A Tale of Two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by Pedagogy

The Web as a classroom is transforming how people learn, is driving the need for new pedagogy; two recently launched courses at Coursera highlight what happens when pedagogical methods fail to adapt.

Divided pedagogy

I wrote recently about the Fundamentals of Online: Education [FOE] the Coursera course that was suspended after its first week and is now in MOOC hibernation mode. Over thirty thousands students signed up for the course hoping to learn how to develop an online course. It was a technical malfunction when students were directed to sign-up for groups through a Google Doc that shuttered the course, along with hundreds of student complaints about lack of clear instructions, and poor lecture quality. The course was suspended on February 2, and there has been no word yet as to when it will resume :(.

On the other hand there is the e-Learning and Digital Cultures course also offered on Coursera’s platform that began on the same day as FOE, yet the Digital Cultures course appears to be a smashing success if we use the engagement levels of students on social media platforms as a gauge. I enrolled in both courses, and the experience in Digital Cultures has been outstanding; the course content is challenging, thought-provoking and the instructors involvement appropriately on–the-side. Several colleagues within my network also taking the course appear to feel the same way.

The Tale of the Two
What made e-Learning and Digital Cultures successful and FOE not? There were variables common to each—the platform, the start date and length of course. The topics where somewhat similar, enough so that there was an overlap of enrolled students. However, at the root of the differences were the instructors’ divergent perspectives on how people learn. FOE ascribed to the learning model that most of higher education institutions follow—instructors direct the learning, learning is linear and constructed through prescribed course content featuring the instructor. In contrast, Digital Cultures put the learner in control, with choices of how to participate, and access to open resources on the Web for content. The evaluation method for the final assessment also provided learners with options; a peer-assessed, multimedia project created on a Web application of choice, based on a theme of interest covered within the course.

How People Learn: Four Viewpoints
In this post I’ll examine four orientations to learning approaches, the processes and  pedagogical principles that emerge from each viewpoint. To support the overall theme of this post is a chart that compares the two courses on four factors reflective of the learning orientations: pedagogy, content, and assessment and course interactions. The table gives readers a snapshot view of how the courses created divergent learning experiences, with the aim of highlighting how the Web as a platform for open, online and even massive learning creates a different context for learning—one that requires different pedagogical methods.

Orientations of Learning: Four perspective on how people learn with a selection of learning theorists aligned with one of the four based upon the principles of the given theory.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 2.35.39 PM
Four orientations to learning; each embodies a belief of how people learn including the processes that bring about learning.  Sources: Smith, M.K.(2003), Siemens, (2005) and Roblyer & Doering (2010).

Our current higher education system is grounded in behaviorist and cognitive theories. The behavioral approach suggests that in absence of knowing the internal processes of the learner, the focus is on the external—the behavior of the learner. The behaviorist learning model follows the pattern,  A → B  → C, where the environment presents the antecedent (A), that prompts a behavior (B), that is followed by a consequence (C). Characteristics of this approach include passivity of the learner, rote learning and methods of reinforcement.

The cognitive orientation goes beyond the external environment, and focuses on the internal where learning is a process managed within the learner’s long and short-term memory. The instructor controls and directs learning through planned instruction, selection of content, and teaches the learner through the building of knowledge [or skills] using a hierarchical approach going from the simple to complex (Roblyer & Doering, 2010).

Constructivism and the idea of social learning, or social constructivism is an approach that gained credibility in late 1990’s at which time numerous research studies suggested students learn more effectively when engaged with their world, build on what they already know, and construct knowledge as active participants. In support of the emerging research on active learning, the National Research Council published a volume by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) How People Learn that synthesized the evidence. Bransford and colleagues emphasize three conditions for effective learning: engaging prior understandings, integrating factual knowledge with conceptual frameworks, and taking active control over the learning process (Cummins, 2006).  

Most Recent Learning Orientation for a Digital World: Connectivism
The three orientations mentioned, have serious shortfalls in context of our current social and digital culture. The focus has shifted to the individual, where the learner is in control. Furthermore, with access to information, social networks and tools that allow learners to consume, share and construct knowledge, the paradigm for learning has changed. In response to these changes, Siemens advanced the theory of Connectivism, which integrates principles from theories of chaos, network, complexity and self-organization all of which drive the need for a new pedagogy (Siemens, 2005).


