How and Why Institutions are Engaging with MOOCs…Answers in Report “MOOCs: Expectations and Reality”

How do institutions use MOOCs; and to what end?  •  Why do institutions pay thousands of dollars to develop and offer a MOOC on an external platform?  •  How do institutions determine the effectiveness of their MOOC efforts?  •  What are the costs associated with producing and delivering a MOOC?

All good questions; questions that policymakers, administrators and other stakeholders within higher education institutions that are considering MOOCs or already engaged with, want [or should want] answers to. The 200+ page report “MOOCs: Expectations and Reality” by Hollands and Tirthali of Columbia University attempt to answer these questions by surveying 83 faculty members, administrators, researchers and other actors within 69 education institutions. The report delivers on the promise of its title—how and why institutions engage, and provides the reader with even more insights.

The report is meaty, worthy of review for anyone with a vested interest in MOOCs of any type. In this post I provide a brief overview of the report, but focus specifically on one aspect of the ‘how‘. I highlight the resources required to develop a MOOC—how many people it requires, the job titles, the [estimated] costs associated with development. This may be useful for readers considering developing a MOOC for a platform such as Coursera or another, or for a cMOOC using a collective course design approach. This report brings into focus just how resource-hungry MOOCs are, and after reading the report, readers considering developing or contributing to the development of a MOOC might feel enlightened, encouraged, or perhaps even discouraged; at the very least, will have a better understanding of MOOCs and their place in higher education institutions.


Who sponsored the report?  The Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), a research center at the Teachers College at Columbia University. The mission of the center is “to improve the efficiency with which public and private resources are employed in education“.  Note: the report is open and available for download.

Purpose of the Study: Given the work of the CBCSE, and its pursuit of improvement of cost efficiency in education, the report is an extension of its mission. The purpose as outlined in the report, “the study serves as an exploration of  the goals of institutions creating or adopting MOOCs and how these institutions define effectiveness of  their MOOC initiatives“.

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Figure 1 ‘MOOCs: Expectations and Reality’ (p 22)

Report Snapshot:  The report sample includes 83 administrators, faculty members and researchers, all of which were interviewed, at 62 institutions. The institutions: public and private universities, community colleges, platform providers, research organizations, for-profit education companies and a selection of institutions deemed ‘other’ including one museum (p 180). Of the 62 institutions in the sample, 29 at the time of the study were offering or using MOOCs in some way; the remaining were either not participating or taking a wait-and-see position.

Why a MOOC? One of the reasons this report is instructive for the education community is the inclusion of the data about why institutions offer MOOCs. Many have asked why some institutions (several public higher education institutions) have spent thousands of dollars, invested considerable resources into this method of education delivery to the masses that has yet to be evaluated and tested for effectiveness. The chart below summarizes the six reasons identified.

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‘MOOCs: Expectations and Reality’ (Hollands & Tirthali, p 8)

The above table is merely a snapshot.  Each goal is described in further detail within the report. A case study featuring an institution accompanies each which gives a contextual example of the reasons.

A snapshot of How? MOOCs are resource intensive efforts, and the report validates this. Development of a MOOC, and the facilitation of the course once its live (accessible to students) requires significant amounts of time and energy from individuals across several departments within the institution. The faculty member (or members) acting as the subject matter expert for the MOOC requires a team, each with different areas of expertise to support him or her in bringing the content to life and creating an environment of learning for hundreds, if not thousands of course participants.

“Number of faculty members, administrators, and instructional support personnel involved MOOC production teams seldom included fewer than five professionals and, in at least one instance described to us, over 30 people were involved. Faculty members typically reported spending several hundred hours in the production and delivery of a single MOOC” (p 11)

Example of Human Resources Requirements: Case Study 11

Case study 11 provides an excellent example of the commitment of resources needed for developing a course for a MOOC platform which in this example is Coursera. The institution in the case is an unnamed MidWestern University (p 144). The school invited faculty with prior media experience to develop a five to eight week MOOC. This study is representative of the human resources required for development of a MOOC.

