Experiences from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and how the MOOC could potentially increase diversity, social inclusion & learner engagement


There is currently much interest and excitement at the emergence of an educational approach commonly termed the ‘Massive Open Online Course’ or MOOC. These MOOCs are truly global in their reach, and can be massive with tens of thousands of participants. Whilst the approach is very much in its infancy the concept has gained traction in a short time and is developing and evolving almost on a month/weekly/(or even) daily basis. For many people much of their understanding about MOOCs will have been gained from reading about them in the traditional media.

I have participated in several MOOCs and wanted to present my experiences to the conference, and allow delegates to consider the positives that MOOCs could offer in and of themselves, but also how lessons can be learned to potentially improve on-campus courses.

What are MOOCs

As the name implies, in their original form these ‘courses’ are open in the sense that they are available for anyone to participate, they are at zero cost to the participants and the content is freely available without restriction.

Depending on the type of MOOC there may be no prerequisites to participation. Thus, some would argue, MOOCs have the potential to open up higher education to vast numbers of people who would not otherwise have access possibly due to gender, religion, culture, socio-economic background or a host of life events or supposed disadvantages preventing access. They can also bring greater breadth to the learning experience of traditional ‘campus-based’ participants, drawing upon cultural differences and past life experiences.

History of MOOCs

Dave Cormier is credited as coining the term MOOC in 2008 when he had a discussion on Skype regarding the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course (CCK08) George Siemens was running with Stephen Downes. A year prior to that Alec Couros ran the Social Media and Open Education open online course and David Wiley ran an open course based on a wiki. In turn these initiatives were founded upon a long history and research of open education and online learning and teaching.

These types of MOOCs were the only ones run until in 2011 Stanford made some of their courses openly available, which included the Artificial Intelligence course run by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. That particular course was successful in attracting 160,000 people who enrolled from 190 countries, aged from 13 to 70, including working single mothers, people in active war zones under attack, in short a diverse cohort of ‘non-typical’ Stanford students.

Fig. 1 Screenshot of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence MOOC webpage

Arguably, this initiative by Stanford is what took the MOOC concept out of the educational technologists’ world and propelled it into more general acceptance, fuelled by traditional media hype.

Following the Stanford AI course, Sebastian Thrun decided that he couldn’t go back to teaching in a class of maybe a hundred students at Stanford so he resigned his tenure and jointly set up Udacity.

Fig. 2 Screenshot of Udacity home webpage.

Also out of the work at Stanford came Coursera.

Fig. 3 Screenshot of the Coursera home webpage

And at the same time Harvard and MIT set up edX, with Berkley joining later.

Fig. 4 Screenshot of edX home webpage

Udacity and Coursera are for-profit organizations. Currently, they have a large amount of venture capital provided to them so that they can operate (e.g. $22m for Coursera). Ultimately, they with need to monetize their business concept. edX is different in that it is a not for-profit initiative. My understanding is that edX allows the institutions to enhance and improve their on-campus course provision by experimenting within these open online courses, in a continual feedback mechanism.

So, in their short existence MOOCs have undergone this schism into two distinct forms. The original format, based on a proposed new ‘pedagogical theory’ (or simply a ‘pedagogic view’) called Connectivism, is now commonly termed cMOOC whilst the other strand that has a more ‘traditional’ approach to course content transfer and where enrollment is required and the content isn’t ‘open’ is termed xMOOC. The latter has got most of the publicity and kudos for the concept, as George Siemens writes:

… let’s start by doing away with the “lone genius myth” of MOOCs. Thrun, Udacity, Coursera, and Stanford did not invent MOOCs. They did run them on a much larger scale than we have done with our MOOCs. They had better PR connections and better funding. Our own MOOCs, in turn, borrowed heavily from online learning research, our work with networked learning, and the experiences of conferences and online courses that are at least 20 years old. In academia, there is a desire for attribution, an acknowledgement of the origin of ideas. … Having the idea first is not the same as succeeding in commercializing and moving ideas into the public sphere. In regards to the ladder [sic], Udacity and Coursera have been wonderfully capable.

George Siemens

Adjacent possible: MOOCs, Udacity, edX, Coursera


Accessed 18 December 2012

The timeline of MOOC development is as shown:

Fig. 5 Diagram showing the MOOC development timeline


Accessed 7 December 2012

A slight aside to xMOOCs is Semester Online. This isn’t strictly a MOOC but interestingly some universities that have signed up with Coursera are also involved in this venture. Significantly, these are credit-bearing courses.

    • Semester Online is a for-credit, online program for undergraduates offering rigorous courses, where students will have access to renowned professors from multiple, highly selective institutions.
    • Courses are taught live, in small groups where students are surrounded by outstanding peers and guided by renowned professors – much as they would be if they were on campus.
    • Compelling, richly produced, self-paced course materials are designed with university faculty and are accessible 24 hours a day.
    • Familiar social networking tools allow students to connect and build relationships with peers from their school and other schools online.


Accessed 18 December 2012

The latest news about MOOCs include major announcements from the UK Higher Education sector. In July 2012 Edinburgh announced that they were joining Corsera in providing online courses. Then in about September time, The University of London also announce a tie-in with Coursera.

On 14 December 2012, The Open University announced that it along with a consortium of 11 other UK universities would be launching their MOOC courses on a dedicated platform provided by FutureLearn Ltd. an independent company but with The Open University as the majority owner.

The 11 other consortium universities are:

News articles relating to this announcement included:

my Experience

Participation in MOOCs

I now want to go on to expand on some of my experiences participating in MOOCs; the courses I studied, my thoughts on the process and learning experience, how positive or negative I felt each course was for me as an individual.


