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MOOCs in Higher Education: Options, Affordances, Pitfalls (Part 1)

by Apostolos Koutropoulos

July 15, 2013


by Apostolos Koutropoulos

July 15, 2013

“Rewarding teaching and learning experiences can be had with MOOCs. This is the major opportunity. However, the role of the instructor needs reconceiving, and it needs to build upon what we know from research in online education. We shouldn’t be turning back the clock, because what works for a face-to-face audience does not necessarily work, as is, in an online environment, and in a massive environment it has the potential to fail massively.”

Recently, I was discussing the current state of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and their broader applicability to academia with colleagues. MOOCs started in academia and spread like wildfire in 2012 when certain “elite” Universities started offering their courses for free on the web through their own means or through venture-capital funded startups like Coursera. But my colleagues had questions. What about those Universities that perceive themselves not in the same league? Can they offer MOOCs as well?

Apostolos Koutropoulos’ 2-part article on MOOCs in Higher Education

In this article, I expand on the first part of the poster session I presented at NERCOMP2013 on MOOC pedagogy, technologies, and the role of the instructor. As you read this article, keep in mind that the goal isn’t to demonstrate that one type of MOOC is better than another. The terminology in this article means something in our current context. This is part one of two parts, and in it I will cover some basic history, the two types of MOOCs that have evolved to date, and some observations about technology and pedagogy. In part two, I will write about the role of assessment, credentialing, copyright, and some MOOC principles that I believe will be informative and useful.

cMOOC? xMOOC? What the MOOC?

If you didn’t know of the history of MOOCs, you’d think that MOOCs just appeared last year through a few enterprising individuals from “elite” schools. MOOCs certainly were the work of enterprising individuals, but they are certainly not that new, and they didn’t originate from “elite” universities.

In the beginning there was the MOOC, and the MOOC was good! Well, OK, maybe it didn’t happen in such a biblical way! But the (brief) background on MOOCs is quite interesting. MOOCs first appeared in 2008, with the development and offering of the Connectivism & Connected Knowledge course.

This type of MOOC has been retroactively named a “cMOOC,” or “connectivist MOOC” although I also think of them as constructivist MOOCs (see Wikipedia links at the end of this article for quick overviews). These cMOOCs are characterized by a certain DIY (do it yourself) or “edupunk” feel. In 2012, with the introduction of ventures like Coursera and edX, we saw the rise of what George Siemens in his July 25, 2012 blog entry called the xMOOC (please see the References for a link). The xMOOCs are another camp entirely, institutional courses materialized in Coursera and Coursera-like platforms.

MOOCs are an excellent example of the progression of the open education and open source movements that gave us edupunks, Creative Commons, open educational resources, and open courseware to name just a few things. Without some of these technologies, resources, and ethos, MOOCs and their precursors would not be possible.

Pedagogy and educational philosophy

Technology, pedagogy, or instructional design? Where to start first? All of these elements are integral in teaching and learning these days, regardless of learning context. It’s also quite important for MOOCs.


In thinking about the pedagogy involved, cMOOCs tend to focus on constructivist and connectivist approaches to learning. Whether you place any stock in connectivism is beside the point; this is one of the theoretical underpinnings of cMOOCs.

Learning happens when students interact with authentic materials, in learner-controlled spaces. These learner-controlled spaces often take the form of a personal learning environment (PLE), and in such spaces learners choose their connections and sources of materials. cMOOCs encourage active exploration on the part of the learner, sharing with other learners, generating knowledge, and reflecting on learning. If one were to compare a cMOOC to an on-campus course, the most similar type of course is the seminar. Another interesting note is that the cMOOC, more often than not, tends to be a collaborative effort in design and implementation. If you look at the last two years of cMOOCs, you will notice that most have had more than one facilitator interacting and guiding learners.


xMOOCs, up to this time, have tended to focus mostly on instructivist approaches to teaching. The instructor, along with a support team, record and serve video lectures to learners. These video lectures, along with any supplemental materials, are then practiced through formative testing, or laboratory simulations if applicable, and assessed in some sort of graded activity.

