“There are two fundamental approaches to OLL [online learning]. The first is to provide the tools and techniques for individuals to access and organize information to sustain existing distance education practices that maximize learner independence. The second is to use the full capabilities of OLL to create purposeful communities of inquiry that is currently transforming higher education based on collaborative constructivist principles.” (Garrison 2009)
The discussion of MOOCs has to some extent focused on the differences between instructional design xMOOCs and cMOOCs that are connected to connectivist or networked learning theory (Siemens 2005, Jones 2015). In both types of MOOCs, the learning outcome is determined by the self-direction of the learner. The two types of MOOCs can be seen on a scale from high to low structuration and from individual to collective-based participation:
1. Individual acquisition from pre-established curriculum and resources (xMOOC)
2. Self-organized and networked participation in collaborative communities (cMOOC)
Option 1 and 2 both require a high level of intrinsic motivation and provide a high degree of flexibility. 1 and 2 differ when it comes to the social aspect in participation. cMOOCs integrate the social aspect of learning and reciprocal collaboration is part of the learning as well as the learning process. Collaboration is paid with a decreasing degree of flexibility and heightened interdependence, which exactly emphasizes the social element of learning and teaching.
However, far from all - or most of - the potential participants have the prerequisite skills for participation either in one or the other types of MOOCs, which Gráinne Conole shows in her article ‘MOOCs as disruptive technologies: Strategies for Enhancing the Learner Experience and Quality of MOOCs’. Participating in a cMOOC can be a very confusing experience if you are not very apt in online networking and knowledge co-creation in advance. There are a lot communication options available that you as participants will have to relate to and utilize to benefit from the networked learning environment. The proclaimed autonomy also means that individuals risk feeling lost and overwhelmed - frustrated with too many options and the vast complexity of ‘the whole network as a learning environment’. The opposite is the case with xMOOCs where there is no autonomy when it comes to the knowledge offered. It is often a ‘take it or leave’ with no space for negotiating the educational resources or the sensemaking of the knowledge. The educational means often neglect current ways of learning (collaboration, sensemaking, learning as situated etc) and are indeed often ill-suited to many participants and potential participants’ specific learning needs (Conole 2013 p. 11).
According to Conole, we are dealing with a design challenge when it comes to exploiting the media-related options for the design of web-based teaching. Some participants may have been able to exploit the highly individualized form where MOOCs mainly consist of instructional videos and individual tasks. Other students have had a blast and learned a lot through networking and virtuoso use of various forms of communication. Both groups of participants have been preconditioned with strong internal motivation and good professional as well as learning methodological prerequisites (Ferguson et.al. 2014).
The required prior knowledge and the habitus that are needed for highly individualized and self-organized courses, however, is a challenge for many. 'O' for open is a relative concept in MOOCs and the skills required to participate in many MOOCs make them de facto closed for the majority. This de facto closure makes MOOCs less suited as a distribution model of education and training for the many. MOOCs as the well-known x- and c-MOOCs are, therefore, not playing any important role in democratizing education.
If one thinks of education besides narrow job related professional development and some university courses, the lack of real openness is further stressed. If MOOCs are used as a national educational strategy, the achievement with and through MOOCs are discouraging if we only look at the experiences with the two types of MOOCs: xMOOCs and cMOOCs.
If MOOCs are to be part of an education policy strategy which includes Higher and Further education, and other formal education and as part of lifelong learning strategy, the question of pedagogical thinking in MOOC design is crucial as formal education has an obligation to attract a larger and broader group than those who already are well educated and capable of engaging in self-directed education. And as Karsten Gynther points out in “Design Framework for an Adaptive MOOC Enhanced by Blended Learning” the dropout rate really matters when it comes to formal education whereas it doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to individual professional development (Gynther 2016).
According to Stephen Downes, MOOCs should only be judged by the outcomes of individuals: “Different people have different objectives for MOOCs, and what we find in informal learning generally is that people are successful through informal learning, insofar as it enables them to do what it is that they wanted to do.” (Quoted in Buck 2013). But this is not enough when it comes to utilizing the benefits of MOOCs in formal education. In formal education, it does matter what people are learning from participating. Formal education has other requirements than informal learning in respect to content as well as completion rates.
