Making sense of MOOCs at Wits



The word MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course. The term emerged in 2008 for a particular type of e-learning activity that was intended to integrate “the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an acknowledged expert in a field of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources” (McAuley et al 2010). Since 2008, this format has rapidly grown in popularity, expanded, evolved (Haggard, 2013) and morphed into a less defined concept with meanings that are vague and contested (Stewart, 2013).

Sir John Daniel (2012) points out that the Wikipedia definition of MOOCs is in flux. On 2012-09-16 Wikipedia defined a MOOC as
‘a course where the participants are distributed and course materials are also dispersed across the web … this is possible only if the course is open, and works significantly better if the course is large. The course is not a gathering, but rather a way of connecting distributed instructors and learners across a common topic or field of discourse’.
By 2012-09-20 the definition had become:
‘a MOOC is a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web. MOOCs are a recent development in the area of distance education, and a progression of the kind of open education ideals suggested by open educational resources. Though the design of and participation in a MOOC may be similar to college or university courses, MOOCs typically do not offer credits awarded to paying students at schools. However, assessment of learning may be done for certification’.
Most recently (2014-06-01) the definition had changed to
‘a MOOC is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants’.
These shifting definitions make it clear that a commonly shared understanding of the term has still to emerge, as suggested by Matthew Plourde’s poster entitled “MOOC: Every letter is negotiable.” MOOCs, at present, remain a quickly moving target with “new material presenting new aspects or insights becoming available on a daily basis” (Gaebel, 2013).

MOOCs are probably best understood descriptively, in contrast to traditional university courses, and may be characterised as follows:

  • MOOCs have content, learning activities and engagement that occur online;
  • MOOCs have a start and finishing time;
  • MOOCs have no formal entry requirements and they are accessible to anyone with a computer and internet connection;
  • MOOCs are free of charge;
  • MOOCs are designed to support an indefinite number of participants; and
  • MOOCs do not earn credits.

The term MOOC was coined by Bryan Alexander and Dave Cormier and first used in 2008 (Daniel, 2012) to describe an experimental course run by George Siemens of the University of Manitoba and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council of Canada. Siemens and Downes opened up an accredited course on their work in connectivist learning theory to the public. The original purpose of this first MOOCs was not only to provide a scaled learning opportunity, but also to improve the learning experience. A few other MOOCs followed in the footsteps of Siemens and Downes model, and the connectivist vision emphasizing “creativity, autonomy and social networked learning” in an environment where participants in the course would act as both teachers and students, sharing information and engaging in a joint teaching and learning experience through intense interaction facilitated by technology was pursued.

The MOOC model caught the attention of the press in 2012 and was touted as a “Campus Tsunami” (Brooks, 2012). When The New York Times labelled 2012 the ‘year of the MOOC’, they were not however referring to the model developed by Siemens and Downes but to high profile ‘Courses’ with enormous enrolment numbers. Popular attention from entrepreneurial vendors, education professionals and technologically literate sections of the public (Yuan & Powell, 2013) shifted to this variant, as can be seen by the large volume of press articles and blogs about the topic.

Since the original instance of MOOCs, the undergirding ideas behind MOOCs have morphed from a connectivist approach to behaviourist, so much so that MOOCs are divided into subsets –cMOOCs and xMOOCs. “cMOOCs emphasise connected, collaborative learning and the courses are built around a group of like-minded individuals’ platform to explore new pedagogies beyond traditional classroom settings and, as such, tend to exist on the radical fringe of Higher Education. On the other hand, the instructional model (xMOOCs) is essentially an extension of the pedagogical models practised within the institutions themselves, which is arguably dominated by the “drill and grill” instructional methods with video presentations, short quizzes and testing” (Yuan & Powell, 2013).

In the developed world, the combination of rising tertiary education costs, distributed communications and venture capital looking for a business opportunity to be exploited (Yuan & Powell, 2013) offered American and European universities an opportunity to think afresh about new business models that may fix or disrupt education, and force it to change. The interest in MOOCs has grown beyond the developed world, because MOOC providers have promised free access to cutting edge courses that could drive down the cost of university-level education. However, much of the early literature about the subject was dominated by thinly disguised promotional material by commercial interests or written by practitioners whose perspective is their own MOOC courses (Daniel, 2012).