Human resources requirements by job title for course development of a MOOC:

2 x Faculty Members: (Subject Matter Experts)

1 x Project Manager: Leads the project, coordinates all elements of development. Liaise with departments as needed within the institution. Manages the project timetable; keeps project on time and on budget

4 x Curriculum Design Team Instructional Designer (works with faculty to present course content and create a learning environment with it on the course home page). • Instructional Technologist (works with instructional designer) • Video Production Liaison (works with faculty member in production of videos, and liaise with video production team)

5 x Video Production Team:  Production Manager •  Camera operators/equipment technicians • Audio-technician

In this case study, videos were produced at a high quality, using a full video design team. The final costs were calculated using records from the institutions, though the report authors made some estimates due to lack of detail on some aspects of human resource inputs.

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‘MOOCs: Realities and Expectations’ (p 144). One of the two data tables accompanying case study #11. Table 7 gives the range of hours spent on MOOC design (p 144)

Lecture Videos: Costs and Student Engagement
One of the primary drivers of costs in MOOC development (for platforms such as Coursera, FutureLearn, etc.) is video production. The more complex the video, for instance addition of graphics, multiple cameras used for shooting, post-filming editing, the higher the costs. Low-tech efforts,  where there might be one camera person, or even the faculty member self-recording on his or her laptop requires far fewer resources.  Some institutions seek a higher quality finished product, which in turn demands a high level of production using a team of video professionals. Accordingly, the costs vary dramatically. ‘MOOCs: Expectation and Realities’ estimates high quality video production at $4,300 per hour of finished video (p 11).

One may be tempted to think that the higher the video quality, the better the learning outcomes. However a report published recently by EDUCAUSE, What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling? suggests that students engagement with videos relies upon several factors, including whether or not the video links to an assignment within the course. Furthermore, the average viewing time of videos is less than five minutes (Hibbert, 2014). What this suggests is that videos presenting content must be carefully and strategically planned for during the course development phase, and tied closely to the instructional strategy. Higher production costs does not necessarily mean higher student engagement or learning outcomes.

Closing Thoughts

The report discussed here, ‘MOOCs: Expectation and Realities’ is an important contribution to the MOOC discussion in higher education. In my opinion one of the greatest benefits of the report is the spotlight it puts on the resources required for developing a MOOC, in contrast to the reasons why institutions engage with MOOCs. When one examines closely the reasons, it appears that the amount of resources invested, in some cases is extreme. I agree with the authors in the point they make in the executive summary,

” [we]…conclude that most institutions are not yet making any rigorous attempt to assess whether MOOCs are more or less effective that other strategies to achieve these goals” (p 11).

I’ll add one more point to this, and that’s the need for a complete and comprehensive approach to course design, (applicable to any course) that involves from the beginning, a thorough needs analysis that determines the goals of the organization and how the [potential] course fits into it. It’s only after this analysis that the course design process can proceed.


Hibbert, M. (2014). What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling?. EDUCAUSE Review Online. Retrieved from:

Hollands, F. M., & Tirthali, D. (2014). MOOCs: expectations and reality. Full report. Center for Benefit- Cost Studies of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, NY.  Retrieved from: content/uploads/2014/05/MOOCs_Expectations_and_Reality.pdf

A Not-so-New Recipe for “A New Culture of Learning”

book3dA New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change“, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown has stellar reviews from numerous reviewers including high-profile academics such as Cathy Davidson of Duke (CUNY in the near future), Howard Gardner of Harvard, and Henry Jenkins of USC. Though the content might be considered provocative by educators, few of the themes are startlingly new or groundbreaking. Though there is great potential in this book—as a catalyst for conversation about change in an education culture for instance, or as a window into learning in a digital age. Granted, given it’s publication date many ideas were new in 2011, including the concept of collective learning which describes MOOCs to a tee (pg. 72). Noted, the book was published one year prior the New York Time’s declaration of 2012 as The Year of the MOOC.

