October 19, 2017

Discussion of MOOCs: more links and questions

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.

Best scams in online learning

Lewin, T. (2011) As Online Courses Grow, So Does Financial Aid Fraud New York Times, October 13

I know I shouldn’t do this, but you have to respect the ingenuity of scam artists. This article lists a series of frauds and scams enrolling ‘ghost’ online learners to defraud the US government student loans service.

I’m not sure why this is thought to be easier or more worth reporting than enrolling in a face-to-face course then disappearing – can someone explain this to me? Do we have any instances of ghost campus-based students ripping off the US Federal loan program – or do newspapers just focus on online learners?

Anyway, I did enjoy reading this – but then I’m not a college admissions officer or a VP admin. (Now you know why).

NYU partners with University of the People


NYU's Abu Dhabi campus

Lewin, T. (2011) Partnership to Further Global Quest by N.Y.U. New York Times, June 8

New York University, one of the most selective, elite private universities in the world is partnering with the brand new,  ‘free’ online University of the People, which caters primarily for very poor Third World students in places such as refugee camps, emergency tent cities in Haiti, and  sub-Saharan Africa. NYU aims to offer places and scholarships to a small number of the University of the People’s ‘best’ students at NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where the tuition fees are $53,000 a year. Perhaps of even more significance, several of NYU’s top faculty are working with the University of the People, presumably for free and with the support of the NYU administration.

de Vise, D. (2011) University of the People: Tuition-free higher education Washington Post, June 14

This article provides more information about the University of the People, a free online university.

  • founded in 2009 by Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur, who used some of the money he made from selling a for-profit school to Kaplan
  • has to date about 1,000 students in business and computer science out of 30,000 applicants, and 2,000 volunteer instructors, some from prestigious universities
  • admission requirements: high school completion and English language competency (all courses are in English)
  • not yet accredited anywhere
  • has developed a partnership with New York University.

See also: One year update on the University of the People


The University of the People is an interesting and worthwhile initiative, but it seems to me it needs a stronger financial base or at least a wider base of support. Too much seems to rest on one person, its founder, for it to be sustainable in the long term, and it needs to find some way of getting recognition or accreditation if it is to increase enrollments.

I think NYU is to be commended for giving its support to the University of the People, which is a genuine attempt to provide mass higher education to those who otherwise could not possibly afford it. The gesture of offering a limited number of places to U of the People’s best students is important symbolically, and I really like the fact that staff from NYU are encouraged to work with the U of the People. I would like to see all public universities encouraging this.

However, it still smacks of charity. I’d rather see a sustainable, publicly and internationally funded business model for institutions such as the University of the People, so that they can reach ever more potential learners with high quality online education. In the meantime, though, the partnership with NYU is a valuable way to establish legitimacy and to raise the reputation of the University of the People.

Free, perfect and now? A new online university

Lewin, T. (2009) On the Internet, a university without a campus International Herald Tribune, Jan 25

An Israeli entrepreneur with decades of experience in international education plans to start the first global, tuition-free Internet university, a nonprofit venture he has named the University of the People.