The term Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) is increasingly being used generically – covering all forms on 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.
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.
Image: CC BY-SA flickr/doctorow