Rodriguez, O. (2012) Vast Lurker and No-lurker Participation in Open Online Courses: MOCCs and the AI Stanford-like courses respectively Osvaldo Rodriguez, March 3

Siemens, G. (2012) MOOCs for the Win! ELearnspace, March 5

Lewin, T. (2012) Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls, New York Times, March 4

Following my two earlier posts on MOOCs (Some critical reflections on MOOCs and More reflections on MOOCs and MITx) and a response from Stephen Downes and Sui Fai John Mack, I am adding three more posts that deliberately or accidently continue the discussion.

George Siemens

First let’s start with George Siemens, one of the original designers of a particular kind of MOOC based on a connectivist approach. His post sets out some of the history behind the development of MOOCs and responds to a post from Clark Quinn and also to my two posts.

In conclusion to his post, George Siemens write:

It is important to realize that MOOCs are not (yet) an answer to any particular problem. They are an open and ongoing experiment. They are an attempt to play with models of teaching and learning that are in synch with the spirit of the internet. As with any research project, it is unlikely that they will be adopted wholesale in traditional universities. Most likely, bits and pieces will be adopted into different teaching models. Some systems will offer open online courses as a means of drawing attention to their university. Others will offer MOOCs because it’s an effective way of getting out an important message or to raise awareness about certain topics.

Any or all of those adoptions of MOOCs are not really a concern for me. I’m more interested in experimentation and exploring new modes of interaction online. I’m not concerned about whether or not existing university systems adopt MOOCs for undergraduate education or whether they serve to improve continuing education. That kind of discourse appropriates MOOC concepts to support the narrative of the existing education system. Which is fine.

But that is only one way to look at MOOCs.

Osvaldo Rodriguez

Osvlado is an Argentinian blogger and he has a very interesting post that compares participation rates between different kinds of MOOCs. He makes the distinction between MOOCs such as the Stanford AI MOOC based on a cognitivist-behaviourist methodology and ‘connectivist’ MOOCs, such as #Change 11 and EduMOOC.

He ran a statistical analysis comparing EduMOOC with the Stanford AI MOOC that showed that after a few weeks, active participation in EduMOOC had dropped from 2,700 to just over 100. The Stanford AI MOOC started at around 160,000 active participants then dropped rapidly to a pretty steady 25,000 active participants a week. He argues that although less than 10% of the original ‘starters’ in the EduMOOC actively participated, there were a lot of ‘lurkers’ reading but not otherwise participating, whereas with the Stanford AI MOOC, students could not lurk; if they did not take the obligatory exams they were ‘non-completers’.

His summary:

From previous studies it has become evident (George Siemmens 2012) that we are in the presence of different formats:
    • the AI-Stanford participants have totally different learners goals and preparation than those in MOOCs.
    • there exists a very different nature of the subjects studied: engineering  and  educational theory.
    • the AI-Stanford course falls into the cognitive-behaviorist pedagogy category and the MOOCs  into the connectivist.
The retention and lurker behavior described above adds another differentiation to the previous list.
In my view, though, the study raises more questions than it answers.
  • First what counts as success? It seems to me that 25,000 students successfully completing a course on AI is pretty good. However, losing over 95% of participants in the EduMOOC and ending up with barely 100 active participants does not seem very successful.
  • Does this mean that cognitive-behaviourist design is more successful than a connectivist design? I don’t think so. Other factors have to be taken into consideration.
  • Is connectivism on its own sufficient to achieve success on an online course, or could other strategies, such as better software for organizing content and better learning design, increase participation rates, maintain active presence during the MOOC, and above all lead to deeper learning?
The New York Times
This article is a report on a number of MOOCs, but focusing particularly on the Stanford experience.
First I found it interesting that  ‘an additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos‘. This says a lot about the quality of face-to-face teaching, as well as the online course. If you design a course in a very cognitive-behaviourist way it lends itself to automation. Shouldn’t the face-to-face class have been doing something different?
Second, as usual, mainstream journalism over-hypes the development. Headlines such as ‘Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls’ and ‘Welcome to the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses — known as MOOCs — a tool for democratizing higher education’ sets up (again in my view) unrealistic expectations for what is a very interesting but still developing phenomenon. It also by implication undervalues the already excellent online teaching and open learning programs that are going on in a less publicized way in formal education. For instance, reading the NYT, one would think that the UK Open University had never existed, nor that many leading universities and colleges are offering thousands of online courses and have been doing so for many years.
In particular, the designation of MOOCs as ‘democratizing education’ really needs to be carefully examined. Presumably, 135,000 learners who wanted to learn about AI were disappointed or unable to follow the Stanford AI course. If this was really about democratizing education, these students should have been accommodated in some way.
With regard to connectivist MOOCs, I worry whether they are just preaching to the converted by reinforcing participants’ existing knowledge or values, or whether they lead to significant change in learners. They may do or they may not. We need more research on this. Octavo’s simple research study, although valuable, just reinforces the need for more thorough research, and we also need more experimentation, with different designs and approaches.
So I am definitely agreeing with George Siemens here that MOOCs are a fascinating, valuable ongoing development, but let’s approach them in the spirit of critical analysis and research, with the aim of constant improvement and refinement.


  1. The discussion of MOOCs here is timely and insightful…and a bit more thoughtful or analytical than in many other blogs which have recently begun to discuss MOOCs. I have read some very enthusiastic and optimistic comments that view MOOCs as ‘the answer’ to education’s problems. But exactly which problems are being solved is not really addressed.

    The recent implementation of MOOCs by various individuals or institutions provides an opportunity to test the waters and to hear the feedback.