MOOC literature can be divided into three classifications:
1) Contributions by individual authors on MOOCs
2) General press writing and journalism.
3) Formal and comprehensive research carried out with methodological approaches
Universities in the developing world may have been influenced by the hype generated by category one and two and I have been party to numerous hallway conversations around MOOCs and whether Wits can and should use this form locally. Two years since the Tsunami proclamation, published research is beginning to suggest that MOOCs are not conceptually as revolutionary as they seem (Bali, 2014). Although strong claims were initially made for MOOCs to drive innovative pedagogies and flexible modes of course delivery, as well as encouraging learner analytics through the processing of course data, the substance beyond the hype is lacking (Walker & Voce, 2014).

While MOOCs do provide alternative routes for students to gain new knowledge according to a given curriculum, they also highlight the many fault lines that exist in the terrain of contemporary higher education. When people express an opinion about MOOCs, they often conflate online education, with globalization, and with networked learning (Stewart, 2013). A hyped interest in technology and its place in education contributed to a shallow understanding of MOOCs and led to unlikely predictions about new educational models that will replace the established system (Hill 2012).

Although many large online free courses describe themselves as a MOOC, there is no unified “ultimate goal” for MOOCs and neither one can it be generalized why MOOCS are used. Some have argued that MOOCs help universities fulfil their ultimate non-profit goals of offering knowledge to society and widening access to education (Bali, 2014). Low completion rates (reported as less than 10% across numerous reports), the low ratio of students from underserved areas and a high percentage of registrants already with an undergraduate degree or higher have undermined this stated intention. Real motivations may not be as philanthropic, but more operational like marketing and branding for future profit-making. Ivy League universities have widely engaged MOOC service providers by lending brand, content, funds, staff, badging and policy support. Their intentions are certainly not only altruistic, and see opportunities for brand enhancement, pedagogic experimentation, recruitment and business model innovation.

In Africa, MOOCs have been positioned as an adjunct to a country’s development process and are hailed as a cost-free way to access excellent resources and learning experiences for students in less educationally privileged geographies (Haggard, 2013). Sceptics suggest that MOOCs, with their high demands for connectivity, online literacy, and English language skills, may be excluding developing world students and privileging learners from the most highly developed educational environments. This is a factor particularly relevant to the South African higher educational landscape. Others take this criticism further and suggest that MOOCs may be “yet another wave in cultural imperialism from the ‘North’ and the ‘West’ crashing across borders, washing over (or possibly washing out) local educational institutions, cultural norms and educational traditions” (Trucano, 2013).

Trucano suggests that in a developing context, there are further questions that need to be addressed around MOOCs.

  • Are MOOCs addressing equity concerns? MOOCs were touted as a way to provide access to education for some of the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in developing countries. However, there is not much evidence to back up such claims. As research into course outcomes has become known, it has become apparent that most people who successfully complete MOOCs already have a university degree.
  • How do MOOCs contribute towards building ‘local capacity’? MOOCs are often offered in partnership with an established platform provider and it could be argued that MOOCs are the first step to outsourcing the teaching of courses to more highly qualified teachers from other countries. If MOOCs are merely about adopting technologies developed and maintained by others, then capacity to develop such technologies ourselves will not be fostered.
  • Are MOOCs vanity projects? – the decision to create a MOOC instead of investing scarce resources in other areas may lead to underfunding of other important programmes.

While this critical discourse around MOOCs is important, from an educational technologist position, there are two ways that Wits can utilize the discussion around MOOCs:

  1. We can participate in the ‘MOOC phenomenon’ as a consumer of things produced elsewhere, or
  2. We can use participation in MOOCs as a strategic opportunity to help to develop related local capacities.

