Sir John Daniel

Daniel, J. (2012) Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility Seoul: Korean National Open University

This is the most thorough, comprehensive and balanced overview and analysis of MOOCs that I have read. This is not surprising since Sir John Daniel has had a long and distinguished career in open and distance learning, including being President of the Commonwealth of Learning and Vice-Chancellor of the UK Open University. He is currently a visiting research fellow at the Korean National Open University and an Education Master at DeTao Masters Academy, China. He thus knows of what he speaks.


The paper is worth reading in full (by clicking on the title above to download). However, the paper covers the following topics:

  • what are MOOCs? The five year development of MOOCs to the present time
  • diverging pedagogical models in both xMOOCs and cMOOCs
  • completion rates
  • business models
  • new partnerships
  • MOOC platforms
  • myths and paradoxes of MOOCs
  • future possibilities


The paper contains a number of real ‘zingers’. Some of my favourites:

  • The real revolution is that universities with scarcity at the heart of their business models are embracing openness
  • The competition inherent in the gadarene rush to offer MOOCs will create a sea change by obliging participating institutions to revisit their missions and focus on teaching quality and students as never before.
  • It could also create a welcome deflationary trend in the costs of higher education.
  • We would not expect the current extensive commentary on xMOOCs in the US to consider events before the dotcom frenzy of 1999-2000, still less earlier developments outside North America such as the many open universities around the world. It is surprising, however, that little reference is made to the unhappy experience of some elite US schools with online learning in the mid-2000s.
  • A first myth is that university brand is a surrogate for teaching quality. It isn’t. The so-called elite universities that are rushing into xMOOCs gained their reputations in research. Nothing suggests that they are particularly talented in teaching, especially teaching online.
  • Because xMOOCs universities measure their institutional standing by the numbers who fail to gain admission to their campuses, they will be cavalier about high wastage and failure rates. This has been called the Passchendaele approach, after the World War I battle in which tens of thousands of soldiers were thrown at the front and died fighting for a few metres of land.
  • What decides whether or not a student can obtain a degree is determined not by their mastery of the courses, but by the admissions process to the university. This is an untenable nonsense.
  • Placing their xMOOCs in the public domain for a worldwide audience will oblige institutions to do more than pay lip service to importance of teaching and put it at the core their missions. This is the real revolution of MOOCs.


I have nothing to add. The paper stands by itself. I will be interested though (as will the author) in your responses to the paper.


  1. Hi Tony –

    Daniel’s paper is excellent! He does not touch on the cMOOCs, which in fact were the first development in the realm and have different focus altogether (ref. Siemens & Downes). cMOOCs are actually the real deal when it comes to openness. The move happening in the US towards xMOOCs is still being driven by joint venture money and start-ups, and very little of these developments are actually open in its full concept. Interesting times… I suggest considering this post from Groom:


  2. > I will be interested though (as will the author) in your responses to the paper.

    Aside from (incorrectly) calling me wistful, the paper doesn’t deal with cMOOCs very much at all, and much of what it says about them is misleading.

    – “which are known as cMOOCs and xMOOCs” and “which we shall call cMOOCs” – this is my terminology, introduced to draw out the distinction between our MOOCs and the others – the ‘x’ is adapted from MITx and EDx (which in turn probably adapted it from TEDx and Edgex); the ‘c’ stands obviously for ‘connectivist’

    – the wikipedia disclaimer was put in place before the second definition was written and does not address the second definition (though it probably should)

    – the “aim of the course” was not to “follow Ivan Illich’s injunction” – it was to offer an open forum for the discussion of connectivism. ‘Open’ because that’s how we roll. We’re all pretty sympathetic with Illich but it is a stretch to say we are ‘followers’ – the phrase “furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known” in particular doesn’t represent what we’re up to – quite the opposite, we want people to make their opinions known in their *own* websites, not ours

    – “In this spirit ‘all the course content was available through RSS feeds, and learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life and synchronous online meetings’…” This misrepresents the role played by RSS – we used RSS to aggregate content from different sites across the web – that’s what made it a network (something the xMOOCs still haven’t managed) – Daniel makes it sound as though we made it open by offering some content through RSS – that wasn’t it at all, not even close

    – “those who coined the term MOOCs and continue to lead much Web discussion about them draw little attention to this change” – I am perhaps paid little attention, but I think you’ll find frequent discussions of the properties of xMOOCs in my blog and newsletter

    – Platforms – the statement “Partly because they are so different, and partly because they exist behind proprietary walls, we shall make only general comments about MOOC platforms” – is quite misleading, at least with respect to cMOOCs. Three major platforms are used for cMOOCs, all of which are free and open source software:
    1. gRSShopper, the sofwtare I authored, used for the first MOOC and a dozen or so connectivist moocs, not mentioned anywhere in the article
    2. WordPress esp. with the feedPress plugin, used by eg. ds106
    3. Moodle
    The Siemens quote about platforms would have been more appropriately made when discussing intent and design.

