Katie Vale and I recently wrote a chapter on Massive Open Online Courses: a traditional or transformative approach to learning which will be published in 2014 in Reusing Open Resources (Routledge) http://www.taylorandfrancis.com/catalogs/educational_technology_e-learning/2/2/. In the chapter we explore the conflicting opinions and perspectives around MOOCs. These perspectives are rooted in the diverse origins of the concept of open education and open learning. Ideas around open courses emerged from three different arenas: universities, open learning researchers and the Open Access social movement.
The Open Access movement is a global network of people who support the transformation of work and learning practices towards free sharing and peer collaboration in society through open sourcing, open resources and the (re)use of open knowledge (Kaiwen & Fang, 2005). A central aim is to change societal expectations of how, when and where people learn. One strategy has been to eliminate barriers of entry into university-level education through opening access to the ‘fundamental building blocks’ of learning (Seely-Brown, 2008). These building blocks are viewed as Open Educational Resources (OER) – digital materials that can be used, re-used and repurposed for teaching, learning or research, made available online through open licenses, such as Creative Commons (McGill et al, 2013). OER and open courses are a lever sometimes used by universities to attract learners to move from informal to formal learning programmes, encouraging them to pay for subsequent, follow-on courses (Gillet et al, 2010). Thus, motivations to develop and openly release OER are complex and can be placed on a spectrum ranging from ‘academic commons’ to the marketization of courses (Falconer et al, 2012).
A second arena promoting the open courses were learning researchers and advocates of a pedagogical approach termed ‘connectivism’. Connectivist principles emphasise that learning occurs through network connections, as learners connect with experts, peers and with knowledge resources (Siemens, 2005). MOOCs can be viewed as an instantiation of the pedagogic approach of ‘connectivism’ (Siemens, 2005; Downes, 2009), opening up opportunities for learning as part of a learning community or group of learners (Downes, 2008). Despite these key principles, discussions around informal open learning, emphasising the learner, are sometimes conflated with formal open education, highlighting the design of activities, environments, networks, tools and resources. Some MOOC designs can mimic university courses, rather than focusing on building learner autonomy (Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2013; Nurmohamed et al, 2013).
A third origin is the educational activity in the academy. Universities, often operating as consortia, have provided most open courses and open educational resources. An early example is the Open CourseWare Consortium (established in 2003), a consortium of universities committed to the open release of educational resources, often from contemporary, campus-based courses (OCW, 2013) This initiative has had significant impact in terms of opening access to a broad spectrum of resources, ranging from syllabi, lecture notes and supplemental materials to video materials (Forward, 2012). For example the founding partner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has released resources from 1,800 courses that have been viewed by over 100 million people (MIT, 2013). Funding organisations such as UNESCO, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation collectively have donated millions of dollars to the development and release of Open Educational Resources. There are numerous examples of consortia and collections of educational resource materials around the world, including OER Africa , OER Asia , Open Education Europa , Latin America Learning , DEHub Australia , Nordic OER , MERLOT and JORUM UK Some MOOC design teams attempt to capitalise upon these resource collections by packaging OERs around specific learning objectives and activities, then sequencing these activities in orchestrated, synchronous courses with regular, automated assessments. Course design may be based on equivalent campus based courses. The design teams often recognise that exposure to the course’s resource materials is not a sufficient condition for learning. However, an assumption is that learners can self-regulate their own learning, utilising learning resources with limited instructor interaction. Interest in the potential of open courses to open access to universities led to a fourth origin of MOOCs: MOOC platform providers.
A number of MOOC platforms were established during the period 2011-13, mainly in the US and UK. Some are ‘for profit’ organisations such as Udacity (https://www.udacity.com) and Coursera (https://www.coursera.org). Others are organisations operated within non-profit universities, notably edX (https://www.edx.org/). and Futurelearn (https://www.futurelearn.com/). Thus, some of the perspectives around MOOCs can be expressed as follows. Universities –particularly elite institutions – recognise the competitive advantages of MOOCs on branding, marketization and extending reach. Their response is often to open up established courses to learners globally, seeking to imitate the ‘campus experience’.
Practitioners acknowledge the potential of MOOCs, viewing them as a sustaining rather than a disruptive innovation. They habitually align MOOC development and implementation within the confines of existing higher education models. Recognise that the student experience is changed and that their own workflow models are not sustainable in MOOCs, practitioners are concerned with problems of student engagement, feedback, quality and assessment, focusing efforts on improving the quality and engagement potential of educational content. Open Access activists are concerned that the view of MOOCs as a marketisation tool for traditional university education blocks alternative, viable futures for learning and learners. As MOOCs mature as a platform for learning, there is a growing acceptance that conventional metrics (completion rates, contributions to forums) are not useful to measure the effectiveness of open learning. Metrics and models have to be reconceptualised drawing on learning analytics (McNeill et al, 2014, this volume).
Learners (largely) have enthusiastically embraced MOOCs, signing up in their thousands to participate. Many act as passive observers or ‘lurkers’ (Milligan, Littlejohn and Margaryan, 2013), raising concerns amongst practitioners and universities around completion rates. However, motivations across diverse groups of learners are broadly defined and extend beyond gaining credit (OBHE, 2013). A more pressing concern are the baseline capabilities – literacies, skills and dispositions – of learners as they learn in a new environment (Mackness, Mak, & Williams, 2010; Kop and Fourier, 2011; Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2013). Educational and learning researchers are sceptical of this learner enthusiasm, recognising that social expectations of ‘university schooling’ constrain transformative opportunities around learning (Fiedler, this volume). In their view recognition of what constitutes learning needs to be broadened (McGill et al, 2013). Governments hold pole position in cultural definitions of learning, but few seem willing to radically redefine learning and redraw business and workflow models. All the same, governments’ view that MOOCs merit serious attention because of their potential for significant disruption and, at the same time, widening access to higher education (OBHE, p53).