Change: Education, Learning, and Technology – Change11

My first experiences of participating in MOOCs was with the ‘Change: Education, Learning, and Technology’, Change11, course facilitated by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier. These three are considered to be the originators of the MOOC concept.

With this incarnation, the format involved a series of respected academics and speakers from the area of education, education technology (edTech) and the open educational movement, participating and interacting directly with the facilitators and course participants for a set week throughout the 35 week programme of the course beginning in September 2011. Guest experts included:

  • Martin Weller
  • Allison Littlejohn
  • Tony Bates
  • Rory McGreal
  • Nancy White
  • Howard Rheingold
  • Tony Hirst
  • Diana Laurillard
  • as well as Stephen, George and Dave hosting a week each themselves.

Each week generally consisted of some text, notes or other readings supplied by that week’s presenter. The topics covered included:

  • Digital Scholarship
  • History and future directions of open education
  • OER for learning
  • Slow learning
  • Authentic learning
  • Social Networks, Learning Communities and Web Science
  • Open Scholarship

Sometimes there might be a video session where the presenter might talk with four or five course participants; this tended to be at times which were more convenient to US participants than elsewhere in the globe.

The initial challenge of such a MOOC is orienting yourself, developing an understanding of the format and how to interact and participate in the most appropriate way for you. There was some introductory material from the course facilitators, including some video presentations, to assist participants in their understanding of MOOCs generally and Change11 in particular. Stephen in one of his videos explained about how individuals could follow along and participate throughout the entirety of the course as the facilitators worked with the weekly guest expert. However, Stephen emphasized how it was about you as a learner and that it was acceptable (and indeed encouraged) to dip in and out with your interactions, or ‘lurk’ following the interactions of other participants, or simply access the readings and other materials of direct interest to you.

As an individual it is your own choice how you want to record your own learning and interaction with the course material, the experts, the facilitators, other course participants and any other materials you or they might bring to the learning experience. So the choice of technology was generally up to individuals or groups of participants to decide upon what worked best for their needs. The technologies commonly used included blogs (WordPress and Blogger), Twitter, a Diigo Group (which I set up, owned and moderated), Facebook, Google+ and Google Hangouts (which came along when the course was underway).  All content relating to the course simply needed to be marked with #Change11.

It did initially take a little time to become familiar with the format. Primarily there was the supplied content to read and digest. However, once content and comments began to be generated by other participants there was a means to develop my own understanding from the interaction with the thoughts of other learners. From that a community of learners began to develop. This is perhaps the fundamental purpose of a cMOOC – it is its essential component – its essence if you will. The learning that happens is constructed from the connections made and the sharing with others.

I interacted extensively with others via the Twitter channel that developed. This was a very active medium with much lively discussion that including the facilitators and some of the guest experts. There were often links out to other interesting content and materials commenting on the week’s subject topic. There were links to blog posts from the contributors. Those that were deemed to be of significance would get retweeted and comments/discussions would develop around the blog post.

This process was personally a very rewarding experience for me. I enjoyed the process of learning with and from other learners; an exchange of views including with the facilitators and guest experts. It was challenging, sometimes uncomfortable but always dynamic, and engaging and very fulfilling.

I also maintained a blog where I recorded my own reflections about the course and my learning. Additionally, I created a group in Diigo the Social Bookmarking and Annotation service. This allowed contributors to share links to interesting material they came across on the web. This process has the advantage of creating an external library of interesting content that can be accessed into the future.

Some of the aspects about what have now been termed cMOOCs is that they are an experiment in learning and teaching in and of themselves, which can be interesting and exciting, and may also be frustrating at times. Because the technology being used might not have been used in this way before there can be problems. For example, the original video conferencing software, chosen because it was open source, was unable technically to deal with the requirements it was set and consequently broke. Testing of alternatives was hastily undertaken by the facilitators and a replacement was implemented. The aggregation software used to pull together all the content created by course participants and present it to everyone else is created by Stephen Downes himself and is available for anyone to use as it is open source. It is called gRSShopper and it can aggregate any content with an RSS feed (marked with #change11) and display it in a list of similar content via an email to a mailing list of participants.

I enjoyed participating in this course immensely. The community was large, vibrant, dynamic, thought provoking and challenging. The guest experts brought interesting materials and insight into their own particular areas of interest, research or work. As an entire package, Change11 work very well for me.

The level of involvement of the facilitators was very high in this course. This is something to consider if you intent to facilitate a similar experience.

Digital Storytelling – ds106

The essence of ‘Digital Storytelling’ ds106 is the creation of a ‘story’ or a ‘meaning’ using digital creation and creativity. It is learning by doing and also interacting with other contributors. It is run as an on-campus course at the University of Mary Washington in Computer Science and was started by Jim Groom, (the poster boy for EduPunk).

There are a number of ways to be involved and contribute to ds106. As an open online course it is possible to follow along with the syllabus as the on-campus course runs, either at Mary Washington or any other institution that has adopted and runs the course. There is an ‘assignment bank’ where you can choose to do any of the creative projects, with categories including:

  • Audio
  • Video
  • Design
  • Web
  • Visual
  • Writing
  • Mashup

There is a daily assignment that you can take part in, taking no more than 15-20 minutes each to complete. And there is the conversation on Twitter and constructive commenting on the works of others to become involved with.

… you succeed just by doing, by participating where you can, by sharing your work, and most importantly commenting on the work of others. More than just the cliché sense, ds106 is a community that is made better from the ideas and contributions of the people who come inside that door.

We do not give out badges or certifications, the creations you do, the connections you make with others, and just the experience of challenging yourself to tell stories is its own reward.

