Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Organizing freedom

Light chaos by kevin dooley, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by kevin dooley

One of my favourite songs by Björk has a great line: "I thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me." Although massive open online courses are not very Scandinavian the folly of trying to organize freedom comes to mind when considering the criticism that MOOCs are facing from many quarters.

If MOOCs are really going to change education they have to break away from traditional course structure and find a new model.  The original MOOC concept (cMOOC) developed by Siemens, Downes, Cormier and others is based on students forming networks, creating content, collaborating, discussing and basically taking charge of their own learning. The course leaders provide a basic framework and a common meeting place but otherwise students work things out themselves. The model is learner centred and there is no clear linear progression through pre-planned course modules as you would find on a traditional campus course or on a traditional e-learning course.

However the MOOC model made famous by Coursera and edX, often named as xMOOC, is rather traditional and resembles a regular campus or online course with a clear syllabus and organised group work. The traditional universities running these courses don't seem to fully realize that you simply can't organize 50,000 students the way you can organize 50. Teachers are trying to run a regular course and even trying to organize students into study groups using tools that simply aren't scaleable to that level. That's what happened to the Coursera course, Fundamentals of Online Education, that was suspended recently when it got too chaotic. A case of trying to organize freedom.

This is well expressed in an article by Debbie Morrison called How Does Collaborative Learning Work in Closed Online Courses vs. MOOCs?. She describes the differences between cMOOCs, xMOOCs and COLCs (closed, online, for-credit learning, course). COLCs are the regular online for-credit courses that universities all over the world have been offering for over 15 years. Organized group work is an essential element to these courses and group assignments are designed and monitored by the teacher. Teacher guidance is a key element since students are often unused to collaborating online. The mistake made by some xMOOC designers is to try to offer the same level of guidance and control. The sheer numbers of students makes this task impossible and we need to realize that MOOCs must be allowed to be rather chaotic and where outcomes are on an individual level rather than expecting everyone to follow the same path all the way.

"What we do know is that instructors involved with massive courses, with thousands of students can’t control the outcomes of course, can’t direct the learning in a given direction, and can’t use an instructional strategy and methods that work for traditional courses. But the concept of the Web as a classroom that can bring learning to thousands that want to learn about a given topic is There is great potential in reaching students all over the world, and many of these MOOCs have already changed and improved lives of thousands."

Massive online courses need a new model and need to be clearly differentiated from traditional university courses. They are not competing but providing new paths to learning. Exactly which methods work and which do not is still being worked out. 


  1. It must be hard to "control" 50 000 students with a pedagogy fitted for 50. That would take a big staff to make it work :D

    I think a developed peer-to-peer pedagogy is more likely to work. You know, with peer-reviews, peer-rating etc. Like a cMOOC.

    Thank you for the link to Morrisons article!

  2. Awesome thing is e-learning! I'd say that it starts to raise where nobody expected this, for example African countries. Check online learning Africa

  3. Just registered for #h817 which led me to this post. I'm a Scot in Denmark, have been through a couple of xMOOCs but am just as interested in how the 'courses' are managed on the ground - see

    Can you expand on your comment that "MOOCs are not very Scandinavian". I'm with you on the micromanagement angle, as far as DK goes!

  4. Hi Ann. I meant that MOOCs are so far not very conspicuous in Scandinavia but things are moving fast with both Copenhagen University and DTU announcing last week that they're joining Coursera. More will soon follow I suspect.