There is a somewhat intrinsic relationship between the skills learned and the pedagogical design. George Siemens (2005) for example argues that the network society or the digital age requires a special way of learning, and he is thus in line with many other researchers who study the relationship between skills or competencies and the ‘digital age’. Much research points to the need of 21st century competencies and new conditions for learning associated with the development of an information and knowledge society or 'the digital age' (ex. Sharpe et al. 2010; Beetham et al. 2007; Nussbaum-Beach et al. 2011; Laurillard 2012). Competencies like collaboration, co-creation, communication and cross-cultural understanding are essential and must be included as part of professional standard in most professions.
The focus on MOOCs in formal education changes the perspective from merely a perspective of the participant - the individual - to also include a societal perspective. Education is about ensuring the right competency profile of the current and future workforce. From the perspective of education this means a shift in focus from a technical viewpoint (how many can you reach?) to a qualitative viewpoint (what will provide the best form of learning/teaching in relation to the given conditions and requirements?). The question changes from 'flexibility for participation' to 'educational quality in supply' (Conole 2013).
Being a part of a national educational supply MOOC design must consider that the learner should be able to engage in a social learning contexts. MOOCs providing courses for individuals must take on responsibility in terms of offering a learning environment with supportive structures to diminish the need of a strong inner motivation. In a study on different models for educational supply to a wider population, Petersen and her colleagues also point to the need of more supportive structures in MOOCs if MOOCs are to be part of formal education: “Some of the negative attributes of MOOCs, however, may be explained by the lack of the supporting structures and the social environment that we associate with traditional education formats such as academic guidance, study group activities, social activities and technical support.” (Petersen et al. 2016 p. 3). The guidance and peer activities are scaffolds for students’ learning process and support the student in achieving the relevant competencies not only for the student but for society as well.
To reflect this need for social or other supportive structures in MOOCs, Ove Christensen talks about Massive Open Online Social Learning or alternatively Massive Open Scaffolded Learning (MOOSL). (Christensen 2015, see also Ferguson 2014). The basic idea of MOOSL is the same as in network learning, but with the difference that the social aspect of learning becomes a principle for the design of the web-based training provision, and that it is not necessarily the participants’ own learning objectives that determine the participant’s progress. In the 2014 report Innovating Pedagogy Mike Scharples and colleagues discuss “which successful pedagogies can improve with scale” and they conclude that MOOCs only can scale if they take advantages of elements of social learning. Their chapter on MOOCs has the telling title: “Massive Open Social Learning.” (Scharples et.al. 2014).
A real open MOOC must be designed to better meet the different needs of potential participants. In a well-designed MOOC, it must therefore also be a participation option to be ‘supported’ and ‘guided’ through a MOOC - MOOCs must facilitate participation, and teaching ‘how to mooc’ should be part of the design. Moocing is what students do when they engage with the online learning environment and the connected activities as co-authoring assignments.
From the challenges, we have seen for MOOC participation and the need for scaffolded participation, we find three prototypes of participation that are equally legitimate in MOOCs in that they are filling the variety of different needs for different types of participation:
1. Individual self-paced acquisition of knowledge and skills based on individual needs (xMOOCs)
2. Participation in collaborative self-organized groups with different levels of participation in co-creation of knowledge (cMOOCs)
3. Scaffolded programs that integrate elements of collaborative communities, social learning and supportive structures of participation (MOOSLs)
The third form of participation requires that educators and MOOC providers must 'rethink pedagogy in the digital age' (Beetham et.al 2007; Sharpe et.al. 2010). Research on the relationship between technology and education points to several quality criteria for good educational design. One can summarize the quality criteria in many ways, but there is no doubt that they as a minimum must contain these seven elements listed by Conole in ‘MOOCs as disruptive technologies: strategies for enhancing the learner experience and quality of MOOCs’ (Conole 2013):
● Encourage learner reflection
● Enable dialogue
● Foster collaboration
● Apply theory learnt to practice
● Create a community of peers
● Enable creativity
● Motivate the learners
And when it comes to online learning, it will also be important that participants have a sense of belonging, feel safe in their learning process and feel that the learning resources are relevant and appropriate to the learner's needs. This is what Randy Garrison calls presence and he operates with different kinds of presence: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence (Garrison 2006 and 2007). He defines presence as a prerequisite for the participants' co-creation, negotiation of meaning and participants processing of understanding of teaching material. Social presence is about the participants and their sense of community. Cognitive presence is felt when the actual content and other learning resources are deemed relevant for participants’ negotiation of meaning. Teaching presence deals with the learning design that structures the teaching and its parts.
