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Making sense
of MOOCs

by David Kernohan,
Jisc programme manager

You regularly hear about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but what does this term actually mean, are there different types, how do they work and more importantly what does the future hold for this type of learning? Jisc Inform has asked David Kernohan, Jisc programme manager to help us fill in some of the gaps.

MOOCs and Open Courses – what’s the difference?

The term MOOC is increasingly being used generically – covering all forms of online learning at scale. But to do this makes a number of unsafe assumptions around intent and pedagogy – simply grouping everything by the price of the course is not enough. All MOOCs are not the same and all online learning at scale is not a MOOC!

As a part of the evaluation and synthesis conducted around the UKOER programmes open education consultant Lou McGill has diligently teased apart the differing terms and concepts around open education. Her classifications around ‘open courses’ are a very helpful way to make sense of this ever-changing field. (You can see Lou McGill speak about the wider findings and implications of the UKOER programme evaluation, alongside Professor Allison Littlejohn of Glasgow Caledonian University and me, in an Open Education Week Webinar entitled ‘What You Can Learn from UKOER’).

Lou suggests xMOOCs, cMOOCs and Open Boundary courses as three distinct threads running within the wider weave of what might be commonly termed MOOCs. This is a much more sharply delineated version of the analysis of the space that I wrote about on this blog last year (‘Where there’s MOOC there’s brass?’), but it rings true given the way that the enormous levels of hype have polarised the community.

Lou suggests xMOOCs, cMOOCs and Open Boundary courses as three distinct threads running within the wider weave of what might be commonly termed MOOCs.

Lou McGill
Open education consultant


xMOOCs are the ones you’ve probably read about: the Courseras and EdXs (and maybe FutureLearns) of the world. The classic characterisation of these involves a video lecture from a star professor, students marking each other’s work and maybe the option to purchase a certificate of completion at the end. But even within the walled garden that is Coursera’s bespoke platform there are variations, as individual lecturers attempt to design appropriate experiences to best support learning around a particular topic. But at their worst, xMOOCs can simply replicate the problems with existing mass higher education, such as insufficient direct contact between teacher and learner, and the demand that learners work at the institution’s pace, rather than their own.

cMOOCs were the first MOOCs, based around theories of connectivism developed by Canadian educationalists and MOOC pioneers George Siemens, Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes and others. These are characterised by an almost chaotic structure, with an emphasis on building and fostering a community, often making use of blogging and social media in place of a classroom-like learning environment. cMOOCs can offer a lot of benefit for more confident and advanced learners, but require a great deal of effort and understanding to penetrate.

Open Boundary (or open classroom) models differ from both of the above in that they are based on a traditionally delivered, in-person course at a particular university. Open students study alongside fee-paying students, with both seeing benefits from wider collaboration and access to a huge variety of resources. Jisc and the HE Academy are proud to have supported one of the first UK examples of this type of course with Phonar and Picbod from the Coventry Open Media Courses project.

Free access to higher education is understandably a popular idea – it is not so very long ago that our government guaranteed it to ‘all who could benefit’ from it. But free online courses can offer far more than just a limited replication of the offline experience. As the dust settles, and the venture capital moves elsewhere, it is the courses that offer the most transformative learning experiences that will flourish... and these may not be the names you have read about.

(This article originally appeared on the Jisc blog)


Tom Mitchell, Jisc’s e-communications
officer, tells us about his experience of a
musical MOOC

Outside of the day job I like to dabble in music. Having been writing and tweeting about MOOCs at
Jisc for the last few months I decided to actually sign up for one with Coursera and enrol on the
Berklee College of Music Songwriting course.

At the time of writing I'm three weeks into the course. I am pleased to report that I'm finding it more
stimulating and engaging than I initially expected an online learning experience to be.

Each week I log onto the clear and minimalist course portal, where a news feed keeps me updated
with announcements, reminders and anything important I need to know. A new lesson is
released every Friday, comprising a series of video lectures and quizzes, along with
a peer review assignment.

All the work is done within the portal and can be saved and returned to at any time.
Once the weekly assignment is complete I then read and grade five other students'
work. An average mark is applied to each assignment with results available
to view a few days later.

I can engage with other students and the tutor at any time through the easy-to-use
and well-categorised message boards. I have already shared some ideas
and comments on aspects of the course with fellow students in America, Ireland
and Australia, and have also been able to get opinions from around the world
on the current state of my songwriting.

Support is always available and I am enjoying being able to study in a way
that totally suits my schedule and works around my day job. It goes without saying
that this MOOC is a totally different animal to the university degree I studied for
when I was 18 and it is not really appropriate to compare them from a social or
personal development point of view. But as a freely available source of genuine
knowledge and peer review it is really rather good.



Five interesting experiments in online learning

A look at any newspaper would suggest online learning has stagnated into a big xMOOC monoculture. But Jisc has always been interested in the emerging stuff, the practice that is currently off the radar – and for me this is primarily in the open class area. Here are a few examples of things I am watching with interest.




Phubu (Phonar for us by us) – Coventry University – Phonar made such an impression with students at Coventry University that when administrative changes meant that the staff involved could not lead the course in 2013, the students took matters into their own hands! A student led open-class, across multiple channels. Will end with an exhibition in May 2013.



Talons (Bryan Jackson) – Bryan is a compulsory-level teacher at Gleneagle Secondary School, British Columbia, Canada. He has responsibility for the gifted and talented programme and has made open classes a feature of their learning. We’ve been invited to share with and support his students as they learn guitar.



H817Open (Open University, Martin Weller) – Martin has been one of the leading lights in UK open education for years now, but this is a new venture for him – he’s opening up participation in his masters level online education course. At the time of writing this has yet to start, but I’ve signed up and am interested to see what he does with it.


School of Open, P2PU

School of Open, P2PU – P2PU has been around for a few years now, but the school of open is a newish venture aiming to support educators in learning more about openness. Their emphasis is on collaboration and working together... real practice what you preach stuff.



DS106 – University Mary Washington and elsewhere – I feel like I have been talking about this for years, but DS106 (emphatically ‘not a silly mooc’) sets the standard for open classes, sharing and creativity. An unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that includes a radio station, daily creative challenge and vibrant community amongst its many assets.



FutureLearn – a hope for the future. At the time of writing details have been light, but if the Open University can successfully bring its existing knowledge and insight around online delivery to the world of the xMOOC then there is potentially a lot to be excited about.




Contact David Kernohan.

Follow David on twitter @dkernohan.

Follow Tom on twitter @bristoltom.


You might like…

If you liked this article you might also find these of interest:

Fancy joining Tom on his course? Enrol here.


See what else Berklee College of Music has to offer.


Read our press release on the launch of Futurelearn.


Have a read of Jeff Haywoods blog – No such thing as a free MOOC.



Your thoughts…

What are your thoughts on the topics covered by this article, we’d love to know…


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