Pedagogies Exposed
It’s the learning orientations, the belief system the instructors ascribe to that determines the pedagogical methods selected for instruction. Numerous higher education institutions and its instructors have incorporated active learning methods in keeping with the social constructivist orientation, yet methods that align with the cognitive and behaviorist model such as the lecture and traditional assessment methods [i.e. multiple choice assessments] are still going strong. In the traditional classroom, these latter methods can still be effective, yet in the context of open and online learning, these pedagogies don’t work, evidenced by the FOE course suspension, and the more recent situation where a professor dropped out of his own Coursera course mid-way through due to disagreements over how to best to teach the course. How people learn in the open, has changed, and institutions would benefit by adapting accordingly when offering courses in an open, online and massive format (xMOOCs).

Now that technology has allowed institutions to broadcast their courses to the world through xMOOCs, the world thus has a window into the methods and learning orientations of instructors of various institutions (granted, some views may not reflect the values of the institution represented, but the instructors’). We are able to see through this open platform the deficiencies and shortfalls of the pedagogical methods.

Two Pedagogical Methods Examined
The pedagogical methods, the content choices, the interaction methods of instructors, and the assessment methods of each course are summarized in the chart below.

Comparison of Pedagogical Methods of Two Courses on Coursera

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Comparisons of pedagogical methods of two xMOOCs based on my experience as student with both courses [2013]. The methods for the Digital Cultures course created conditions for vibrant learning communities with high levels of student engagement.

The two MOOCs at Coursera discussed here are representative of the clashes between the views on how people learn. And people do want to learn, are motivated; are eager to take charge of their learning, make connections, expand their network and construct knowledge. The Web as a classroom creates opportunities for learning and teaching like never before. As the learner’s needs change, so does the role of the instructor, and if he or she implements appropriate pedagogical methods for the learning context, both will have opportunities to expand knowledge consistent with their own learning goals and needs.


49 thoughts on “A Tale of Two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by Pedagogy

  1. Hi Debbie –
    I am just doing an assignment on Open Education for developing world environments. Not only are digital skills (even at the basic level) generally deficient but most students only have experience of a very didactic, teacher-centred system. It would not be possible to tackle a constructionist/connectivist cMOOC with such background, they wouldn’t know where to start. Is there an argument that there is (literally) a learning curve for such students which is likely to go from Behaviourist via Cognitivist and Constructivist towards Connectivist approaches to learning as their skills, confidence and self-direction develop? Given that Coursera is aimed more at the mass market, does this explain why they choose a more traditional pedagogy, recognising that their audience may struggle with anything more self-directed and out of their experience and comfort zone?


    1. HI Guy,

      Yes I agree with you completely. Young students, or at least those without the digital skills, motivation or self-directed learning approach, are not equipped to complete a MOOC successfully. I suggested in one of my posts (I can’t remember which one now), that these students should not complete a MOOC, but should be taught how to learn in a MOOC environment when they are in either a face-to-face class or a small online course where the instructor can provide feedback and skill development.

      To answer your question about Coursera – I don’t believe the strategy is as deep as that. I believe each school creates the course based on what they think the course should be. Most base it on a face-to-face course because that is all they know, yet some like University of Edinburgh were able to create a unique, engaging course [e-Learning and Digital Cultures] tailored to the course format and student. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Reblogged this on Global Citizens Art and commented:
    I was led to this article when doing a course about Academia and the MOOC. I agree with Morrison that there is no room for judgments of good and bad and even suggestions that a course is “working”. Working may only imply that the course was fun or trendy or pleasurable. Coming from the perspective of Jacobs Process the onus is on Primary schools and parents to begin (or continue) teaching in a way that encourages self direction and collaboration.
    I am working on ways to respectfully decentre the primary school class room.


  3. I would like to see an analysis that takes into account factors as: difficulty level, feelings of entitlement, no obligations. Sometimes I’ve got the idea that participants feel entitled to a course that is suited for every level. So a more open ‘here are some suggestions for reading, write down what you think’ fits more of the 30k plus participants than a course with difficult maths in it. And people seem to expect that because it’s open and available it should be. I don’t agree. You can just un-enroll. So going to this case, a bit being devil’s advocate: just that thousands of students are happy with the course, doesn’t per se mean it’s a good course, just that a lot of people found it enjoyable, could cope with it, etc.


    1. These are good points. Some students appear not to understand how a MOOC works; hence the pedagogy of constructivist is more fitting, as it is up to the student to create his or her own learning path with the content provided, form groups if desired etc. And students should not expect to have professors provide individual attention or even respond to questions posted on a forum.

      In this post I was suggesting what format is more effective to meet the needs of an open and online environment. The fact the Digital Cultures was able to function with students able to participate made it effective, maximized effectiveness for students to learn, participate and engage. The other course did not support this. It’s not so much a case of which is good and bad, but which is effective in supporting thousands of students ability to engage and participate. The constructivist pedagogy facilitates this. Good and bad terms have no meaning unless we know what the benchmark is, have definition for good and bad.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.