Pedagogy and opportunity

As far as pedagogy goes, the challenge lies in bridging the gap between the confining instructivism of xMOOCs and the perceived complete openness of cMOOCs. The goal is to help scaffold learners to enable them to be lifelong learners in open environments in order to enable them to pursue their own learning activities. Pure connectivism or instructivism shouldn’t be the goal. Your subject matter, the level at which it is offered, and your instructional goals should be dictating what method you pursue for teaching your course. An entry-level course, with no pre-requisites, can, and most likely will, be taught differently compared to a higher-level course that does have pre-requisites. Up to now, it’s been the case that xMOOCs are the courses with no pre-requisites, while cMOOCs have some sort of pre-requisites associated with them. While it’s not impossible for a learner with no pre-requisite knowledge to jump into a cMOOC, it is more difficult as they get bombarded with “basic” and “advanced” information in a course.

The opportunity with MOOCs of either type is that you can reach many learners, and proper design can help learners excel. The pitfall is not preparing your learners (or even the instructor) for the instruction style in the MOOC. One common issue for learners in MOOCs, especially cMOOCs, is the overabundance of information coming to them, from all directions, that comes from a constructivist and connectivist teaching style. By helping learners cope with the chosen instructional strategy you are helping them be a little more successful in the course.

Technologies Used, and Technology Considerations

The technologies used in MOOCs, of both types, do vary considerably. On the one hand you have cMOOCs bringing together diverse platforms to enable learning through a common platform and through a learner’s PLE. As such, we can consider cMOOC organizers as DIY type of people. Each cMOOC is different in that it can use a variety of different technologies to accomplish the learners’ needs and the designer’s intent. You can think of the technology chosen by cMOOC designers and organizers as the town square where learners come to listen, engage, share, and collaborate, but they are free to take their learning away with them to other spaces.

In the past, cMOOCs have used a traditional LMS, such as Moodle, as well as technologies such as wikis, blogs, Twitter, gRSShopper, or Wordpress—just to name a few. Learning Analytics & Knowledge 2011 used Moodle as their town square while Current and Future State of Higher Education used Desire2Learn. Other cMOOCs have used other technologies. For example, Introduction to Open Education 2011 used WordPress, while mobiMOOC used Wikispaces and Google Groups. Perhaps the most interesting use of technology was by GamesMOOC, which uses a guild-hosting site that allows guilds from massively multiplayer online games to create a spot for their groups outside of the game. This is quite apropos, given the subject matter of MOOC. All things considered, cMOOC technology seems to be chosen based on the intended educational outcomes as well as the pedagogical approach, and cost (free or close to it).

xMOOCs appear to be working mostly on standardized approaches to delivering and assessing courses, using LMS-like technologies such as the Coursera platform. These platforms for offering MOOCs seem to stem more from a traditional conception of what education is, and how educators should deliver it. Thus, these MOOC-LMSs have traditional predefined spots for elements such as content, assessment, and grading. The software design seems to be influencing the design and pedagogy of these initial xMOOCs. In an xMOOC the LMS is more like the museum. Learning can take place at the museum, but it’s pretty hard to engage with the material and with learners outside of the confines of the physical building. Thus, for some people, xMOOCs fail the “MOOC test” since they are not distributed, “distributed” being one of the hallmarks of a MOOC (Cormier, 2010).

Regardless of whether you go with a DIY or a MOOC-LMS, there are other considerations to keep in mind when it comes to technology. As discussed in a recent panel discussion (Koutropoulos et al, 2013), if you want to produce videos for your course, you need to think about accessibility (for example, captioning), storage of original video and final cuts, backups, creating archival materials, and, of course, serving these videos. These are major considerations if an institution decides to endorse and support a MOOC instead of the MOOC being just an individual faculty’s initiative.

When it comes to technology in MOOCs there are quite a few challenges. A key challenge is to scaffold learners to work and learn in massive online environments regardless of the technologies you pick. Motivation is a key factor in implementation. MOOCs are not like a traditional online course, so the same motions and notions from the learners don’t necessarily apply. Learners need to be able to feel comfortable learning in MOOCs, using and engaging with different technologies, and engaging with higher-than-average numbers of fellow learners. Part of this is helping learners develop a filter for information, and part of it is making sure learners coming to your MOOC have some basic information-literacy skills.