Brown and Thomas are well-regarded academics and authors—John Seely Brown is co-chairman for the Deloitte Center for the Edge, a visiting scholar at USC, and former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Douglas Thomas, is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and is considered an expert on the culture of computer gaming.

This is not a how-to book. There are few practical examples describing how education institutions can create a new culture of learning; yet the book is an excellent primer on how and why education and learn is changing. For this reason the book holds great potential as a catalyst for conversation within education institutions. If decision-makers and stakeholders read the book it could serve as a starting point for discussions about existing education methods and approaches. It could stimulate discussion on change and its impact on students, the institution, employees and faculty. The volume lends itself to such use, as the physical book is slim at 118 pages, with wide margins that encourage the writing of notes and ideas. No question, it’s concise. Apparently this was intentional. The authors hired an editor to strip the book down to its essential points and ideas.

What is a New Culture of Learning?
Authors Seely and Brown define throughout the book what a new culture of learning entails:

So what frameworks do we need to make sense of learning in our world of constant change? The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything. The second is bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries” (p 19).

The authors describe and elaborate on the themes quite well by using real scenarios; in the instance of information abundance, they provide interesting stories that emphasize the new ways of learning where learners access and vet information within a massive network. Yet there is a disconnect. The stories describe highly motivated learners, learners that seek information and learn on their own terms not within a structured or formal environment (except for one story of a group of University students set up their own study group on Facebook).  Intrinsic motivation is also a pattern observed in xMOOCs participants in 2014, where the majority of learners hold, at the very minimum, an undergraduate degree. These xMOOC students are self-motivated learners, and already know how-to-learn. If one of the ingredients to a new culture of learning is intrinsic motivation, how then can educators develop this intrinsic motivation within their students, and at the same time leverage the massive network (the Internet) for learning?

Learning as Inquiry
The authors do suggest a solution—students learn through inquiry, rather than by instruction. This approach, the authors state, will help learners find a passion for a topic, encouraging them to seek out tough problems and work harder to solve them.

“We propose reversing the order of things. What if, for example, questions were more important than answers? What if the key to learning were not the application of techniques but their intention? What if students were asking questions about things that really mattered to them? (pg 81).

The idea of problem based learning is similar to this approach of learning via inquiry. Start with a question. An example outlined in the book describes a physics teacher using an inquiry approach to teach a physics concept with a student that loves basketball. The teacher might write out a questions such as “What is the best way to shoot a basketball?” (p 82). Yet Brown and Seely don’t get to the details of how this approach translates to the classroom. What happens when all students aren’t interested in basketball or any sport for that matter? How does inquiry based learning look in context of existing curriculum?

Though the idea of learning through inquiry that Seely and Brown present is sound in principle, and there are examples of educators using the inquiry method with students, some at the K-12 level, though fewer at the post-secondary level. Many have suggested this inside out approach to education, which starts with a question not the answer. With inquiry based learning [also known as problem based learning] teachers are learning along with students, students are engaged, and are doing.

“It is crucial to recognize that inquiry-based teaching should not be viewed as a technique or instructional practice or method used to teach a subject. Rather, inquiry starts with teachers as engaged learners and researchers with the foundational belief that the topics they teach are rich, living and generous places for wonder and exploration…Inquiry is not merely ‘having students do projects’ but rather strives to nurture deep, discipline-based way of thinking and doing with

Closing Thoughts
“A New Culture of Learning” is about learning in the 21st century, it’s about information abundance, and learning in the collective. It’s also a book about change, a changing culture that influences learning. Perhaps nothing new, nothing we haven’t read or heard before, but the message will be new to some, educators or professionals that haven’t considered how digital culture, the connected network we’ve created influences students, their learning. If you are looking for a conversation starter for educators you interact with, looking to implement and champion change in an education institution, this book is for you.