How to Succeed as an Open Participant in ds106 (with really trying) http://ds106.us/handbook/success-the-ds106-way/open-participant/

Accessed 13 December 2012

Again I used my blog to host and post the work I created for ds106. I registered my blog with the course and categorized content so that it could be aggregated back to the course website to allow everyone else easy access.

The level of creativity and the sense of community within ds106 is astounding; it has become a phenomenon. Many of those who have participated say that the experience has changed the way they consider things. It has become so popular that the server it was run on couldn’t deal with the volume of traffic and extra funding was required to purchase and run more hardware. Jim went to the ds106 community to make this happen by raising money via a Kickstarter project, with the level of funding required being reached within 24 hours.

I found this ‘course’ or is it a ‘community’ or a ‘culture’, a ’movement’, a ‘way of being’ a true revelation. The participation level of Jim Groom and the other course instructors was fantastic, more so than any other course I’ve participated in. The level of positive feedback is very high which leads to greater levels of engagement by participants. It is challenging. It can be difficult. However, I found that the level of effort and sense of achievement to be extremely fulfilling.

Although ds106 is a course run on-campus, it has become something much bigger due to the open online element. The feedback and experience the on-campus students receive from this supportive exposure to a worldwide community I would think is extraordinary for their learning.

I didn’t have long working on ds106 before I wasn’t able to contribute. However, after a year I am ready to dive back in again. This is one of the advantages of ds106 that it is always open to you to go back and participate.

Introduction to Openness in Education – ioe12

I happened upon a Tweet in January 2012 by David Wiley that the ‘Introduction to Openness in Education’ course he was running on-campus at Bingham Young University was also being run as an Open Online Course. The area of Openness is one of my primary interests. Consequently, I signed up that day and started taking the course.

This is again a slightly different incarnation of the cMOOC approach. There is a set of 12 topics related to Openness. Each topic has a link to materials that David has put together. This includes videos and readings. In the spirit of Openness, David makes all this material publically available via the web. Consequently, as a participant you are able to access the content of the course how and when you want and in any order.

Participation and understanding is developed by interacting with other participants of the course, as this extract from the course description outlines:

You participate in this course by blogging and tweeting (and in any other media you like – like YouTube videos – as long as you help us find them via your blog or tweets). After reading the articles and watching the videos – the passive part of the course – you engage actively by posting your thoughts, challenge responses, and questions in blog posts and tweets. You engage socially by reading, pondering, and responding to others’ posts and tweets. There is no quota for the number of posts or tweets that you respond to per unit time. These interactions should be organic and driven by your own desire and interest.

How It Works, http://openeducation.us/how-it-works

Accessed 13 December 2012

Once again I used my blog and twitter feed as my workspace for reflection and discussion. Posts and tweets were tagged with #ioe12 and I registered my blog with the course so that any content would be aggregated and shared with others.

In addition to the understanding you can develop from your interactions with the course materials and other participants, David has developed a form of recognition to certificate and demonstrate your understanding if you so wish. This is based on an Open Badge approach, similar to that of the Mozilla Open Badges Project. For the course there were four different levels of badges with a number of tasks to complete for each. They were categorised as:

  • OpenEd Overview (Novice level, complete for all 12 topics to earn the badge)
  • OpenEd Researcher (Apprentice level, complete for 3 topics to earn the badge)
  • OpenEd Assessment Designer (Apprentice level, complete for 1 topic to earn the badge)
  • OpenEd Evangelist (Journeyman level, complete for 1 topic to earn the badge)

These badges then parallel grades as follows:

  • No badges earned = F
  • 1 Novice Badge = D
  • 1 Novice Badge + 1 Apprentice Badge = C
  • 1 Novice Badge + 2 Apprentice Badges = B
  • 1 Novice Badge + 2 Apprentice Badges + 1 Journeyman Badge = A

Earning Course Badges, http://openeducation.us/badges

Accessed 13 December 2012

The advantages of this approach are that it is a well thought out and structured course which you can see has its origins firmly embedded in an on-campus course. There is strong and appropriate course material, but the course isn’t limited or confined by that material; indeed this is a springboard to the real learning process. Again there was an active, if much smaller, community of participants that developed around the course.

A particularly interesting element was the possibility of participants devising the criteria for a badge and for other participants to work to meet those objectives and be awarded the badge.

Personally, I found this a very rewarding course to follow. The way that the badge system was organised in the course enhanced the subject understanding process with ‘deep level’ learning happening. The only possible negative I encountered was the lack of direct interaction with David Wiley himself on the course.


Coursera – The University of Michigan’s Social Network Analysis

I decided to take xMOOC courses to see how they compared with the cMOOC principles. Originally I signed up at the same time for two separate courses where the subject matter was of personal interest; ‘Social Network Analysis’ run by Lada Adamic, Associate Professor in the School of Information and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan, and ‘Computing for Data Analysis’ run by Roger D. Peng, Associate Professor of Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. From the onset I realised that I’d be unable to dedicate the time required to keep up participation on both courses so I decided to follow the longer, more involved of the two, the eight week course on Social Network Analysis.

