MOOC Mythbuster – What MOOCs are and what they aren’t

“Welcome to the college education revolution. Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” Thomas Friedman, Come the Revolution,  NYT

Mr. Friedman is right – and though he doesn’t mention MOOCs directly in the article, the ‘revolution’ he is speaking of is in the near future with the launch of  edX and Coursera by the Ivy Universities. This past week I’ve been following a number of blog posts and articles about MOOCs, Massive Open and Online Courses, of which Coursera’s model is based upon [edX I predict will be something different], yet there’s been much speculation, misconceptions, exaggerations and misinformation. It’s time to clear the air – in this post I’ll define what MOOCs are and are not, what the skeptics are saying, and I’ll conclude the post with an attempt to clarify the differences (and similarities), between MOOCs, online courses for credit, and traditional face-to-face courses.

Recent headlines read, Will MOOC’s provide SuperStar Teaching?, or Playing the role of the MOOC Skeptic: 7 Concerns, and Then who do we Shoot?  What’s going on here is an illustration of the clash, the collision between learning theories which may be viewed as a threat to traditional higher-ed learning – and Glader at Wired Academic says it this way, “Carey sees MOOCs setting up a power struggle between the two coasts of knowledge power – the West Coast, Silicon Valley-based tech sector and the DC to Boston corridor of Ivy League and elite colleges” (Glader, 2012). Wow, time to roll up the sleeves…

How MOOCs Work
First, let’s break down what’s really going on before we don the fighting gloves – the traditional model of higher education is being challenged – the ‘course’ where the professor lectures, delivers the content, student uses a textbook, complete assignments and is assessed –  is at the crux of the matter.  Note however, that MOOCs include similar core components of the traditional ‘course’, there are three as outlined by Stephen Downes, [educator, researcher and founder of the MOOCs] in his essay, Introducing my Work (2012, p 35) which are:

1. Open Content
2. Open Instruction
3. Open Assessment

You may notice the similarities between what Downes outlines and traditional education: content, instruction, assessment, yet its the word OPEN that differentiates how a student participating in a Massive Open Online Courses goes about learning. The other fundamental difference is the presupposition on how learning happens, and the pedagogy that goes along with it.

Origins of the MOOC
MOOCs are a vehicle for learning and are based on a theory of open education and how people learn – a theory called connectivism as coined by Stephen Downes.  Downes launched the first MOOC  in 2008 with George Siemens (Downes, 2012) and MOOCs are based upon their extensive research on how people learn, and upon the premise that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Downes describes his learning theory further in his e-book,

“I have expressed my (very unoriginal) theory of pedagogy very simply: to teach is to model and
demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect. Both teaching and learning consist of talking
about and of doing. Theorizing and practicing. Abstracting and making concrete.”

Lees hier hoe je een MOOC kunt opzetten! Massi...

How MOOCs work
For MOOCs to be successful, certain conditions have to be in place. One fundamental is the motivation of the learner, where the learner actively participates because he or she wants to learn and thus constructs knowledge based upon his or her input and activity/engagement in the course. Learning, in other words is not passive. I’ve excerpted instructions to students from Stephen Downes book, delivered at the beginning of a MOOC:

“This type of course is called a connectivist course and is based upon four types of activities.”

1. Aggregate: [students engage with content at this phase – lectures from experts, daily content links provided through course news letter, reading content on Web]
2. Remix: [students are encouraged to dialogue with peers and communicate about content and what they are learning, either through blogs, discussion boards or chat]
3. Re-purpose: [students construct or create knowledge]
4. Feed Forward– [students are encouraged to publish what they learned through blogs, or any other ‘open’ venue, in other words ‘share’ their knowledge]

The Myths debunked…
When reviewing the slew of recent blog posts and articles, it appears that numerous authors are seeing the MOOC as one dimensional, as a mode of delivering the lecture [content] and that’s it, without considering the other components involved in the learning process – the interaction, the communication etc.. We see an example of this in Glader’s article, “He [professor] compares online teaching to hosting a TV show rather than a classroom, which functions more like a play..“,  or this misconception as reported in Inside Higher Ed’s article on the 7 concerns of MOOCs, 1. Education Requires Dialogue: Massively open online courses are wonderful things, but they should not be confused with a higher education.” (Kim, 2012).  With all due respect to Mr. Kim, he’s got it wrong – the point of MOOCs is the dialogue, the interaction the construction of knowledge and re-purposing and ‘feeding forward’. This is where learning lives and breathes.

See below for the chart I put together which attempts to clarify the differences between MOOCs, Online Course and traditional f2f courses for college credit.

I hope this sheds a small bit of light what MOOC’s are and are not.  More to unfold over the next few weeks and months, stay tuned.

Come the Revolution, Thomas Friedman, The New York Times

Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, [e-book for download] Stephen Downes Web

Will MOOCS Promote SuperStar Teaching over Stuperstar Research at Princeton and other Ivy universities? Paul Glader, Wired Academic

Playing the Role of the MOOC Skeptic: 7 Concerns, Joshua Kim, Inside Higher Ed

Then who do we Shoot?  More or Less Bunk, Blog

15 thoughts on “MOOC Mythbuster – What MOOCs are and what they aren’t

  1. You really make it seem really easy together with your presentation however I find this matter to be actually something which I feel I’d never understand. It kind of feels too complicated and very huge for me. I am taking a look forward in your subsequent put up, I will attempt to get the hang of it!


  2. Hi Debbie, I completely agree with you that MOOCs are all about dialogue. A few of us MOOCrs have written a paper on it, focusing on dialogue (well, yes a bit dry and boring, but still wanted to share)
    If interested, you can find it here (the nice thing is, all of us authors got together informally, having never met in real life, only connected via a mooc (in this case mobimooc). So that was a nice surplus of getting a virtual authoring team together (oh, feel free to call me a geek when writing that I felt this was exciting 😀
    Link to the paper:


    1. Hi Inge,
      First of all, I too must be a ‘geek’, as I can’t wait to read this paper – I even find the title interesting ‘Exploring the MOOC format as a pedagogical approach for mlearning’. Thanks so much for including the link to the free paper. What is interesting Inge, is the diversity of authors of the study – from Turkey, UK, Belgium, Argentina and Canada (my home country!). Keep us (readers of blog) posted and me on other studies and/or future work of your MOOC group. Thanks again! Debbie


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