Further Reading

If Change is Inevitable–Is Progress Optional? Four Education Institutions Opting for Progress

“Change is inevitable. Progress is optional.” Tony Robbins

change-architect-sign1The above quote from author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins sums up Dr.  Richard DeMillo’s presentation The Fate of American Colleges and Universities delivered in May of last year at Dartmouth University. Readers might be familiar with DeMillo—professor of computer science, speaker, author of several articles and books including Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (2011). He currently serves as Director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. His talk carried a similar message that’s outlined in his book— colleges and universities in the Middle will need to change—and if they don’t they’ll be headed for irrelevance and marginalization‘ (MIT Press). It’s been three years since the book’s publication and many of his warnings about higher education appear close to reality.  In the book and in his talk at Dartmouth, DeMillo doesn’t candy coat his message, wrap it up into a more digestible form, but serves it straight.

The system of higher education…is not a sustainable system. I don’t know anyone who has seriously looked at American higher education that can come to the conclusion that what we are doing is financially, socially, pedagogically and morally sustainableRichard DeMillo, Dartmouth University, May 7, 2013

Though the message may be grim, the education sector needs individuals like DeMillo with their extensive experience and knowledge of higher education to tell it like it is. Granted, some will say DeMillo is wrong, is only making predictions and value judgements. However, three years after Abelard to Apple’s release, events described are no longer predictions

Responses to The Message
DeMillo describes leaders’ reactions to what he has to say—some are open, eager to look for ways to adapt to change and move forward, and others are unaware, dismissive, or even defensive.

University leadership in the United States for the most part is unaware that the crossroads is ahead.  […] The obvious question is how so many smart people could miss what seems to be an inevitable crisis?”  Richard Demillo, Abelard to AppleThe Fate of American Colleges and Universities (2011)

But many institutions are listening, are opting for progress, embracing change and striving to remain relevant. Below I share four examples of institutions that are choosing to implement strategies for change. Some projects are complex, are institution-wide, engaging the majority stakeholders. Others are on a smaller scale, yet no less bold.

Readers may question whether all initiatives are progressive, a way forward. Some appear to be going backward, as the University System of Georgia where several institutions are merging, resulting in some institutions names disappearing altogether. Though institutional leaders of these schools might say that it is progress for the long-term, with changes in the short-term that are difficult.

Below are descriptions of the strategies of each, and related links to outside sources with further information.

Four Institutions Opting for Progress

1. Corporate Sponsored Degree Program: University of Maryland, Cybersecurity

Strategy: Universities are beginning to seek funding support for undergraduate programs by partnering with corporations and other private institutions to build infrastructure and curricula for specialized degree programs. Companies are motivated to do so, hoping to fill skill gaps within their own workforce by creating a pool of educated potential candidates. This initiative is part of University of Maryland’s overall plan to remain financially sustainable, and relevant; it has also cut costs by eliminating seven varsity sports teams and forcing faculty and staff to take furlough days.

change_image2. Strategic Planning InitiativeBeyond Forward, Dartmouth University

Strategy:  Dartmouth University provides an illustrative example of an institution seeking to embrace change and prepare for the future by implementing a comprehensive strategic planning effort. Dartmouth’s end goal—’to identify significant opportunities and challenges as we consider an ambitious and forward-looking course for Dartmouth’s future.’  The website describing the program is detailed, sharing many resources, including the recorded talks of experts and scholars as part of the Leading Voices in Education series of which DeMillo was one. The two-year effort involved over 3,000 stakeholders including faculty, administrators, staff, students and alumni, and assigned nine working groups a topic to research, report upon and develop recommendations for. Impressive. To learn more, you can read Dartmouth’s Synthesis report of ‘Beyond Forward‘. Other institutions that have implemented a similar strategic initiative and shared the process are Georgia Tech University, Brandeis University, and Brown University.

Strategic planning is the first significant phase of opting for progress, however putting the plan into action—the execution of the plan requires more than talking about and planning for change, it’s about making it happen. Action.