Both options are legitimate, but the latter option, while much more difficult to pursue, may be worth serious consideration. I’d argue that Wits should take the opportunity to develop a more strategic approach to online learning and not let the polarised opinions between those who identify MOOCs as direct access to global quality education, versus those who detect a new form of cultural imperialism distract Wits from exploring a set of opportunities that have been brought to the attention of mainstream education by MOOCs.
MOOCs offer Wits the following

  1. Pedagogic opportunities – for educators to experiment and evaluate different online learning approaches by developing and using MOOCs that challenge the established roles of learner and teacher and offer more flexible forms of learning and assessment that include community as well as content-based models of learning. For some, experimentation will be at the level of the individual lecturer and for others it may be departmental or large-scale cross-institutional change projects.
  2. Research opportunities – MOOCs provide a great opportunity to develop research how courses can draw from a pool of open educational resources (OER) and provide their students with better and more varied teaching than individual instructors could develop by themselves.
  3. Materials development opportunities – In era of knowledge abundance, the structures and roles through which we organize learning experiences are designed on pre-digital concepts of what is possible and valid. Universities’ and academics’ roles are both deeply rooted in the concept of centralized expertise. MOOCs offer opportunities to challenge this model

As a solution to the problems of higher education, MOOCs in their present form are unsustainable and without an established business model, they cannot be replicated by universities worldwide. MOOCs unfortunately are bubble, and the motivation for getting involved stems primarily from the fear of being left behind. The MOOC phenomena has however provide important opportunities to learn about online pedagogy, to research online education and to develop digital materials. MOOCs do not necessarily need to showcase an academic, high-profile ‘rockstar’ and his/her teaching. MOOCs can focus on gateway skills and help prepare students for undergraduate study and introduce skills required. The foundational or enhancement skills would be taken by students prior to applying or attending Wits. MOOCs could help prepare students for postgraduate study and develop general skills and expectations. MOOCs may support continuing education and showcase professional careers and qualifications. MOOCs geared towards vocational skills development, re-tooling and professional development could be offered in conjunction with other organisations or professional bodies (Brown et al 2014).

MOOCs have initiated a long overdue debate about the place of online teaching and learning in higher education. And while this new interest in educational technology has resulted in a lot of hype and in shallow descriptions of the potential for new educational models to replace the established system, the debates have also offered opportunities for universities to reconsider a range of different models for delivering education. Wits need not automatically follow the MOOC agenda, but should use this opportunity to discuss and debate how we as an institution can improve the quality and pedagogy of online education and learn the lessons from research on MOOCs and other earlier educational technologies.

Bali, M. (2014). MOOC Pedagogy: Gleaning Good Practice from Existing MOOCs. Journal of Online Learning & Teaching, 10(1).
Brooks, D. (2012) “The Campus Tsunami,” New York Times, May 3, 2012,
Brown, C., Deacon, A., Small, J. & Walji, S. (2014) To MOOC or not to MOOC?
Conole, G. A new classification for MOOCs
Daniel, J. (2012). Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. Journal of Interactive Media in Education.
EDUCAUSE (2012, December 20). What campus leaders need to know about MOOCs: an EDUCAUSE executive briefing. Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Publications.
Haggard, S. (2013). The maturing of the MOOC (BIS Research paper number 130). London, England: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Gaebel, M. (2013). MOOCs–Massive Open Online Courses. EUA Ocassional Papers.
Hill, P. (2012) Online Educational Delivery Models: A Descriptive view
McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, & Cormier (2010) The MOOC model for digital practice –
Plourde, M. (2013). MOOC: every letter is negotiable,
Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ Openness= New Literacies of Participation?.Journal of Online Learning & Teaching, 9(2).
Trucano, M. (2013). More about MOOCs and developing countries
Walker, R., & Voce, J. The Future of Learning Conference. (pdf)
Yuan, L., & Powell, S. (2013). MOOCs and open education: Implications for higher education (2013:WP01). Bolton, UK: JISC Centre for Educational Technology & Interoperability Standards
Yuan, L., Powell, S. & Oliver, B. (2014). Beyond MOOCs: Sustainable Online Learning in Institutions