The delivery of the course took place in the Coursera standardized course delivery environment, perhaps in that respect it can be likened to a Learning Management System (LMS). However, this environment could be said to be less than intuitive. Initially I was a little lost and it did take some time to orientate within the course. If this is typical of Coursera, then generally the environment allows the course tutors to deliver content via videos as well as accompanying text. For the course I took, this format actually seemed to work as a reasonable delivery mechanism. There was some ‘talking head’ element, but as the course was also heavily involved with data analysis using software packages, including Gephi the open source data visualization package, there were lots of screencast demonstrations and discussions relating to those demos within the videos. As I often view videos (on YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) to gain an understanding of any software I might want to use, this format within the course worked well for my approach. As a participant it was easy to stop the videos and flip to the software to try things out. The creation or generation of datasets wasn’t covered in the course, so datasets were provided and it was these that I used to work with within the analysis software. The videos had quizzes embedded within them, this was a useful means of immediate feedback on understanding. It was a process of taking the quiz and if you got it wrong then you could access the explanation. It also meant that you could go back over that portion of the video to reaffirm your understanding. However, here is where a very positive element of the course structure also was significant, a learner community developed very rapidly in the discussions section of the course environment. There other ‘students’ would help and advise on any problems others might be having. General discussions about the topics also ensued to allow greater understanding of the topics to develop.

It’s been a terrific experience for me to be able to teach and interact with students from so many different places, professional stages, and interests. I was impressed by the variety of insight you brought to the forum discussions, from sharing practical tips on software tools to discussing wide-ranging applications, to questioning fundamental assumptions. I hope you’ll all go forth and apply your newfound knowledge in interesting and meaningful ways.

Social Network Analysis Course Staff email to participants

Sat, Nov 24, 2012 at 6:33 PM

Assignments (or graded tests) were set at the end of each week. This was all integrated and facilitated within the environment. However, again it was difficult to locate where the assignments were within the environment without searching around or finding out from the forum. Also, there was no introduction to what to expect within the assignment part of the environment; it wasn’t stated that multiple attempts were allowed, that it only registered when you clicked the submit button, that you could save your answers part way through.

There are no qualifications granted by either Coursera or the host university for taking or completing the course. However, there is the potential of a certificate as a reward for ‘successful’ completion of the course sent out as a pdf from the instructor. These effectively simply state that you have done the course to a standard.

This element of the course was detrimental to the level of my own learning during the course. Initially on starting I was much more interested in the learning element of the course; developing an understanding of Social Network Analysis. I did find it difficult to get through the additional reading material associated with each week of the course, but I could manage the videos including the in-video quizzes. I also managed to complete the regular assignments. However, with taking a weeks holiday during the course, which meant that one assignment was then late and incurred a penalty, it became more difficult to keep pace. At that stage I started to pay less attention to my own level of learning and more to my grades with a view to the certificate at the end. My learning strategy moved from ‘deep level’ approach to a ‘strategic level’ working at applying the system to achieve the grades I required for the ‘pass’ standard (Marton and Säljö, 1976). This was no longer a personally rewarding learning experience, but a strategic exercise at course completion with surface level learning at best. There is the possibility for me to re-access the course materials to concentrate again on the learning, but I feel I have missed an opportunity to achieve this during the course.

One major element of the software architecture used to run Coursera courses allows the gathering of large amounts of data about participation, as evidenced by this email extract:

Some participation stats: 61,285 students registered, 25,151 watched at least one video, 15,391 tried at least one in-video quiz, 6,919 submitted at least one assignment, 2,417 took the final exam. 1303 earned the regular certificate. Of the 145 students submitting a final project, 107 earned the programming (i.e. ‘with distinction’) version of the certificate.

Social Network Analysis Course Staff email to participants

Sat, Nov 24, 2012 at 6:33 PM

There was also a questionnaire sent out to gather more data about participants and their motivations for taking the course, including a question asking if you would be willing to pay for a certificate of successful completion and if so how much.

An interesting development in the last month is that a careers services has been started by Coursera which any registered user can sign up for and have their details and course achievements paired with companies seeking those skills. It is being suggested that companies such as Google and Facebook might use such a service. This is also one of the options for Coursera to monetize the business, another being pay-for completion certificates by students.


I think for me that throughout each of the MOOC experiences, the communities that developed centred on the learning were a significant element of the process regardless of the format of the ‘delivery mechanism’ of the course. Sure, the xMOOCs can be considered to have a much more ‘traditional’, transmissive teaching approach, and people can and obviously do choose to vote with their feet if that approach isn’t suitable for their needs.

I personally always feel uncomfortable saying that one learning or teaching approach is ‘better’ than another for whatever reason. I feel that possibly each has its own merits in certain contexts for different individuals. Possibly what the technology has allowed to happen is that there is greater choice for individuals, allowing them to participate more fully and take more control of their own learning experience. This might be a mixture of different processes for different topics or even within the same topic.

The attrition rate on xMOOCs is very high. There could be a number of factors influencing this. Certaining I could see how the environment itself could deter engagement due to the user interface not being intuitive enough. Also the sheer number of courses to enrol on does allow (if not encourage) sign-up to multiple courses, which could lead to dropout from at least some of the courses (if not all) from a feeling of being overwhelmed. However, an argument often put forward is that in actual terms the numbers completing courses is still very much higher than you would see attending an on-campus course at any university.

I believe that whenever an element of accreditation is introduced, and the level of accreditation is certainly a hot topic for discussion within the context of xMOOCs more broadly, then the learning experience is fundamentally altered. For me in the xMOOC this was altered for the worse.

Whilst the xMOOCs continue to remain free (and no one can predict how long this situation will persist) I intend to access them and use them to learn, but on my own terms as much as I can within the course framework. The challenge for me is the timeframe that courses run in and the need to concentrate on deep level learning without having my attention pulled away to the certificate ‘prize’ and surface/strategic learning approaches.

For the quality of the learning experience, I therefore believe that the deeper interactions and greater level of understanding that I have experienced from the cMOOC approach has been much more beneficial to my lifelong learning experience, though it might have much less impact in the area of career advancement.

So what can be drawn from my experiences of different MOOCs?