3. Institutional MergersUniversity System of Georgia

Strategy: The primary motivation for education institutions to merge is to realize costs savings through sharing of administrative expenses common to each, i.e. finance, human resources, facilitation services, IT, etc. Universities merging is not new. There’s been several examples of institutions coming together over the years. Though recent mergers are on a large-scale. Not two institutions merging, but in the State of Georgia’s case, eight in all since 2012. As you can imagine, these actions are drastic, messy, often chaotic and stressful for all involved. Even more so when communication is poor, which it usually is. Though perhaps necessary to remain viable, and may be a way forward, no doubt it must appear institutions are taking several steps back. Successful mergers require a tremendous amount of planning, communication and diplomacy. Merging Into Controversy, Inside Higher Ed (2014).

4. MOOC-Inspired Initiatives. Penn State, flex-MOOC and Georgia Tech Institute.

Strategy: There are a few institutions seeking to use the MOOC format to seek sustainability for the long-term. Even though MOOCs continue to enroll and engage thousands of students, few higher education institutions have demonstrated how MOOCs will contribute to its sustainability, relevance, and direction for the future (more so when there is no strategic plan for the future). Two schools that are taking a step forward are Georgia Tech with its Online Master of Science in Computer Science and Penn State.

Georgia Tech: “OMS CS officially launches with first cohort Today about 375 students begin coursework as the first cohort in Georgia Tech’s online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) program, offered in collaboration with Udacity and AT&T. The group was admitted from some 2,360 applications…”

Penn State: “A flex-MOOC is a MOOC that offers content in modules that the learner can assemble into a personally relevant “course” and giving learners control over content, the sequence and timeline…creating a learning path that is relevant given learners’ individual contexts, strengths, and leaning needs.”

Change will happen. It is happening. Examining how institutions handle change, move forward is instructive. Is not changing an option and the right thing to do? Possibly. But making a decision not to change but is backed by a strategy, makes sense, not changing with no strategy doesn’t. How does your institution deal with change?

Related Reading:

Image credits: ‘Time for Change’, by marsmetn tallahasse, Flickr

An Unique Approach to a xMOOC — Learner-Centric Course Design

Applied Sustainability” Fanshawe College

Not all MOOCs are created equal. I know of one, Applied Sustainability, delivered by a community college in Ontario, Canada that defies what many have come to expect from a Massive Open Online Course offered through a university-sponsored platform such as Coursera, Open2Study or edX. What makes Applied Sustainability offered by Fanshawe College unique?  It’s the learner-centric course design that makes it different, where the focus is on students and their learning. This approach contrasts with an instructor-centric design—an approach which emphasizes content delivered by faculty with a learning strategy that follows accordingly. Though both formats are applicable in given learning situations, few student-centric course designs in xMOOCs exist, which is what motivated me to share a learner-centric design example with readers. It’s a worthy endeavor for educators to explore and consider different approaches to course design for MOOCs, to improve upon what already exists, and bring xMOOCs to the next level.

How Fanshawe’s MOOC is Unique:  Fanshawe’s MOOC takes the form of an educative journey that engages students in the learning process with active, and practical learning assignments that make learning meaningful, relevant and specific to each student.

The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.”  MOOCs at Fanshawe

This approach contrasts significantly with the course design model that the majority of MOOCs delivered on university platforms feature.  The pedagogical methods used in xMOOCs  are remarkably similar to the traditional classroom format—course content delivered via the subject matter expert. xMOOCs typically are associated with top-tier higher education institutions, and are led by faculty members, sometimes referred to as ‘super professors‘, or ‘talking heads’, labeled (not so kindly) by MOOC skeptics. The instructors deliver content that mirrors the classroom method quite closely, but without the accessibility and feedback capability that instructors offer. Fanshawe’s format is closer to the original version of MOOCs as its co-creators [Downes and Siemens] introduced in 2008, where the focus was on learning within a network where knowledge is co-created, not from one expert i.e. the super-professor, but from many sources including the learners within the course.

