Sunday, January 9, 2022

MOOCs - so much more than course completion

I started this blog way back in 2008 and that happened to be the year when the term MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was coined after the ground-breaking course at the University of Manitoba, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, lead by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Not surprisingly I have written a lot of posts on this topic and have tried to follow and reflect on the complexities of designing online courses at scale. The term MOOC is used today to cover a very diverse range of course models from very traditional content transfer to collaborative and flexible learning spaces that can be better defined as communities rather than courses. The old adage that every letter in the acronym MOOC is negotiable is more true than ever today, especially O for open. However, despite claims that the MOOC boom of the last decade is over, the form continues to thrive with a massive upswing in interest during the pandemic (see article in EdSurge). 

I have just read an interesting review of recent MOOC research in an article by Aras Bozkurt in Open PraxisSurfing on Three Waves of MOOCs: An Examination and Snapshot of Research in Massive Open Online Courses. It is described as a systematic review of the empirical MOOC publications from 2016 to 2018, a total of 633 articles. The article examines four themes and how these themes have been described in the research.: (I) MOOCs as a mainstreaming learning model in HE, (II) motivation and engagement issues in MOOCs, (III) assessment issues in MOOCs, and (IV) MOOCs for social learning

The author describes three waves of MOOC development: the first wave of connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) in the spirit of the pioneers (Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Alexander, Belshaw etc), the highly commercialised second wave based on global consortia and elite universities and the present third wave that is a kind of mix of the previous waves. These waves are given time spans that feel a bit too tidy for me. All three are still present. The so-called first wave did not simply stop in 2011 with the advent of  Coursera, EdX and Udacity. Connectivist inspired open courses (not necessarily massive) have continued to thrive but under the media (and research) radar, recruiting through networks and communities rather than through global consortia. Many have stopped labelling themselves as MOOCs and thus evade radar detection.

One overarching trend in the article is the focus shift from the early qualitative emphasis on openness and community-building to a quantitative focus on massiveness and course completion statistics. The author points out how the focus on completion rates and student numbers has missed one of the main objectives of the whole concept, as a contribution to lifelong learning.

Studies have therefore suggested that the success of MOOCs cannot be measured based on drop-out or completion rates, but rather, on the learning behaviors of the participants (Kahan et al., 2017). The advantage of MOOCs, in terms of social learning, is their ability to form social learning communities (Gallagher & Savage, 2016) that “would arise around the course, would remain over time, and involve participants contributing to with new proposals” (de Lima & Zorrilla, 2017).
Somehow, when MOOCs became mainstream in 2011, they were conveniently mapped into the known models of higher education with measurable learning outcomes and assessment criteria. The potential of the original connectivist model to promote collaborative inquiry and community-building became restricted in the confines of the traditional notion of a course where the course structure and objectives are decided by the course organisers and participants are assumed to embrace these and follow the course to its conclusion.
While the first wave MOOCs was a fertile territory for leisure learners, and learning was associated with perceived learning, the second and third wave MOOCs strived to keep the learners in the MOOC, and thus, motivation and engagement have become a trending hot topic.
MOOCs are constantly compared to regular for-credit university courses and have been marketed as alternative paths to higher education with MOOC-based degrees as well as new credential forms like nano-degrees, specialisations and micro-masters. However the motivation of many MOOC participants is not to gain credentials but to widen perspectives, learn something new or sheer curiosity. Each participant has their own motivation to learn and that will often not coincide with the course organiser's narrow view of a course. Research has so far not investigated learner motivation sufficiently.
One area of concern, however, is that the perceived learning in MOOCs has been neglected as a focus of research. This is important to note because learning goes beyond quantified learning objectives.
Then there is the learning that can occur after the MOOC is officially over. Many people study MOOCs asynchronously outside the timescale of the course and some MOOCs have developed into self-directed communities. I have taken several courses over the last couple of years and all of them were long after the dates of the actual course. Does my course activity count when studying the success or failure of the course? Many people learn a lot without making much of a footprint (if any) and their learning is extremely hard to detect even if it may be significant for them as individuals. 
However, it is noted that not all learners learn by visible interaction (e.g., lurkers or legitimate peripheral participants) or wish be a part of the entire MOOC (e.g., drop ins). Interestingly, some MOOCs help learners to form a learning community, and these communities provide more learning opportunities, even outside of the defined MOOC concept. The problematic view according to the studies in the research corpus is when social learning is framed around predefined MOOC dates alone, ignoring their contribution to lifelong learning. This perhaps stems from the influence of HE, which tends to resist change, and from interpreting MOOCs from a strictly structured HE view.
Finally the author recommends a renewed focus on the potential of open courses (can't we finally lose the acronym?) to promote lifelong learning, widened access to education and community-building rather than trapping a good concept into the narrow domain of traditional higher education.
Based on the research findings and the impressions gained from the examined publications, this study argues that the real potential of MOOCs cannot be quantitatively measured, but rather, this potential should be considered in terms of the qualitative contributions provided by MOOCs. To this end, it is suggested that MOOC providers focus more on the 
social justice and widening participation aspects of MOOCs.

When an institution offers a regular for-credit course the structure, outcomes and pedagogical model are decided and students sign up to follow those with credible credentials as a reward. When you offer an open course without preconditions the participants are under no obligation to accept the institution's success criteria. They participate in line with their own ambitions and learning objectives that may coincide with the institution's but generally don't. The "success" of the course lies in the eyes of the beholders. 


Bozkurt, A. (2021). Surfing on Three Waves of MOOCs: An Examination and Snapshot of Research in Massive Open Online Courses. Open Praxis, 13(3), 296–311. 


  1. Fin artikkel, men ser ut til at lenka i referansen er feil?

  2. Så intressant, speciellt om det förändrade lärandet. Jag tänker att lärandet idag blir allt mer baserat på eget intresse, eget community-buildning, och eget sökande efter olika lärresurser. Ett lärande som BORDE påverka högre utbildning i STOR omfattning!