I feel there is much we can learn from the delivery of MOOCs that can be used to enhance the on-campus experience supplemented by online course material and delivery. This format offers us the opportunity to investigate learning and improve teaching processes, perhaps more similar to the edX approach. It would seem appropriate to collect and use data to inform this process; treating learning and teaching as a field ripe for research, tying in to a research-led approach.

Are there threats or challenges?

The Open University has a project to research different aspects of online learning to provide academic rigour to what works, how it works and what the benefits are.

The areas, I believe, which are most under threat from the xMOOCs are courses run by The Open University that people might take out of interest or for professional development. Recent increases in costs of these make the choice of ‘free’ (as in cost) online courses more appealing, particularly out of interest. Other areas that could be hit include taught postgraduate courses at conventional universities. As they exist at the moment they don’t really replace the on-campus undergraduate experience at these universities, though they could supplement them. However, with recent announcements, The Open University has shown how it is agile enough to swiftly react to any changes in the educational landscape. They are informed about future possibilities by performing the necessary preparatory research in advance. They have the infrastructure, resources and technical ability to produce a MOOC platform, and the knowledge to run high quality courses.

Patrick McAndrew, professor of open education at The Open University, noted that free course materials attract two kinds of users: the “students for free” and the “social learners”, who use the material as a jumping-off point for meeting other students.

“Some of the more recent free large-scale offerings are attracting ‘students for free’ – however, there are also interesting approaches around more radical course design that leaves more of the structure to the participants.”

Teaching intelligence – This game is wide open,

Times Higher Education, 1 November 2012


Accessed 14 December 2012

From the xMOOC perspective there are several challenges that need to be considered. Perhaps the primary one is that of monetizing and subsequent sustainability. There are considered to be eight possible monetization strategies:

  • Certification (students pay for a badge or certificate)
  • Secure assessment (students pay to have their examinations invigilated)
  • Employment recruitment (companies pay for access to student performance records)
  • Applicant screening (employers/universities pay for access to records to screen applicants)
  • Human tutoring or assignment marking (for which students pay)
  • Selling the MOOC platform to enterprisers to use in their own training courses
  • Sponsorships (third party sponsors of courses)
  • Tuition fees

Certainly the first three in the list are already being seriously considered or have been implemented.


So there are a number of viewpoint regarding MOOCs and their impact on the educational landscape. There are stark polar views that the traditional media and others are trying to portray about MOOCs replacing existing higher education systems. I’m not sure that is the case, but then perhaps anything else doesn’t sell copy. And even though there are parallels with the music industry, etc. currently the end product of higher education is controlled differently. However, that could quickly change. But also, unlike the music industry, to some extent it is market leaders in higher education who are attempting to control any changes that happen.

What these current events can facilitate is that questions about education are asked and that serious discussion can occur.

  • Do online courses have to be structured as traditional courses?
  • What are the existing tensions between education as a business or a public good?
  • Is it still legitimate to restrict access to education?
  • Indeed, what is education for?

The xMOOCs seem to be trying to replicate the existing educational system but on a larger scale, and reducing the cost. It feels as if the openness part is simply a stepping stone to achieving these ends and it is a massification of education, or at least a new stream of potential mass revenue, that is the motivation. There is a risk that MOOCs will gravitate towards a massive medium for delivering what education systems already deliver.

In some ways, technology is the factor that has allowing this massification to take place. Many would argue that this is a positive; knowledge is no longer a scarcity or just the purview of existing educational systems. However, there is still some intrinsic value provided by these systems in the structuring of learning paths, supportive scaffolding of learning experiences, and to some extent legitimation of the experience. A MOOC is simply a platform to allow an educational experience to take place. This can be a rich experience, with the technology allowing greater interaction of participants with the course materials, with the facilitators and with each other. Alternatively, as with any educational platform, the experience for learners can also be a poorer one.

Statistics that have emerged (e.g. Inside Higher Education article) about the participants of the early xMOOCs show that the majority tend to be professionals who already have a degree and are following the course out of interest or to help with continuous professional development in their current role. Interestingly, the majority of participants are from outside the USA. So to some extent they are widening participation into the US higher education system, and providing a potentially new revenue stream.

However, I believe for these xMOOCs to deliver on all the hype and rhetoric about changing the existing system of higher education, they have to deliver a number of things, including:

  • a sustainable business model
  • widening the participation base to include greater diversity of socio-economic background, gender, culture, religion, disability, pre-existing educational experiences (or lack of formal education), etc.
  • large improvements in participant retentions throughout the course period, requiring greater engagement and sense of achievement through the experience
  • and remaining free.

MOOCs as they exist at the moment might not be around for very long. However, they are causing existing higher education providers to consider their business models, and for governments to consider education policy generally.


Marton F. and Säljö R. (1976) On qualitative differences in learning. I – Outcome and Process’ British Journal of Educational Psychology 46, pp. 4-11

Further Reading


Tony Bates #change11 – post 1

I’ve lost track of the weeks already. Not sure now whether this is week 5 or 6. Anyway it is the Tony Bates week.

Well I didn’t know about the webinar on Sunday, so I missed it. I’ve subsequently listened to the audio file provided by Stephen. I’m not a fan of revisiting the actual webinars; I find the interfaces rather clunky for that, alright to participate at the time but not afterwards. The accompanying slides are available (as a pdf). And there’s also a blog post by Tony.

Tony’s thoughts raised some interesting questions with me, which I’ll try to weave into the notes I made as I listened along.