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Image from Presentation Slide featuring student project, posted during Webinar with Contact North, with Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

“For the students, the most significant benefits they reported on the first offering of this MOOC were the changes they made in their thinking, behaviour, and habits concerning sustainability – for some it was truly life changing.The wide range of students from around the world appreciated the truly applied nature of the course.”

Course Description: Applied Sustainability: The course is designed to emphasize the practical and the personal elements of sustainability, with each of the six modules featuring on-site video interviews in locations and with experts involved with different aspects of sustainability. The themes of the modules focus on: water, waste and wastefulness; homes; streets and neighbourhoods; cities and regions; policies and certifications; and a final section on our community, your community. Applied Sustainability, Desire2Learn

Below is a brief outline the characteristics of Fanshawe’s MOOC that make it unique. For readers interested in learning more, the Pockets of Innovation series on Contact North’s website provides further background and description—Designing and Offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Fanshawe College.

Characteristics of the Learner-Centric Design

1) Diffusion of subject matter expertise: Rather than one subject-matter expert leading the course, there is an interviewer who travels to visit numerous subject matter experts in the field. The interviewer acts as the ‘host’ of the course, going on exploratory journey along with the students to learn about applied sustainability by conducting interviews with experts in the field.

“Three short videos (8 to 10 minutes) highlight three specific themes through visits to facilities directly related to waste and water such as the Greenway Wastewater Plant and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (pictured below). Staff interviews, facilities tours, and demonstrations of their ongoing work are presented.  The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.  Topic-related links are provided to articles, report summaries, videos, TED talks, and other resources.”

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Presentation Slide posted during Webinar with Contact North, featuring Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

2) Reliance on open resources, with a collection of curated resources. Students accessed content on the course topic (sustainability) primarily from the experts in the field, on the field trips with interviewer, and by exploring list of curated resources provided on the course site. The resources are from a variety of sources, with very few coming from scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.

3) Customization of learning experience. The Fanshawe MOOC provided options for students to customize their learning by offering four options for course participation. The four levels of achievement—Green, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

“… At the Silver level, students take part in weekly discussion on such topics as the use of rain barrels and antibiotics in agriculture.  The Gold level involves completion of a weekly task, such as undertaking a three-day waste audit at home, posting a photo of the accumulated waste, and reflecting on personal consumption and disposal habits. The Platinum level of achievement requires the completion of one project over the length of the course, assisted by a project manager from Fanshawe. The project-options include creating a Green Gaming Journal by using a blog, Tumblr, YouTube, or a podcast to comment on the green elements of a video game with ecological themes, such as SimCity. Another choice involves using QGIS, an open source geographic mapping system, to map a neighbourhood and analyze issues such as park vs residential space usage.”

We can credit MOOCs for generating discussions among educators and stakeholders about technological advancements and education, specifically how technology can be used to improve access, quality and cost. Yet we need to move discussions about online education forward, and one dimension which needs attention is how to create learning experiences for students that are relevant and meaningful. The current format of most xMOOCs are not much different from the traditional instructor-focused model, yet student-centered course design is a viable option very worthy of our time and energy.

Update: After this post went live, two other institutions reached out to share MOOC, learner-center models.  Open2Study, customizes courses for the MOOC format; you can read more from the comment posted. Another, Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning is developing a ‘flex-MOOC’ framework, which appears to have much potential.

Further Reading:

Why Educators Need to Know Learning Theory

This is the second in a three-part series about Learning Design. The first post introduced the Learning Design Framework; a guide for educators to create optimal learning experiences for students by leveraging: 1) content resources, 2) collaborative web resources and 3) human resources. This second post focuses on learning theory and how it applies to not only course design, but educators’ role in creating excellent learning experiences for their students.  Note: this is a revised version of a post that appeared on January 19, 2014. 


