Stephen Downes in full flow - a sight to behold
Stephen Downes in full flow – a sight to behold

The conference

Last week was a hell of a week. I was at a two-day conference in Lyon, France (jet-lagged most of the time with a nine hour time difference) then at another three-day conference in Lisbon. So I’m trying to catch up. I’ll start with the Lyon conference.

The conference in Lyon was organized by Entretiens Jacques Cartier, an organization that promotes collaboration between universities in France and Canada. The topic of the conference was ‘Cours massifs et ouverts en ligne adaptés aux besoins du 21ème siècle’ (MOOCs adapted to 21st century needs). However, I prefer the French acronym CLOMs (Cours Libres, Ouverts et Massifs). The purpose of the conference was to ‘provide a comparative analysis of the state of the art of MOOCs to enable teachers, training managers and academic researchers to build MOOCs tailored to satisfy their goals and student needs.

As this is the third conference in a row I’ve been to that has been about MOOCs, there is not a lot more to say that I haven’t said already. I gave more or less the same presentation that I gave at MIT in the summer, on what lessons 25 years of research on online learning might have for MOOCs. Other speakers included Stephen Downes, Sir John Daniel, Richard Hotte of Téluq, Québec, and speakers from France, Belgium, Switzerland and several francophonie countries in Africa.

A combination of jet lag and a weakness in understanding French meant I missed quite a bit of the substance of the conference (sorry!) Nevertheless there were a few things that were very interesting and worth reporting.

Stephen Downes

I have heard Stephen speak before, but this was by far the best presentation I have have heard from him. He ‘outlined the major elements of a connectivist MOOC, with particular intention to distinguish it from other models of MOOCs, and to make the point that assessments of quality and effectiveness should be related to the goal of the MOOC model developed. In addition, in this presentation he addressed the subjects of diversity and community, and explained why a MOOC should not be thought of as the same thing as a community.‘ It was in essence a well explained and well defended exposition of his philosophy of learning and learning communities.

I’m not going to begin to provide a summary of this – it is too rich and complex to cover in a series of bullets – so I strongly recommend that you download his slides and above all listen to the audio recording of his presentation. (The slides, while amusing, don’t add a great deal to the substance of his talk). I will at some point make a personal review/critique of his theory, but at this stage I want to praise the clarity of his presentation, and to just state how devastating it is that Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng, Daphne Koller, Anant Agrawal and the rest of the Ivy League computer science crowd have completely misunderstood and moved contrary to the basic tenets of the connectivist MOOCs designed and supported by Stephen, George Siemens and Dave Cormier.

The ultimate irony of course is that Stephen cannot sue the bastards for breach of copyright, because his MOOCs and ideas are open to all, however badly others may abuse them.

FUN with MOOCs in France

As of November 2013, everyone (students, employees, job seekers etc.) can register on the France Digital University (FUN – France Université Numérique) website. Online courses (or MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses) designed by higher education institutions will begin in January 2014, in various disciplines: mathematics, history, philosophy, biology, law etc.

So says the English version of the web site of France Université Numerique, although for francophones there is more information here. In essence this is a French language portal funded by the Government of France’s Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche, although FUN will support francophone MOOCs developed using the edX platform. Forthcoming MOOCs include ones on digital multimedia and on mobile networks and yes, there is also one on French philosophers.

Contributions from francophone speakers

Stephen Downes provides detailed notes on the contribution from the francophone speakers, who in general offered examples of experience with francophone MOOCs (relatively few to date), pragmatic issues about quality and pedagogy, and more reflective ideas about the impact on privacy, English language hegemony (one of my favourite words), and the nature of knowledge.

What is clear is that MOOCs have gained much more traction, and much more quickly, in France than credit-based online learning has over the last 20 years. Credit-based online learning in general is relatively undeveloped for a country of its size and importance, with much of it being done outside the universities themselves, through organizations such as CNED (Centre National d’Enseignment à Distance). In this sense, MOOCs have been a wake-up call for French universities.


A report on a conference for Presidents, Rectors and Vice-Chancellors of open and distance learning universities held in Lisbon last week.


  1. Is very important not only that many Educational institutions, from many countries, implements the MOOCs, is very necessary they entail the associate research to this process in order to continuous improving of this newfangled and challenging pedagogical practice.


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