Topic 2 – disheveled reflections on MOOCs

Another week of the ONL course has led us to collaboratively investigate the second topic. We followed the same organization pattern as before so we escaped much of the confusion this time. So far the most effective approach has been to synchronize our efforts towards a FISh document and the final presentation, thus limiting video as well as other forms of lively online interaction to minimum. This does not help my sceptical perception of PBL as a form of online learning but, most importantly, we get the job done, have some fun and take some satisfaction from the end product, maybe partly also from the process.

This time we collectively agreed to focus on MOOCs. I must admit that before joining the course I considered MOOCs, from my digitally illiterate perspective, as the bread and butter of online learning and in some way the term worked like a magnet attracting me to the course. In my field the concept has received a lot of attention since an open course in Artificial Intelligence was introduced at Stanford University. This set a trend that many institutions followed by developing a wide range of courses in Computer Science with varying success largely depending on the reputation, even more than the actual quality. Nevertheless, MOOCs are by far the most common online learning topic discussed among colleagues in my department. According to some, MOOCs can pose a threat or competition to formal education even though it is free of charge in Sweden.  In this context, a perspective of MOOCs as complement to traditional teaching (Weller, 2014) particularly appeals to me. A blended course design where online content facilitates teaching/learning activities in a class sounds promising, especially for large courses. One specific idea would be to designate some of the lectures as open online resources for students to follow at their convenience. Then, the time physically spent with students could be more effectively turned into a learning experience. After all, one-way communication conveyed from the perspective of the whiteboard is increasingly reported as an inefficient use of time (Gupta, 2007), similar way online lectures can be but at least not at the high cost of the precious interactive time with students.

Another issue concerning MOOCs as a phenomenon in online education is their quality. Since there seems to be an overall problem with student retention (Weller & Anderson, 2013; Weller, 2014), and even with the way it is quantified (Weller, 2014), the course quality does not necessarily have to be reflected in the number or proportion of active participants. It is rather a sense of support, facilitation, inspiration or further learning incentives the course provides or not that is related to the measure of success. How to gauge that effect given a wide range of students’ attitudes is another question. Any ideas?

Irrespective of how the quality is defined or subsequently measured, implications of inferior quality can be rather damaging (Weller & Anderson, 2013; Weller, 2014). I must admit not really reflecting deeply on that before – losing reputation can reverberate more globally due to the nature of MOOC distribution. This can certainly be an inhibitory factor in making a decision about taking a leap in the dark.

All in all, MOOCs appear as a disruptive technology – they seem to underlie one of the major breakthroughs in open access and online learning. At the same time, despite the huge educational potential they offer, not necessarily as a standalone but rather as a supportive teaching/learning form, MOOCs may imply a lot of risks too. It is not enough to display a generous attitude to openness and share any teaching content. With MOOCs one of the major responsibilities is to secure the top quality since otherwise a serious blow can be dealt to the reputation of an individual or her/his institution. Besides the economic sustainability issues, which should rather be addressed at an institutional level, I perceive the risk of failing with MOOCs to be a critical factor that everyone hast to consider individually.



Gupta, B.L. (2007) Management of competency based learning. New Dehli, India: Concept Publishing Company.

Weller, M., & Anderson, T. (2013) Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53.

Weller, M. (2014) Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press.


4 thoughts on “Topic 2 – disheveled reflections on MOOCs

  1. I see your point. What’s in it for the teacher/institute? I just realize the fundamental difference between open source and open course. While the former will be enriched by all contributors, the latter will still be a one-way channel for teaching. The incentive is just not there…


  2. Great and important points.

    I found your discussion regarding a competition between normal/campus based education and free online MOOC education very interesting. As you write, MOOCS might not replace campus education, instead the main interest should be how we can integrate MOOCs in campus education. Personally, I think MOOCs could be a good substitute for some course literature.
    Students will still need a place to practice and implement their knowledge. Maybe and hopefully that will be what teachers and universities will be doing in the future.

    Well written and good references.

    I can tell yo that there is ongoing talks at KTH on how to integrate Moocs both in Campus courses and with other universities.


  3. I agree that the main benefit for an institution like KTH in the short term is MOOCs or OER in the form of support to our traditional courses, in one or several of the following aspects:

    1) MOOC instead of online course, for administrative, financial or promotional reasons. This is what is currently happening with the introductory courses in mathematics, physics and programming, which used to be web-based. Turning them into MOOCs avoids the admission and registration process; it sets a clear limit on the funding for the course, so that it is not increased with increasing number of students; and it might be a promotional feature for KTH if prospective students can try out the course without the entire hassle of being admitted.

    2) As support to on-campus courses, e.g., with flipped classroom setting, where introductory videos and exercises may be used to start the students learning, and scheduled situated teacher-led seminars can handle the issues that are difficult to convey with video illustrations or standardised online exercises.

    3) As formative and summative assessment method, where adaptive online exercises may be more pedagogically effective than standard written exams.

    I do agree with the statement that there is a risk of failure in the potentially wide exposure of a MOOC, but disagree with the division into financial sustainability=institutional responsibility and quality=individual responsibility. The institution’s reputation is as much at risk as the individual’s for failed MOOCs and it is therefore vital that the institution both check its MOOCs to be published for quality *and* provides the teacher who are to launch the MOOC with adequate resources and support for it to be successful.


    • Ad.2) I definitely share that vision. However, it is not necessarily in line with some of the arguments you raised in p.1, e.g. scaling of course finances. As you admitted though, the supportive role of MOOCs can manifests itself in different aspects depending on the setup.
      In the presented context, should we still refer to the proposed form of online deliver as a MOOC or rather pre-recorded lectures/videos etc? I am just wondering if it not a fallacy to believe that we can both provide support for our blending learning directed to a specific group of students and at the same time address a wider audience.

      Ad.3) I can only enthusiastically agree that the institution should secure sufficient support and control the quality of individual efforts in providing MOOCs to aim for a successful level of education. This would reflect well on everyone involved. However, today’s practice makes me sceptical about this institutional involvement. Currently, there is no evaluation scheme for the teaching we perform at KTH in a classical setup. We only rely on students’ evaluations of our pedagogical efforts, which is rather questionable in the light of recent studies. My concern therefore is that, at the end of the day, the educational developers may not necessarily receive the support really needed for facilitating good-quality learning experience for students. So far the main focus has been on technical aspects (including presentation techniques etc.) rather than understanding the philosophy of delivering educational content through MOOCs.
      Finally, irrespective of circumstances, I really think it is hard to hide a teacher behind an institution as far as her/his specific teaching practice is concerned. Whether it is desirable or not, it is often mainly teacher’s reputation at stake, which naturally comes with the primary responsibility we assume as teachers.


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