    The suggestion that MOOCs may be best for continuing ed and PD (rather than formal ed) seemed right to me, but then I read some of the comments by folks who had difficulties even with this application: I quote from a LinkedIn Forum:

    “LinkedIn Groups

    * Group: Higher Education Teaching and Learning
    * Discussion: Massive Open Online Courses

    I participated in my first MOOC this past fall. I say that in the past tense because although the MOOC is going on I have effectively dropped out. I was very interested in the subject — Change in education — and have a very positive regard for the organizers — Stephen Downes and others. But the course was scheduled for 26 weeks and I found my interest peaked after about 10-15 weeks. Plus other commitments began to reestablish themselves higher on my priority list. So that would be one learning for me regarding MOOCs. It may be very different for others, but I need a definite beginning and ending point for learning experiences like MOOCs. And 26 weeks (the planned time for the Change2011 MOOC) was too long.”

    Tony…are you still involved in the Change2011 MOOC? What is your experience?

    • > let’s approach them in the spirit of critical analysis and research, with the aim of constant improvement and refinement.

      Well, yes. Clearly. What we have developed so far needs to be improved. I think that will be a topic of discussion this week as Dave, George and I will all be in the same place. Nowhere near Canada, but in the same place nonetheless.

      – in its fourth iteration, the CCK course is played out, at least for now. And in its 26th week, the Change11 course is running on fumes. So there are expiry dates. But my newsletter, which incorporates many of the same elements, is more than 10 years old. So there are forms that can have continued life. Not that that’s good or bad, just an observation.

      – all the s=courses start off with a lot of people and decline fairly quickly, leaving a core about a 10th of the original signup. Not necessarily good or bad, again, an observation.

      – can we do something better than readings and online discussions? Something more than photo-shopping movie stills, or filling out AI-graded tests? I think so, I have some thoughts – but this is a form that will require a lot of work.

      – when there’s no ‘content’ per se, how do you define learning, let alone evaluate it?

      I don’t think the answer to any of these is to go back to curriculum, scaffolding and testing. But we are far from defining what will work as the alternative.

    • Thanks, Linda, for this.

      I actively participated in the Change 11 MOOC until about week 15, and am still following the discussions through the Change 11 newsletter.

      I think the point is that different people will take different things from such a MOOC. Once a large number of people is reached, they then tend to sort themselves out, which is why I think MOOCs are more suitable as a form of lifelong learning or continuing education.

      What I think they do raise as a question is the importance of discipline in learning. No learning is easy and some people have tremendous self-discipline, but most in my experience do need structure and deadlines and scaffolding. There is also another meaning of ‘discipline’ and that is an organised body of knowledge with certain requirements for ‘success’. This may appear old-fashioned now, but I still think there is merit in the idea. That’s what makes formal learning different from MOOCs as at present but I don’t see why they couldn’t be adapted for this purpose.

      The real barrier is what I call the business model – how can MOOCs be financially sustaining in the long run? The Udacity model is not good one for me.

  2. Hello,

    Has any organization already set up or plan to offer a ‘connexionist’ Computer Science MOOC ?

    It would be an interesting data point.

    More generally, what I find funny is that both
    (AI / computer science) and (education theory) are useful and relevant and are being experimented
    for MOOCs in a slightly recursive way but that only the motivations for
    a presumably marketable skill (basic general knowledge on AI techniques) hosted by top
    hiring prescriptors (VPs of Google Inc.) have succeeded in retaining an active following.
    In fact, Udacity’s public business model is to get money through companies looking for
    prospective job candidates.

    I am not persuaded either the learning model was the main variable here. Something which does
    not appear in Osvaldo summary is that not only learners’ goals and preparation were different
    in the case of the AI course (as well as the less mediatized ML and DB courses). They were
    highly heterogenous : students of the AI Class came from almost every country of the planet,
    almost every language group, with prior programming and mathematical experience ranging
    from middle school to PhD, from programming newbie to successful startup founder and in age from about 10 to 70.
    This is the same pattern currently going on in Udacity’s CS101.

    There were also a very strong, repetitive, in a certain sense ‘connexionist’ quality to the AI course, and qualifying it
    as ‘cognitive-behaviorist’ could be misleading in many respects. From the start, spontaneous student groups sprouted from the course’s practice, organized themselves through the aiqus forum, reddit and a few other means, recognized and helped themselves accross generation and ability.

    All this is quite well documented in the forum and the course’s archive.

    • Thank you, Octave. This is very interesting and emphasises the importance of not jumping too quickly to conclusions or oversimplifying what is going on in MOOCs.

      As with all forms of learning, there are many variables.

  3. Picking up on Stephen’s point about #change11 running on fumes, I’m starting to draw a comparison with a blog. If a blog has no fresh content (admittedly, my own blog is an example at the moment), then there isn’t much to talk about, synthesize, reflect and comment upon, etc.

    Change11 seems to be suffering from a lack of fresh content at the moment. We haven’t had speakers for two weeks at a late point in the course when other fresh content from blog posts and discussion threads is also very low. Had the speaker schedule been lighter in the earlier weeks of the course, I’m guessing we still would have had lots of fresh content as people digested their thoughts and shared them through blogs, tweets, bookmarks, discussion threads, etc.

    In any case, I am grateful for the handful of people who continue to reflect upon change11 and share their items that are harvested by The Daily, a fantastic tool of Stephen’s that I will miss when these courses end.

  4. MOOC is really a nice option, it happens that nowadays we have not so many open opportunities to gather people and discuss a common topic. Moreover, its pretty funny and makes ordinary discussions not boring


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