    – “whereas universities own and operate multiple Moodle installations, the administrative components of MOOCs (especially if they begin to make extensive use of Learning Analytics (Siemens, 2010)) are too complex for a teaching unit in a university to operate without huge resources.” – surely an odd statement, and I’m not quite sure what the “administrative components” are that he refers to

    I think that Daniel is correct to point to the similarity between the current crop of xMOOCs and the elite universities’ previous unsuccessful forays into the world of online learning (does anyone remember Universitas 21 or California Virtual University?) but given that we (the cMOOC people) were around then and that this is what we built instead, it is all more disappointing that Daniel didn’t attempt more than a cursory look at cMOOCs.

  3. “Placing their xMOOCs in the public domain for a worldwide audience will oblige institutions to do more than pay lip service to importance of teaching and put it at the core their missions. This is the real revolution of MOOCs.”

    I would like to hope that becomes true. Shulman and the Carnegie Foundation have written before about how the first step to improving teaching is sharing and discussing it, creating a ‘teaching commons’.
    But it was pretty clear based on comments from a lot of MOOC students back in April and May that Coursera had the same old traditionally designed courses (talking heads), and yet Coursera is the MOOC provider that took off in terms of the number of universities adopting it. Udacity was at least trying to make things more interactive and effective. Perhaps it is because Coursera required so little work and change in teaching that most universities are adopting it, I’m not sure. As I pointed out in a post back then, none of the major MOOC providers are employing or consulting with anyone actually trained in how people learn and how to design more effective learning environments and online courses:
    But perhaps MOOCs that are ABOUT how people learn and how to design more effective learning environments will start to slowly steer things in a better direction. There are a few out there or in the works, such as mobimooc, oldsmooc, stanford’s ‘design a new learning environment’, etc.

  4. Thank you Tony for this excellent paper. I’m agree with S. Downes, telling that cMOOC can’t be compared with xMOOC, precisely because of their pedagogy. With 3 colleagues, I started a few days ago the first cMooc in french , “ITYPA Internet, tout y est pour apprendre”. We didn’t make this Mooc because of our knowledges in web search or whatever. We make it because we want to experiment a “new” peadagogy, a new learning ecosystem, where people build contents, where people are the course. Both my colleagues and I, we are looking something new in our relationship with knowledge, and with students. We can’t stay in the old armchair. We want to go forward, or just stay in our time (not so forward…) , because the Internet is in it, and we can’t turn to look at the former situation, when all the books, all the teachers, all students, were in the universities. So, I’m fully agree with S. J. Daniel when he write that elite universities are not necessary the best for those who just want to learn. May be the internet is the best place for them, for us. And I try strongly to show it, to experiment it, designing a new way to take people to this new planet, our planet.

  5. On the contrary, the paper does not stand by itself.

    xMOOCs are open only in the sense of being open to prescriptive courses and outcomes, if anything they exacerbate the micro-managed, narrowly prescribed outcomes that is the bane of Higher Education in the UK. The numbers are nice, if that’s all that education is about (not!).

    cMOOCs are open in interesting ways – open learning, open networks, open curricula, open ideas, etc. A group of practitioners / researchers has been researching these aspects of open learning for some time now, and we have just published an article in IRRODL which created a new 3D footprint to describe open / emergent learning, and to contribute to the tools you might need to design, evaluate, reflect on, emergent learning (in MOOCs, amongst other things)

    Might be of interest … see here:

  6. Nice to see that, overall, Daniel is critical of xMOOCs. Universities have rarely been interested in teaching, the traditional elitist recruitment policies of UK universities allow them to dump their values on students. American universities are more responsive to students as consumers and as they existing in a framework of constitutional politics have clearer governance procedures.
    I think the (US) elite University projects such as MIT OCW, and now the rash of x projects are “content push” approaches to get learners to buy into traditionally poor models of education course delivery whilst trying to cut costs. Stephen’s work on cMOOCs (however perhaps he should have called them DOOKs if he didnt want the term co-opted) is far more interesting and also qualitatively different being based on an epistemological position; one that is appropriate for the emerging network society. As I mentioned in my blog post Building Democratic Learning the current MOOC epidemic is trying to co-opt new and emerging forms of open and networked learning into traditional hierarchical models of accreditation, something we are trying to change on the WikiQuals project for example

  7. […] Daniel’s comprehensive review of MOOC developments Highly readable, well considered overview of the history of MOOCs, including a useful distinction between the two varieties, which differ enormously in pedagogical design: cMOOCs which embrace the open, creative, networked learning ideal and xMOOCs which follow a more traditional pattern of deliverin […]

  8. Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education (Dec. 13-14):
    Leading British Universities Join New MOOC Venture
    “Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open University, which is creating the new course-providing company, says the venture will have a “distinctly British” twist.”

    -spooked by moocs

  9. Hi Tony,
    You might like to know that Sir John’s paper has now been republished in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education. Only minor adjustments were made in the republishing and there is a brief editorial to accompany the article. Of course this is one of the advantages of CC-BY that reuse can be made of interesting content. Republishing does give the practical advantage of providing a reliable point for those who wish to reference this very good paper:
    DANIEL, J. (2012). Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. Journal of Interactive Media in Education. Available at: Date accessed: 20 Dec. 2012.

    Issue URL is



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