We need to study learning theory so we can be more effective as educators. In this post I bridge the gap between learning theory and effective educators; describe why we need to start at A to get to B.  I also describe how a grasp of learning theory translates to knowledge of instructional methods, that moves educators towards creating optimal learning environments.  Post one of this series described optimal learning environments in the context of a framework that includes three dimensions of resources. Post three will include scenarios of institutions applying the principles of the framework, and in this post we take a step back to examine briefly the underpinnings of pedagogical methods.

This article covers three categories of learning theories, objectivist, constructivist, and connectivist.  Connectivism is relatively new [2004].  Its theoretical principles describe how learning happens within a networked and connected society. Objectivist and constructivist theories have, and continue to have, significant influence on teaching methods and practices in K-12, higher education and professional development programs. Connectivism on the other hand, is associated with learning in an open virtual space on the web, typically in massive open online courses or MOOCs.

The theories differ significantly in the perspectives on learning, though each has influenced and shaped instructional methods and practices to some degree. An example is assessment practices using standardized tests. This method is based upon principles of the behaviorist learning theory: instructor delivers content → student studies to commit knowledge to memory → completes an assessment → feedback is provided on his or her responses. This is one example I use here to [try to] emphasize the point that educators are better equipped to handle a variety of learning situations with an understanding of how these theories affect teaching methods.

Theories of Learning

Objectivist Theories
The objectivist learning category includes both the behaviorist and cognitivist theories. Each views knowledge as existing as an entity ‘outside’ the mind of the individual. Behaviorists’ suggest knowledge is transmitted to the learner without any interpretation or contextualization by the learner. Learning is reinforced in the memory through drill and practice. The founder of the behavioral learning theory, B.F. Skinner, conducted extensive experiments in the 1950’s of which several were dedicated to learning methods research. Skinner theorized that learning could be shaped by reinforcements that followed learner behavior; the principles were foundational to Skinner’s behaviorist learning theory.

The cognitive learning theory built upon the principles of behavioral learning theory. Cognitive psychologists focused on internal thought processes of the learner, not just the observable behaviours as the objectivists did. This theory emphasizes internal thought, focuses on mental structures and processes of the learner and its application to learning. Robert Gagne is an influential educational psychologist who developed the cognitive-behaviorst theory, which suggests learning is shaped by providing optimal conditions for learning. He developed the theory of conditions of learning and the nine events of instruction.

Constructivist Theories
The constructivist perspective took the cognitivist principles one step further by asserting that individuals construct knowledge from within, by engaging in problem solving, experiential and/or social learning experiences. Constructivism puts learners in the center of the learning process, and suggests that learners contribute to knowledge construction by activating prior knowledge and personal experiences. Learning is viewed as adapting one’s mental models to new experiences and knowledge. Several theorists that were part of the constructivist movement include John Dewy, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner.


Connectivism Theory
The very new learning theory, connectivism, developed by Stephen Downes and George Siemens is a response to society’s connectedness within a network of digital infrastructure. The connected approach views the student as the driver of learning; where the learner connects with, and builds knowledge via the connections [nodes] made within a network. Nodes can be resources or people. Connectivism is “driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital” (Siemens, 2004).  Connectivism is the theory behind massive open online courses, MOOCs. But MOOCs with a ‘c’ for cMOOC, which incorporates the connectivist theory, in contrast to xMOOCs offered through higher education platforms such as edX and Coursera that offer MOOCs that follow more of the objectivist, and some the constructivist approach.

Conflict in Theories
Constructivists’ and objectivists’ have different views on the conditions that contribute to learning, but of most significance is the difference in viewpoints of how (and where) learning happens—one views that knowledge is transmitted, the other that knowledge is constructed from within. The conflict between the two theories is ongoing. However, the root of the differences between the theories of constructivist, objectivist, and connectivism, is best described as a difference in epistemology—the nature, scope and development of human knowledge.

 Learning Theories and Instructional Methods 
The learning theory’s philosophy of how learning transpires as reviewed, does translate into a set of instructional methods. Below are characteristics of each of the three described above. Readers will likely be very familiar with most if not all.