Distributed courses, such as those in cMOOCs, offer greater flexibility where technology molds around course outcomes, and not the other way around. This, however, increases complexity, and learners who are not prepared may feel overwhelmed and drop out. The major pitfall in using technology for MOOCs is also seen in traditional courses: starting with a technology can negatively influence pedagogy and instructional design, thus forcing you into a specific teaching style and delivery method. With the cMOOC crowd this may not be as big a deal; however, when institutions sign deals with a MOOC-LMS company these institutional decisions can, and do, affect pedagogy. Then the question becomes: how nimble are these platforms when it comes to adapting to specific pedagogical needs?

Role of the instructor

The role of the instructor varies as well between the two different forms of MOOCs. I should note here that these descriptive roles are from the perspective of a learner who has taken a variety of both xMOOCs and cMOOCs. This isn’t an exhaustive study, but rather an observation on my part.

 cMOOC instructor roles seem to revolve around the instructor-as-designer, and instructor-as-more-knowledgeable-peer. cMOOC instructors can be thought of as course facilitators, being where the action is, and in this role they seem to put the course together themselves and remain active in it throughout. It’s also not uncommon to have weekly experts facilitate different aspects of the cMOOC. The role of the instructor in cMOOCs has decidedly been one of “a guide on the side.”

xMOOC instructors, on the other hand, seem more like an authoritative SME, and sometimes a facilitator. A team of designers and implementers, and not necessarily the instructor herself, designs and puts together the xMOOC. The xMOOC currently resembles television broadcast-based courses, coupled with the immediacy of the internet to expedite communication and connections with peers. Instructors seem to be far more removed from the day-to-day activities of the MOOC, lending to a potential feeling of disconnect amongst the learners when they are not experiencing that instructor’s presence. Thus, most xMOOCs, to date, seem to have an uneasy balance between the instructor as “sage on the virtual stage” and that of “the ghost in the wings.”

 The instructor role and presence in a MOOC poses a considerable number of challenges and pitfalls, as well as opportunities. Instructors, for the most part, seem apprenticed into teaching, thus they replicate existing structures. Recording videos and playing them back is a regression of online education back to the mid-to-late 1990s. In the last ten-to-fifteen years we’ve learned a lot from research and practice in online education that we can put into MOOCs.

Rewarding teaching and learning experiences can be had with MOOCs. This is the major opportunity. However, the role of the instructor needs reconceiving, and it needs to build upon what we know from research in online education. We shouldn’t be turning back the clock, because what works for a face-to-face audience does not necessarily work, as is, in an online environment, and in a massive environment it has the potential to fail massively.

References and resources

Connectivism (n.d.). Wikipedia.

Constructivism (n.d.) Wikipedia.

Creative Commons.

Cormier, D. (2010) What is MOOC? Retrieved on March 8th, 2013 at

Edupunk (n.d.) Wikipedia.

Koutropoulos, A., deTorres, C., Girelli, A., Hyseni, R., O’Rourke, K. (2013). What the MOOC have we done? UMass Boston Shares Design Perspectives from Two Projects. NERCOMP Annual Conference 2012. Providence, RI.

Lane, L. M. (2009) Insidious pedagogy:How course management systems affect teaching. First Monday, Volume 14, Number 10 - 5 October 2009 Retrieved from:

Lucas, S. (2013) Instructivism. Retrieved from:

Open Learning Initiative.

Open Courserware.

Personal Learning Environments (n.d.) Wikipedia.

Siemens, G. (2012). MOOCs are really a platform. elearnspace. Retrieved from:

Siemens, G., Downes, S., and Cormier, D. (2012). How this course works.

Topics Covered

Appreciate this!
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I'm not sure how you can say that "MOOCs first appeared in 2008." Remove the word "online" from MOOC and you have International Correspondence Schools.
Prior to on-line there was difficulty in presenting massive or free (open) courses due to cost, and time required to get information from one place to another. Although radio based courses were going on for decades.

However I find the use of c and x a kind of jargon. Before there was connectivism there was student-centered learning where students determined content and before instructivism there was instructor-centered learning, where instructors determine content. Both of these are millennial old ideas, packaged in new words that spell checks don't recognize.
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