Notes & observations

Tony’s work involved examining how technology was integrated within institutions. From those sampled, institutions were ranked as to how technology was integrated into the teaching. It was identified that the main goals for institutions were to

  • put in an IT infrastructure; lecture capture technology, wide-band wi-fi, etc.,
  • improve administration,
  • enhance classroom teaching (the classroom teaching is good, we just want to make it even better).

Fully online courses tended to be separate and different to the on campus courses, and made up 10-20% of enrolments. Most technology institutions were using (apart from clickers and so on) were learning management systems (LMS). Conclusions were that institutions were very conservative in their goals for leaning technologies. What they were doings was adding cost without demonstration any measurable benefits to learning as measured by better outcomes or the same outcomes at a higher level.

At institutions where learning technology was integrated well, the senior management were all singing from the same hymn sheet. This included from the admin side. They had all bought into the idea that technology was core to the future of their institution. They had a shared vision across the management team as to where the institution was to go, and how technology would fit into that, they had set measurable strategic goals, they were beginning to put into place more effective governance mechanisms, i.e. working out how decisions were to be made about the use of technology.


  • Enhance 21st Skills including independent learning, entrepreneurship, etc.
  • Embed technology into subject discipline is critical.
  • Cost effectiveness – measurable benefits.
  • Senior management communicate goals, develop plans, and fund those plans.
  • Decisions need making at all levels, particularly at programme level, but also faculty and institution level.
  • Strategic thinking rather than just planning.

In several institutions L&T Committees had little power, they were advisory rather than decision-making. Often their advice was ignored even though they were the loci of where expertise about technology was concentrated. There was a rapid growth of learning technology support units. This in part is due to faculty not having the pedagogical skills to use technology effectively. There were cases of central expertise being under used and faculties hiring in experts for a limited period with that expertise being lost at the end of that period.

A possible model for managing resources better and enabling students to grow their own learning was suggested. When students first come into university there might be higher levels of dependent learning and greater levels of face-to-face might be appropriate. As they move through their learning programme they should become more independent and the level of online learning might be more appropriate.

So one of the questions Tony asks of us is whether universities can change from within or if new institutions are required for the 21st Century. Unless there is a disjuncture then there is no incentive to change. The system seems to be self-perpetuating. The training (or apprenticeships) of research graduates to become the next generation of lecturers and academics in the same ways as previously is at least partly responsible for this, as are the pressures for advancement through publication in closed, peer-reviewed journals. (This links into previous weeks from Martin Weller and David Wiley.) In addition, the driver for continued status quo of assessment and ratification of qualifications is increasingly driven by employers. I recently heard the argument for ePortfolios being used as a means of demonstrating knowledge to employers as a nice idea, but in reality employers aren’t in the business of assessing the intellectual ability of candidates, that service is provided by universities. Can change come from within? I’m not sure it can at the moment, not unless strong external influences apply appropriate pressure to make things change.

Interestingly, Tony’s findings showed that there was little work undertaken by institutions to actually calculate the costs of delivering teaching in different ways. There was anecdotally driven beliefs that online learning courses were cheaper/more expensive/just the same cost as face-to-face delivery. A current task I have is to look at the actual uses an installed enterprise solution collaboration suite is being put to for learning and teaching in academic departments across a UK university. I’ll attempt to document this objectively and analyse whether other solutions exist that might provide the same or superior facilities and the costs involved with each.

Some years ago, I analysed how the functions of a LMS where being used across the institution. There wasn’t a cost put on this usage, in fact the question wasn’t even asked. Instead of thinking, everywhere else has one of these, students will expect it, we should have one, maybe we should be analysing the individual cost and usage of such systems, and working out whether they provide added value to the learning experience or not.

Upgrade Me via BBC iPlayer

Last night after finishing a blog post I sat back and watched “Upgrade Me” on BBC iPlayer.

In this Simon Armitage the poet and gadget lover (which I didn’t know until seeing the programme) investigates the obsession people have with technology and gadgets, and their seemingly endless need to have the latest gizmo. He travels to South Korea, which has transformed itself in the last 30 years into the most technological country in the world.

I think this is well worth a view but I don’t know how long with will be available on iPlayer for, so apologies if you’re already too late to watch it.

Quick Info to users

Posed in response to Is there a problem?

Just had a quick thought (untried and untested).

What could be done is that various information could be aggregated; the CiCS twitter feeds, the IC twitter feed, RSS from the service page, PC availability, and pull out useful, relevant and immediate information from the HelpDesk knowledge if there is a problem.

This could be aggregated using something like FriendFeed or an online portal (say Netvibes or Pageflakes). The URL can be provided to all users for them to access directly and the aggregation displayed on the plasma screens in the IC and elsewhere.

Given the time, I’ll mock something up.

The Student Learning Community – Learning & Teaching Conference, Sheffield, January 2008

The presentation for this conference paper, including embedded video, is available.

For me Web 2.0 is a philosophy – a way of working and living, as much as it is the software and services commonly expressed as web 2.0

It is this concept that the Student Learning Community aims to capture when the concept is realised.

Starting from the basics. There is now an ever increasing number (on a daily basis) of services, software and facilities that can be run or accessed over the web. Many provide additional functionality beyond what is available via the desktop on a PC or even a Mac. And an additional appeal is the zero cost of many of them. Because they are online they are easily accessible from different devices; anytime, anywhere. And they can allow collective or collaborative working, or sharing of resources.

This vast host of services and functionality can enable quicker, smarter, easier, more creative and imaginative ways of working. And it is this specifically I envisage the Student Learning Community fostering amongst individual students and the student body more collectively. But another important factor is (as already mentioned) that there are far too many services and software for any one person to keep pace with, and a community approach is, I believe, required to enable groups to really take advantage of what the technology offers. Similarly, as the quantity of information mushrooms, there will be an increasing reliance on others to act as filtering mechanism for us, and a need to cultivate learner discernment of information quality.