      1. I agree that there is no room for good and bad and even that it “working” may only imply that it was fun or trendy or pleasurable. I am coming from a space where I believe that the onus is on Primary schools and parents to begin (or continue) teaching in a way that encourages self direction and collaboration.
        I am working on ways to respectfully decentre the primary school class room.
        I have been doing a course on how to publish a book and I am amazed at how groups self selected into Face Book! Until now I have regarded FaceBook as a social nightmare. I now see it as an educational bonanza.
        Thanks for this article I love the way you have written it. I will now reblog from my point of view and come back to link,
        Thank you,


  4. I’ve just had word from the Open University that they’re starting a rather interesting looking MOOC shortly: “Open Education” (http://www.open.edu/openlearn/education/open-education/content-section-0)

    It’s based on material from their Masters programme in online education… and in fact it’s actually a full unit of the course, and paying students from the Masters programme will be participating alongside the non-paying students.

    The OU know a fair bit about distance learning, so I’m interested to see what they have to say (although my personal experience as a student was that a lot was lost in the transition for paper-based with monthly tutorials to a fully online system).


    1. Hi Neill, Nice to hear from you! Thanks for this info. This is interesting; Open University from what I understand one of the first, if not second Open Universities in the world [Athabasca University in Canada may have been the first? not sure]. Thanks for keeping us posted of new developments. Debbie 🙂


      1. Am just nearing the end of the Open Learn MOOC mentioned (though as a fee paying Open Univeristy MA student). An interesting conjunction to your analysis. There is much advocacy of connectivism, and expressed hope for networks and groups (Google+, twitter etc) but on the whole the course is structured with materials for students to work through, and assessment tasks assigned.


        1. HI Deirdre,
          You observation is astute – most of the xMOOCs (those offered through platforms such as Coursera, edX, etc, are based on face-to-face courses, yet seem to be presented as a new and unique way to offer education.

          Thanks for commenting and reading! Debbie


  5. This comparison is so very revealing (and helpful). I was in both courses and I feel you have really captured the key distinguishing features. The FOE course was only up briefly, and I did find a couple of the readings worthwhile – however, as I recall, the curation was not very helpful to me either, not compared to EDCMOOC’s curation.

    I suspect that EDCMOOC is close to state-of-the-art on enabling learner connection/interaction with a course hosted on the Coursera platform.
    Still, one thing I have yet to see anyone pull off yet (with a massive open online coures) is enabling structured group work “connectivity” either with the restricted coursera platform or any other. There may be heaps of examples that I don’t know about of course.

    It should be not too difficult at least with tech learning. But, I haven’t seen even that. So much is happening in edtech and social networking and instructional design within the online environment…I hope someone has cracked that nut, or is about to.

    I very much appreciate your blog. It helps me keep abreast of things I am interested in, but don’t quite find the time to monitor myself.


    1. HI April,

      Thanks for your comment! Glad you found the post helpful. Structured group work is challenging with thousands of participants, very few platforms can handle it. The closest to this within xMOOCs are the recorded Google Hangouts that feature a few students with the professor in a seminar discussion (this was in Introduction to Sociology). This can be effective in modeling for students how to conduct a discussion they create on their own. As in keeping with the connectivist method, [ideally] the students will self-create groups to discuss and create connections.

      Thanks again April 🙂


      1. Thanks Debbie. I will see if I can view one of the Hangouts from Int to Soc.
        It seems to me it should be feasible to create guidelines for group work – and embed them in Coursera or another web platform – where team members would have to collaborate to do the exercise – and then you could apply some of the same tech mechanisms to grade/review the groups’ collective effort (ensuring they are doing the group work, and structuring the group work somewhat). Maybe it’s not possible on Coursera yet – but really, is there any reason a group couldn’t be the entity interacting with an exercise form on a website?


        1. HI April

          Creating structured group work where all participants have to participate contradicts somewhat the principles of an open MOOC. As happened in FOE, the logistics of organizing thousands of students is a tremendous challenge, and if it becomes a requirement of the course, implies that the ownership lies with the instructor or institution. This means they are on the hook for making the technology available, ensuring it works for everyone (all have access), and have the support staff to troubleshoot.

          Since MOOC participation is voluntary, many participants do not want to participate in groups, and if they do it becomes self-forming. Groups find each other based on interests, time availability, access to social platforms etc. This takes the pressure and responsibility off of the instruction.

          This being said, group work can work well in closed online classes, with small numbers of students. There is much that goes into making sure group work is effective and goes smoothly, and involves a level of commitment from the instructor to facilitate the process.

