26 June 2012

On two kinds of MOOCs

There are two kinds of massive, open online courses around (MOOCs), the Downes-Siemens kind and the kind that mostly (uniquely still?) universities in the USA offer. The archetypal example of the former is PLENK10, a course on personal learning environments networks and knowledge, which ran in September 2010. An example of the latter is the Introduction to AI course, taught by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Google's Director of Research Peter Norvig. Sui Fai John Mak makes a serious attempt in a recent blog post entitled What are MOOCs all about to make sense of the differences between these two kinds. He differentiates between them in the following way (my emphases):

Downes-Siemens type:
1. Those MOOCs based on a connectivist approach – with learning focusing on the learning process, with network construction and navigation, where connections, interactivity, diversity, openness, autonomy are emphasized.  ...

US Universities type:
2. Those MOOCs based on an instructivist – behavioral/cognitivist (blended with constructivist) approach – with learning focusing on the learning outcomes and thus are basically content based, where learners are guided by the main instructors, and are also assessed based on either the machine based assessment tools or peer assessment.

So, in his analysis, the key difference is one of a different underpinning by learning theories, connectivist versus instructivist. Although this certainly is a correct way to differentiate between the two, I don't believe this goes to the heart of the matter. In my view, the key difference between the two kinds of MOOCs is one of underlying of ideology. The education-theoretical stance merely follows from that.

For Downes and Siemens openness is key to their ideology, they want to change education as we know it by being totally open in an attempt to empower the learner vis-à- vis the powerful institutions that schools and in particular universities are. Their view is very much in line with the ideology that underpins the open universities of the world, which arose in the seventies and eighties as a means to emancipate and liberate those who for some reason had not been educated to the full extent of their capabilities. The online character of their MOO-Courses is what gives the openness unprecedented opportunities, massiveness is not an intended effect but rather a collateral one (and their courses are  not massive at the scale that the other type is).

The other kind of MOOC embraces a simple business ideology, and as such is almost the antithesis to the first kind. Its proponents emphasize the aspect of massiveness, which allows them to stretch the benefits that result from economies of scale maximally. Although emancipation etc. may be a result, for example in areas where educational opportunities are hard to come by, it is not really the intended result. What they ultimately aim for is recruiting excellent students from the masses these courses serve. Openness, then, is not a goal in itself but a means to the end of massiveness. The online character of these MOOCs is the only way to achieve massiveness at vanishingly small costs for each additional student.

Is there anything wrong with this state of affairs? Yes and no. To start with the no, it is quite all right that people attempt to innovate education, for we need to do so to sustain our knowledge-hungry societies. And indeed both kinds of MOOCs qualify as educational innovations. However, we should not mistake them for what they are. Calling the two kinds of MOOCs by the same name doesn't help to spot the large differences that exist between them. And it certainly doesn't help to uncover their antithetical ideological underpinnings. Pinpointing those is important for the learners, so they know what they are getting themselves involved in. But it matters even more to educational institutions when they consider adopting either kind of MOOC. The ultimate question is whether you see education as a means to prepare people for the knowledge society we live in or as a way to get a head-start in the competition for the talented. So ultimately, it is about the kind of university you want to be.

Note: after finishing this post, I came across a blog, which discusses business models for MOOCs. It says Udacity has suggested that it might double as a headhunter for companies that might like to hire some of its more impressive students. That is exactly the kind of difference I am referring to.


  1. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles.

  2. Concise and to the point ~ very useful. I roll connectivist but am familiar with both models and have completed one x-mooc, follow more. Trying to explain the differences to colleagues familiar with only the x model (and that often 2nd or 3rd hand) is frustrating. Such a limited approach is not at all helpful to anyone in higher education trying to navigate the changes. I suspect many find c model even more threatening but the x's make easier targets


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