Inquiry Web 2.0 technologies allow for new ways that learners can undertake their personal research. New structures for organising data are created, along with new sources to refer to, new forms of authority, and new tools to interrogate this rich space of information. This can enable students to become empowered as independent learners. But it also brings challenges to both learner and academic colleagues. Web 2.0 knowledge structures are not navigated with the same tools or the same ease as more traditional documentary collections. And students will encounter problems of authority and the ephemeral nature of web ‘knowledge’.

***** Clip of Alistair Warren ****

A quote from Charles Leadbeater about web 2.0 based education provision:

“… [it] require[s] us to see learning as … something that is done peer-to-peer, without a traditional teacher … We are just at the start of exploring how we can be organised without the hierarchy of top-down organisations. There will be many false turns and failures. But there is also huge potential to create new stores of knowledge to the benefit of all, innovate more effectively, strengthen democracy and give more people the opportunity to make the most of their creativity”. The Observer, March 9, 2008

*** image ***

Why should the University be interested in something that it won’t necessarily be formally supporting or receive credit for?

The philosophy of the Student Learning Community is that it enables students to study in new ways preparing them for a different marketplace for graduates and a changing world. The University is supporting the idea of students and the student body, possibly via the Students’ Union, developing this for themselves. Students may want to use it to integrate their study activities with more social aspects of life and this could provide a middle ground.**** Paul – the middle ground clip ****

We are solidly behind what the community could provide for our students.

They become familiar with concepts:

  • of working co-operatively and collaboratively to achieve something,
  • that they can be responsible for developing greater things collectively without an authority setting the framework,
  • that people can work for things without financial incentive **** Clay Shirkey ****
  • that now we aren’t necessarily dependent on or reliant on one particular way of working with a specific set of software, but that we should be developing a more fluid approach, as Martin Weller puts it **** Slidecast ****
  • and that they become familiar with different forms of literacies to express themselves, particularly Digital or Media Literacy.
From the Education 2.0? Designing the web for teaching and learning, Teaching and Learning Research Programme:
“Literacies Culture stimulates a form of intelligence that is ‘literate’. Schooling cultivates a distinct orientation towards language, to which interactions with writing are crucial. Digital media stretch this tradition by offering new modes of representation and expression. Even the term ‘literacy’ now has to be stretched to admit other forms of representational fluency than those associated with the printed word. As learners engage with digital artefacts through web 2.0, so the curriculum must address the challenge of developing their confidence with new literacies and their increased potential for creativity.” p9Expressive activity with digital material has become a realistic ambition for users, and the activity has been socialised through the growth of internet outlets that permit sharing, publication or broadcasting.
In which case, shouldn’t these services and software be integrated into the curriculum?Well some of that is happening to some extent in areas across the University. But there is a lag with how quickly the technology can be implemented across an institution. And, quite frankly, universities can’t keep pace with the speed of technology innovation. There are pockets or excellence, examples being the work of Howard Rheingold at Stanford, Michael Wesch at Kansas State, and Stephen Downes in Canada; all of whom are incorporating interesting aspects of web 2.0 directly into the curriculum, in parallel to researching its educational potential and investigating novel learning and teaching processes.

**** Michael Wesch clip – new media in education & portal **** 1:11

As was reported by JISC in March 2008:

“New pedagogical approaches can evolve in isolated pockets within institutions and are not always embedded into wider institutional practice, or shared more widely across the community.” JISC – Student Experiences of Technology and e-Learning, March 2008

So, we are taking about graduates increasingly competing in a global marketplace. Here at Sheffield we are looking to emphasize what sets the Sheffield Graduate apart from other graduates, the skills that this Student Learning Community can provide to students has enormous potential, beyond what could be provided within the undergraduate or taught postgraduate curriculum. There are other aspects, like the Open Science Notebook concept, which are gaining ground across the academic community that could influence research postgraduate practices and act as an extension to their CV online. I did submit a paper into this conference about that, but it wasn’t successful – perhaps a little too radical. But if you  have an interest, please do follow it up and contact me.

If the students are interested in this thing, why haven’t they created a community themselves already?

Well there are examples of individual students investigating, working with and being creative with these types of technology and services; I’ve had the pleasure to work with some.

I’ll let Michael Wesch tell us about the demographics of YouTube from his research.

**** Michael Wesch – demographics clip **** 31sec

You see that the majority of our students fit into the largest portion of this demographic.

Here’s and example from a student studying at Sheffield.

***** Ben Marshall clip ***** 1:47

YouTube or Daily Motion or whatever video hosting site is just one aspect of this concept.

But with regard to setting up a large student community to promote these practices, well the fact is that it is really quite a revolutionary idea so it’s not necessarily something that people would think of doing.

Also students won’t necessarily, without being shown it, see the benefits of what a community that focuses on what technology can provide for them in their studies.

That’s where the project comes in.

  • We can provide a platform and environment to host the community.
  • Then we need to seed the environment to get things started. As with all communities, as you are probably aware, they need a significant initial input to make them successful.
  • We then need to capture students’ imaginations to make them see the benefits and use the service.
**** me – audio – benefits to students – what is the hook ****
If it was going to happen on its own, let’s face it, it would probably have happened already.***** Alistair – sense of community & catalyst ***** 2:31

Couldn’t this be done on existing social networking sites, for example Facebook?

Well, yes it could. There are a number of platforms that such a venture could be hosted on. Indeed, prior to the inception of the Student Learning Community I played around with developing such environments using a mash-up of services. Some of those investigations I presented jointly with Jamie Wood at a workshop on e-Research as part of an international conference held in Manchester. A slidecast of that presentation can be seen online. This was partly responsible for how I originated the idea of the Student Learning Community.