          Hope that helps. Debbie


  6. Each summer I teach a hybrid course on the Theories of eLearning, and your post will now be on the reading list. Nice job…and I too enjoyed #edcmooc!


  7. Excellent! My 1st MOOC experiences and I was enrolled in both MOOCs. Was so disappointed in the construct and management of FOE. Loved EDC! Great summary of the 2 different approaches to MOOCs. Am now in another MOOC with a very student-centered professor so I hope this MOOC is as successful as EDC was for me.


    1. Thanks for for comment and sharing your experience! What is the name of the MOOC you are taking now? I”m sure readers would be interested. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Debbie


  8. I like this post. But, could it be possible that the problem for FOE course is the quality of the content itself? I took another coursera course Organizational Analysis. It was more close to FOE than #edmooc in its style and it was succesful


    1. HI Jose, Yes good point. The quality of content certainly is a factor, but it is also the instructor’s willingness to let go of some of his or her control that is a key factor in the course running effectively. I am glad you had a good experience with Organizational Analysis! Debbie


  9. This is a fantastic post! (just wished you had added Vygotsky to the social constructivist theorists) Apart from that, i love the table with the practical comparison! Why oh why do people want to keep using lectures (as in one person talking)- as you show on your table, so many better ways for people to gather the info they need.
    Also, a comment to Niall, the facilitator in a sense does NOT know where the goal or hole is. Everyone has different histories, learning styles, experiences, goals, so I don’t think they can or want to end up in the same place, rather at their own goal or further on in their LLL journey.


    1. There are “must know” concepts in every field of knowledge. An expert can (usually) identify (most of) these. A beginner can’t.

      Seimens says:
      “Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.”

      This, taken literally, leads us to the emperor’s nose fallacy.

      And while it may be true in subjective domains, but there is also objectively verifiable knowledge, and the internet is full of people substituting “opinion” for “knowledge” and reaching incorrect conclusions. These people form clusters that self-reinforce their own opinion-based ideas.

      A good place to look for this is in the language learning world. There is a growing network of bloggers touting pedagogically dubious ideas about learning, and their ideas and opinions are repeated across the net, while a lot of proper research into the learning process goes ignored. It’s the golf-ball clustering problem.

      Connectivism is about how experts learn, but it isn’t how to learn to be an expert. You need to be trained up to be able to discern between valuable and valueless opinion, and you need to have a fundamental knowledge of the facts of your domain first.


      1. Hi Neill, Thanks for you comments; they bring an excellent perspective on the topic that can help us further our learning. I agree with you that there are must know concepts rooted in all subject matter. xMOOCs are not formed by non-experts, but are created and developed by scholars with PhD,s or Master’s degrees. The framework instructors provide — the resources and the content guide the course and provide the core concepts of principles of the subject matter, yet also [should] provide alternative viewpoints on the concepts (as you know even experts in a given field also disagree on core concepts in many disciplines).

        The MOOC format is not the only format for learning in a given subject; there are numerous other learning constructs for learning a subject, however those formats (classroom, small online classes) , do not have the massive component which is an element of the connectivist orientation, where learners make connections within a network — however these formats need to adapt to different learning orientation [a belief in how people learn] as research is suggesting.

        Thanks for your comments Neill.


    2. HI Andrea, Glad you liked the post! Sorry I didn’t include Vygotsky 😦 , his theory was instrumental in this orientation. Thakns for reading and taking the time to comment. Debbie


  10. Connectivism arose in the same background and at the same time as the notion of “the wisdom of crowds”. One of the demonstrations of the wisdom of the crowds that I saw on TV was the notion of playing golf without being able to see the hole. What do you do now? It was suggested that you look at where the other balls are, and trust statistical “clustering” to provide the right answer.

    But the problem is that if everyone takes that approach, there is no reason to trust any of the balls already in play, because everyone’s just aiming at what was already there, and what we have is a single ball that was placed there for an unknown reason and a bunch of later balls that are statistically a “random walk” seeded by the first ball. There is no order, there is no guarantee of correctness.

    This whole problem can be resolved with simple signposting: stick a flag in the hole, or put the flag on a longer pole.

    Isn’t there an analogous risk in education?

    If there’s no clear goal, isn’t it possible that the learning group miss an important point? Surely it takes an expert to know what a non-expert needs to learn?


    1. Not necessarily, if you have enough people in the room, one of them will have more knowledge (I shy away from expert knowledge as a phrase) and could lend a helping hand. That’s what happens in real life – if you start a new job, and don’t know who knows what, you start asking questions – eventually you find an answer that works. People learn lots of things without structure -some jump in to the deep end, some dip a toe in the shallow waters.


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