Characteristics of Instructional Methods Associated with Objectivist Theories

  • Instruction is directive
  • Instructors transmit body of knowledge/skills to learners
  • Assessments: multiple choice, short answer tests, or essays and projects graded by rubrics or checklists
  • Students require prerequisite skills for advancing through curriculum
  • Instruction is sequential, linear, standardized
  • Efficient

And Characteristics with Constructivist Theories

  • Universal goals such as problem solving and critical thinking
  • Students generate knowledge through collaborative group work
  • Learning is not linear, often exploratory in nature
  • Prerequisite knowledge not always required or considered
  • Instruction emphasizes learning in experiential contexts
  • Learning is social
  • Assessment varies

And Characteristics with Connectivist Theory

  • Learning is primarily online, open, learners engage within network
  • Learning objectives are not pre-determined, emerge throughout the course, determined by learners’ needs
  • Variety of content sources on web, extensive, accessible
  • Learners are self-directed, independent, know how-to-learn
  • Prerequisites not required
  • Learning is often disorganized, chaotic

Implications for Creating Optimal Learning
Is one set of instructional methods better than the other? No—and this is the crux of the post, that there is a variety of methods that serve different learning needs. It’s the skilled and intuitive educator that analyzes a learning situation, leverages the resources at his or her disposal (as per the Learning Design Framework) and is able to analyze the situation and design the very best learning experience for his or her student.

“[Learning theories] outlined [above] suggest a set of instructional principles that can guide the practice of teaching and the design of learning environments. It is important that design practices, must do more than merely accommodate the [theory’s] perspective, they should also support the creation of powerful learning environments [specific to the student]” from Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning, Tam, 2000

Stay tuned for part three of the Learning Design series.


  • Tam, M. “Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning”, Educational Technology & Society 3(2) 2000
  • The Learning Design Framework, Online Learning Insights

Image credit: Theory clothing logo, by WestportWiki. Used under the Creative Commons share alike license.

Online Learning Insights Blog: 2013 in Review

New year 2013Happy New Year!  After reading several year-in-review blog posts and two from blogs I follow closely [e-literate and Hack Education], I was motivated to write a similar post. I’m also writing this post in hopes that it will overcome my writer’s block [I’ve struggled with writing a post for three days now]. Let the words come forth!

I’ve included below the top five posts for Online Learning Insights in 2013 and close with thanks to readers and specific individuals that have commented consistently here.

Top Five Posts of 2013 on Online Learning Insights

  1. How Not to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix It, posted on February 1. This post generated robust discussion—heated and charged discussion occurring within 145 comments in total. The traffic on this post is a reflection of MOOC-mania that was in full swing in early 2013.
  2. Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning, posted on September 28, 2012, which struck me as odd given the post generated very little traffic at all in 2012. However that’s inconsequential—all that matters is that the post provided support and help to online students in some way in 2013 [and continues to do so].
  3. The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity posted three days after the How Not to Design a MOOC post.
  4. How to Create a Personal Learning Portfolio: Students and Professionals, posted on January 30, 2013.
  5. Why Online Courses [Really] Need an Instructional Design Strategy, posted on May 7.  Since instructional design is what I do, I’m relieved at least one of the posts I wrote on instructional design made the top five list.

Thanks to Readers, Tweeters and Commenters
Thank you readers of this blog; I am grateful for all readers whether occasional or regular. Special thanks to followers, and to readers that Tweet, link to, and share posts. I also am grateful for all those that take extra time to comment in response to posts—each furthers the dialogue by engaging, sharing resources which ultimately contributes to the learning community. Special thanks to the top commenters of Online Learning Insights listed below. I’ve also included a link to his or her blog, or Google + page.

Also thanks to Paulo Simoes [@pgsimoes] for always Tweeting my posts consistently and soon after I’ve hit the publish button! Thank you Paulo!  Paulo is a Portuguese Air Force eLearning evangelizer.  

I look forward to another year of blogging, learning and writing in 2014. Happy New Year!