In a study of the presence forms that were at stake in an online education, Armellini and Stafani showed that social presence was felt by participants that recognized cognitive presence and teaching presence (Armellini & de Stefani 2015). This finding emphasizes the importance of the social element to support many participants in online learning.
The idea of MOOSLs is that learners are gathering around common learning interests to obtain specified competencies and that they work collaboratively to achieve them as well as their personal learning goals. They form a community - and it is the community that scaffolds their learning. Learners in this model work like a network. The co-learners become part of each other's Professional Learning Network (PLN). For this process to happen the learners - the participants - must have platforms for their communication, collaboration, co-creation and co-learning. That platform can be the MOOC - or it can integrate other already existing platforms such as social media. Especially Twitter offers a promising and dynamic learning network and might be a cornerstone of a Professional Learning Network says Nussbaum-Beech and Ritter in their very interesting study on The Connected Educator (Nussbaum-Beach et.al. 2011).
Fei Gao and co-authors have studied the effect of twitter integration in education up till 2011. In a meta-study, they conclude that “microblogging has a potential to encourage participation, engagement, reflective thinking as well as collaborative learning under different learning settings.” (Gao et.al 2012 p.783). They find that Twitter is a particularly promising tool for creating strong learning communities for many reasons. Not alone the collaboration but also the possible participation of people from the outside in the discussions is a benefit making learning much more authentic. Using social media and especially Twitter in education “promotes a collaborative virtual learning environment.” (Gau et.al 2012 p.783). But they also conclude that there is “a need for rigorous research on” microblogging in education.
Gao’s conclusions are to some extent supported by an empirical study by Gilly Salmon. Salmon and her team were running a MOOC that tried to take advantage of social media as a supportive structure for the students. And during and afterwards they surveyed and interviewed participants on how they had used and benefitted from collaboration on Facebook and Twitter. Their study confirms several potentials for learning when MOOC participation is supported by social media (Salmon et.al. 2015).
In the study, they found that social media made students more engaged in collaboration, co-creation, knowledge sharing and reflexive learning practices. Social media interaction also supported a sense of belonging to a community of learners. But they also found that there was no evidence that social networks provided an arena for independent professional development for all students. On the contrary, they found that for a sample of students, social networks had the opposite effect. Alas, less creative thinking, less knowledge sharing and reduced desire to collaborate. The researchers found that the adverse effects were associated with the conception of social media held by the students. “The main objections to using social media can be divided into three categories: a belief that social media might be a waste of time; the perception of social media platforms as confusing or intimidating; and concerns about blurring social and professional identities.” If students held these beliefs they did not benefit in their learning from social media (Salmon et.al. 2015).
Unlike Gao's study, Salmon’s study indicates that especially Facebook is more promising when used for reflexive learning, while Twitter rather supported sharing of learning resources (Salmon et al. 2015).
That great learning effects that go beyond a given MOOCs platform are achieved through social networking is also confirmed by a study by Veletsiano and colleagues presented in ‘Digging deeper into learners’ experiences in MOOCs: Participation in social networks outside of MOOCs, note taking and contexts surrounding content consumption.' They conclude that the reflexive work through social networking with fellow students can enhance learning. Their study supports the conclusion from Salmon that the students’ conception of social media is important when it comes to the benefits. If students embrace social media they are more likely to reap the benefits through this type of learning.
The social media is not sufficient to offset the challenges in MOOCs and other online learning courses compared to sufficiently providing all or most participants with a sense of belonging to a learning community, or to support competency development of interpersonal skills, co-creation, communication and participation in reflexive and collaborative learning processes.
To really teach students to mooc, more supportive structures must be in place than just a coupling to social media. But social media can for a large sample of students be one of the most important scaffolding structures, and it is a structure that most of them know from their everyday life - and something that most of them have experiences with before participating in online learning.
