A MOOC without a MOO is a…?

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Massive Open Online Courses are very much in the news at the moment. They could be described as the quick silver of courses, constantly changing and evolving. In this discussion piece we attempt to highlight one aspect of MOOCs, that of validation. This has always been at the centre of any educational course, but MOOCs as Karl Bentley, Canterbury Christ Church University Associate Lecturer and former Primary ICT AST, suggests have brought their own challenges.

cowWe seem to be getting bombarded by a rush of messages relating to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at the moment. The speed of how quickly things are changing can be highlighted by the fact that a number of my initial ponderings have been overtaken by blog posts which nailed them far more acerbically than I’d ever dare.

However, there seems to be a common thread out here in blogland. Do MOOCs  have an epistemology of their own or are they merely re-mastered forms of digital text books of present courses? My use of ‘epistemology’ here refers to the nature, sources and limits of knowledge.

Fundamental in resolving that question, for me at least, is the aspect of validation. It is this aspect that seems to be getting danced around but never directly approached.

For most of us involved in education, validation is resolved via forms of accepted assessment instruments. Included and external to that is the institutional validation offered by validity as truth as consensus (ie an agreed set of assessment criteria within a validated university course), correspondence (ie comparison to external bodies such as government inspection bodies and qualifying institutes) and coherence (ie how the course relates to similar courses past and present as well as how it fits in with external social and economic patterns).

I know ‘truth’ is a highly contentious philosophical  area and that there are many more ‘truths’ that could be identified and discussed but we’ll leave that for another, longer, deeper discussion.

But how do MOOCs fit into this? With tens of thousands of students possibly taking a single MOOC course, even with a 90 percent dropout rate, it is impossible for a single tutor to assess each student using standard instruments of assessment, such as a marked presentation, essay or examination. Instead reformulated instruments of assessment are being used such as peer review of essays or presentations against an accepted matrix, online multiple choice quizzes and final multiple choice online exams.  However, a lot of research is ongoing by MOOC providers and their associates into much more embedded assessments, such as analysis of keystroke patterns and how and when students access other information related to a particular course area. That a lot of this is cross-over research from profit driven technologies such as Google Glass might give educationalists pause for thought and concern. After all, who will have access to this data and could it have the effect of driving education to a purely mass consumer level? These issues raise, I believe, ethical questions that need to be addressed as MOOCs develop.

That MOOC providers, such as Udacity, are teaming up with testing centres,  such as Pearson, to carry out standard forms examinations in person (for a fee) may, however, indicate that a classical form of validation is still important to them. But doesn’t this invalidate the MOO part of the MOOC, in effect just repositioning learning and its related fees outside traditional settings and into new ones? Is this a bad thing if it carries research and development with it?

Proponents of MOOCs such as Stephen Powell and Li Yuan of JISC CETIS are quite open about this being ‘disruptive’ in terms of a ‘business model’ but their claims that this is ‘new technology’ needs to be put into a context of online digital learning that has a longer history than they tend to let on. The fact is that most universities, secondary schools and most primaries have access to the technology to offer online digital learning. Many use it to provide ‘flipped learning’, where students view online material, including short lectures, prior to engagement with the concepts in a classroom or lecture setting.

Although the ideals of open and free learning are noble, as a pragmatist I would argue that validation is driven by realities more basic than academic or political ideology. William James’ (1907) pragmatic question “What in short is truth’s cash value…?”,  cited in Haack (2006, p30) might be a question we need to ask about MOOCs just as much as we do about traditional educational institutions.  For context, most of my own HE was via the Open University and amongst other things I design and run online HE courses. Being not only a geek when it comes to IT but also a self confessed nerdy geek, I’m always interested in the use of technology to enhance learning. But to quote from All the President’s Men (1976) it is sometimes necessary to cut to the chase and…

“Just … follow the money.”


Yaun, P and Powell, S (2013) MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education. http://publications.cetis.ac.uk/2013/667

Haack, S (2006) Pragmatism Old and New. Prometheus Books, New York


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2 Responses to A MOOC without a MOO is a…?

  1. Rowena Hoseason Friday, 13 September 2013 at 10:28 #

    An extremely interesting and thought-provoking article; thanks KB.
    I’m a mature OU student, halfway through my first degree, using the OU in its traditional role for part-time study while continuing to work full-time. So my studies will take me around a decade to complete, which means I’ve been witnessing at first hand the changes to the OU which have come about from technological developments as well as the financial upheaval affecting tertiary education.

    I took a quick look around a couple of these ‘academies’ in recent yrs, considering them as
    potential OU alternatives or additions. They looked to be useful in providing information pathways for learners in situations where trad forms of education aren’t applicable — mobile b/band in the Outback, educating Africa, etc.

    Not so useful for me trying to fit a medicine degree around normal life in the UK however. I’m not so worried about the accepted qualification — because I’m trying to understand, not just jump the hoops — but without the formal assessment part of the learning process evaporates. There’s no doubt that I learn more efficiently when I have to construct my own arguments… (And I find some of the OU’s attempts at online assessment to be utterly frustrating and valueless; give me an essay any day)

    Having said that, the 24hr availability of quality lectures / tutorials on YouTube is a boon. I’m not sure why the OU haven’t run with that — they are trying to cut costs with live online tutorials (which are pants), when a filmed tutorial from a top-notch communicator would be way more effective. Group tutors could then answer queries in fora, and I’d be a happy bunny.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this all settles down in a decade or so…

    • Karl Bentley
      Karl Bentley Sunday, 15 September 2013 at 16:14 #

      Many thanks for the comments Rowena.
      It will be interesting to follow as MOOCs move though the ‘Hype Cycle TM’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle
      Like yourself I’m an alumni of the OU and have been known to take extra courses just for the ‘education’ rather than a qualification. I’m signed up for a Coursera Philosophy MOOC, starting in late October. Mainly to fill in some gaps for another course as well as a genuine interest. Somehow I doubt the big companies involved see themselves in a sort of digital ‘Reader’s Digest’ of knowledge or as a digital ‘bridesmaid’ of education and are quite intent on muscling into, certainly FE and a tranche of HE as we’ll as secondary learning. It will, as you say, be interesting to see how it all unfolds.