Here’s a clip from that regarding my use of communities for technology and software.

***** Clip from Slidecast *****

As Edward Maloney stated, “social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have shown, among other things, that students will invest time and energy in building relationships around shared interests and knowledge communities”. The Chronicle or Higher Education, 53, 18, p.B26

**** image *****

Joseph talks about how Facebook could now be integrated into other services using mash-up.

**** Joseph – Facebook clip ****

However, a recent survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of JISC, of UK undergraduates found that over half regarded social networking sites as potentially useful in ‘enhancing their learning’. However, only a third thought that their lecturers or tutors should use social networking sites for  and over a quarter said that university staff should definitely not use social networking in their teaching. As the authors concluded, “evidence shows that using these sites in education is more effective when the students set them up themselves; lecturer-led ones can feel overly formal”.14 p21

**** Joseph – Staff not provided *****

So this information influences the shaping of what is provided.

Consequently, the project group that was set up looked at a number of possible platforms. After a lot of thought and investigation it has been decided that the ClearSpace platform that is being rolled out across the University for a number of functions; including learning, teaching and research. This means that we can support the platform more easily. However, the section of ClearSpace that is given over to the Student Learning Community won’t be open to everyone, particularly staff, unless the community want them to be.

Hold on, will there be separate sections for different levels of study?

Well this conference is specifically aimed at the postgraduate student experience. But as you can see the Student Learning Community is not separated into different years or levels of study, and this is intentional. There is an initiative within this University to encourage the use of research practices and higher level study approaches to find their way into the undergraduate curriculum. This community seems the ideal opportunity to encourage direct linkages between postgraduate activities and undergraduates.

Indeed, when I am looking at these web 2.0 tools I’m always considering their educational potential. And when I’m personally using them, it is generally more at the level of how the research student could benefit from their use. In this respect, I’m please to have the opportunity to discuss concepts directly with the research postgraduate here, Jez Cope. Jez is going to explain something of the concept from the research postgraduate angle.

**** Jez’s Spot ****


Nature Network
Picture + a quick description

**** Joseph – sense of community ****

School of Everything
The School of Everything is a social networking service with the motto –  “Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach”. It looks to connect individuals with an interest in learning with individuals who are willing and able to teach. The service is not primarily aimed at for-profit tuition and is intended to stimulate a ‘bottom-up’ supply of teaching.

An evaluation of a closed social network environment at the University of Westminster called CONNECT is due out in early 2009. Even though CONNECT parallels the more general uSpace environment we’ll have here at Sheffield, I’m hoping there may be some information addressing how students are setting up groups for work.

***** Demonstration *****

A Student driven learning community on this scale does seem to be truly novel.
The University of Sheffield really is at the cutting edge with the idea.

The Man from JISC, he say …

Recently I had the opportunity to work closely with Dr Jamie Wood; giving some advice on the technical aspects of using social bookmarking software in a series of first year History seminars. Jamie has an interest in experimenting with innovative technology to enhance the learning experience, and possesses the technical ability to see it through. Part of my role was to act as what’s know academically as a ‘critical friend’, giving him tips on how he could best use the technology for his and the students’ needs. I believe this model of technical advisor and academic working in partnership is a good one, and certainly worked well in this instance.

Difficulties can arise when faculty don’t readily want to relinquish any control of the course or it’s content and may lack the skills to effectively integrate social learning activities and collaborative, dynamic content generation into the teaching environment. Social Bookmarking can provide a bridge for this gap by allowing an easy to use, engaging tool for managing web resources on course topics, with minimal implementation cost or barriers. An added bonus is that it can overlap with faculty [academic] research areas thus appealing to faculty’s [academic’s] desire to include their own scholarly activities in their teaching.


  1. an instructor can use it as a framework for students to explore the web,
  2. push out resources specific to a course of discipline,
  3. use it as an assignment to get students to find relevant resources to share with the entire class.

Students need to be able to critically evaluate what they are reading. They have to be able to justify their choices for selecting those resources. Social Bookmarking is great for teaching Information Literacy with an instructor led discussion about a set of resources and then what is a quality resource. Students learn more when they are actively engaged and have a sense of ownership of these materials in their own learning processes.

(Extract from ‘Pedagogic Implications of Social Bookmarking‘, accessed 6 Nov 2008)

Jamie wrote about what he did in ‘Social bookmarking software helps students to generate resource lists‘ on the University’s Good Practice wiki (accessed 6 Nov 2008).

Working with academic colleagues on implementing technology into their teaching practices is rewarding in itself. But this isn’t the end of this story. JISC currently has a project running looking at innovative uses of technology in learning and teaching. They found out about how Jamie was using Social Bookmarking and were interested in developing a Case Study for the JISC website, which necessitated them sending a representative to interview separately me and Jamie. The interviews took place the first week of November.

The guy they sent had worked in supporting computing services and lecturing computing for a good many years, now working for the Open University, but had a degree background in Physics. Also he knew Sheffield quite well, talking about the first head of Computing Services who he knew, and the fact that one of his sons studied Architecture here. So we had a lot to talk about over lunch.

After signing the appropriate release forms, the actual recorded interview lasted just over an hour. I was asked to explain in some detail how technology had been used in the History seminar programme, what I’d expected would be achieved, how I’d supported the process, what I would suggest doing differently, and how I saw things going forward. All quotes will be attributed to The University of Sheffield rather than any individual. I look forward to seeing the actual Case Study when it is published, and am proud to have been involved with the whole activity.