In 'Guidelines for Facilitating the development of learning communities in online courses' Yuan and Kim point to the importance that MOOCs establish themselves as learning communities. Learning Communities, where participants have a sense of belonging, where there is academic exchange, collaboration and knowledge sharing, and how you can work together on common issues is essential for the many benefits of web-based education. To succeed the learning communities, must be part of the design, and it must continuously be supported in the course (Yuan & Kim 2014). There must therefore be allocated ‘space’ to 'group activities'.
It is also important that MOOC instructors contribute to the learning communities and their maintenance to give the students a security for the professionalism (the feeling for teaching presence (Garrison 2009), which Salmon (2015) pointed out to be a challenge. Yuan and Kim also stresses the need to work with both synchronous and asynchronous contribution to the learning communities. The principles of teachers' active participation and use of both synchronous and asynchronous contributions to learning communities can be both costly and reduce the flexibility of a web-based training. But to make sure that MOOCs become an educational opportunity for the many, MOOC providers still have much to work on. (Ferguson 2014).
It is essential that study activities in a MOOC are designed so that they require or at least strongly support that students are working in groups. (Yuan & Kim 2014). And the activities need to be varied so students are accustomed to different ways of working with peers. It is crucial that there are different activities, so the learning community is activated in different learning processes: reflective, collaborative, discursive and so on.
Armellini, A. & M. De Stefani (2015): "Social presence in the 21st century: An adjustment to the Community of Inquiry framework", British Journal of Educational Technology
Beetham, H. & R. Sharpe (eds.). (2007). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning. Routledge.
Buck, T.E. (2013). The Massive Effect of MOOCs on Higher Education. Edtech Magazine.
Christensen, O. et.al (2014), Kan vi lære af de andre? - udenlandske erfaringer med e-læring og blended learning i erhvervsuddannelser og læreruddannelser for erhvervsskolelærere. (What to be learned from others? - Foreign experiences with elearning and blended learning in vocational education and teacher education) UCSJ Forlag
Christensen, O (2015), Massive Open Online Social Learning (MOOSL). Blog post
Conole, Gráinne (2013): ‘MOOCs as disruptive technologies: strategies for enhancing the learner experience and quality of MOOCs.’ Revista de Educación a Distancia 39
Ferguson, Rebecca, and Mike Sharples (2014): ‘Innovative pedagogy at massive scale: teaching and learning in MOOCs.’ Open Learning and Teaching in Educational Communities 98-111.
Gao, F., Luo, T., & Zhang, K. (2012). Tweeting for learning: A critical analysis of research on microblogging in education published in 2008–2011. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(5), 783-801.
Garrison, R. (2006): ‘Online collaboration principles’, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 10.1
Garrison, D. (2007): ‘Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence Issues’, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 11.1
Garrison, R. (2009). ‘Implications of online learning for the conceptual development and practice of distance education’. The Journal of Distance Education, 23
Gynther, K. (2016). ‘Design Framework for an Adaptive MOOC Enhanced by Blended Learning: Supplementary Training and Personalized Learning for Teacher Professional Development’. EJEL # 1
Jones, Christopher (2015): Networked Learning - An Educational Paradigm for the Age. Springer, Berlin
Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a design science. Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. New York, NY, Routledge
Nussbaum-Beach S. &; Lani Ritter Hall (2011), The Connected Educator. Learning and Leading in a Digital Age. Solution Tree.
Petersen, A.K., A. Hestbech & P. Gundersen (2016). ‘A Design Based Introduction to Learning Centres’. LOM # 15
Salmon, G. et.al (2015): ’The space for social media in structured online learning’, Research in Learning Techonolgy. Vol. 23
Sharpe, R., H. Beetham, S. De Freitas. (2010). Rethinking learning for a digital age: How learners are shaping their own experiences. Routledge.
Sharples, M. et.al. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014. Open University Innovation Report 3
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International journal of instructional technology and distance learning, 2(1), 3-10.
Surowiecki, James (2005). The wisdom of crowds. Anchor.
Yuan, J. & C. Kim (2014): ‘Guidelines for facilitating the development of learning communities in online courses. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 30.3