)?

    On the other hand, the residential college experience is unique and many graduates later regard their college days as the best days of their lives. This would be lost if traditional colleges are replaced by online versions. Likewise, despite the rewards of traveling by horseback, we seem to have shifted en masse to more efficient forms of transport.

    There’s also the problem that any type of online activity is subject to distractions from email, facebook, news sites, etc. I don’t let my students bring their laptops and smartphone to class, since they won’t pay much attention to me if I do. There’s no way to force someone to pay attention to an online course. I think this is one reason many people register for them but few finish.

    It seems that a lot will depend on employers. If they start accepting MOOCs as a way to credential workers, we may be out of business. Demand for college professors would decline, which would lead to a decline in socially beneficial research.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here