Origins of MOOCs

Some welcome antidote to the avalanche of – mainly US-centred – information assuming that MOOCs started with the 2011 AI (Artificial Intelligence) course at Stanford and the subsequent Silicon Valley fuelled start-up frenzy spearheaded by Coursera, edX and Udacity.

The graph below comes from a JISC CETIS publication and helpfully links the xMOOCs to the OER movement and the cMOOC’ers.


The figure below, from an excellent paper in Open Praxis from Sandra Peter and Markus Deimann, links MOOCs to much earlier developments such as the Public Lectures and the 17th century coffee houses.  Taking a historical perspective arguably has the advantage of countering the techno-utopian language that surrounds xMOOCs.  It also subtly dinstinguishes between MOOCs and the AI-offspring, rightly implying that these courses are no MOOCs (at least not as MOOCs were originally intended (YouTube video).


A historical form can bring a sense of perspective and yield a cautionary tale or two for the future of online education.  Peter and Deimann write: ‘ Historical forms of openness caution us against assuming that particular configurations will prevail, or that social aspects should be assumed as desired by default‘.

Such a cautionary tale may well refer to the xMOOCs, which seem to deliberately obscure the meaning of terms such as ‘open’ and ‘MOOCs’.  Looking for a viable business model, they intend to capture the emerging OER and MOOC movements before they become threatening, rather than strenghten them.  Their arguments reflect those made by Tim Wu in his excellent book ‘The Master Switch’, about which I blogged here, as they warn:

“After a period of open movements many times there have been slight but important shifts from “pure” openness towards “pretended” openness, i.e. some aspects have been modified to offer more control for producers and other stakeholders. For instance, the historic culture of the coffeehouses had been transformed to private clubs and closed, exclusive societies.”



#H809 Key Criteria for ‘Healthy’ Online Communities

Communities of Practice is one of the most used concepts in educational research these days.  Wenger (1998) has provided a theoretical basis for the concept, although his definition is quite fluid and difficult to grasp (Johnson, 2001).  Preece (2000) has  developed an operationalisation of the concept, centred around concepts of usability and sociability.  These relate to the duality, developed by Wenger, between design and emergence.

Jones and Preece (2006) distinguish between Communities of Interest (COI) and Communities of Practice (COP).  The latter, described by Wenger (1998), are reserved for communities in professional contexts.  COI refer to the more organic, loosely structured communities that centre around people’s interests.  Garrison has coined the term Community of Inquiry, focusing on groups in educational settings.  There seems to be a rich amount of literature on these Communities of Inquiry.

Preece (2000) uses a sociability and usability framework to analyse the success of COI and COP.  Usability is related to user-friendliness and consists of guidelines for the design of online spaces.  Criteria for sociability centre around the 3 P’s of people, purpose and policies.

Sociability framework

Sociability framework (Preece, 2000)

1. People

  • Reciprocity
    • requires ‘nurturing’ in young communities
    • ‘lurkers’ routinely comprise at least 50% of participants
  • Empathy and trust
    • empathy: ability to understand others and react compassionately
    • trust: expectations of positive interactions
  • Clear leadership and commitment
    • Supported by research from Wenger et al. (2011): “what makes a difference is not the quantity of users, but the passion and commitment with which a subset of users provide leadership, example and high quality content”

2. Purpose

  • Common ground
    • corresponds with ‘mutual understanding’ (Wenger, 1998) , sense of unity, a common vision & values
    • clarity of common purpose for participants  (* I’m not convinced all participants need to have a common purpose)
    • related to motivation
  • Incentives for collaboration (vs. competition)

3. Policies

  • Etiquette
    • can be realized through formal rules or through self-governance/ cultural norms
    • related to amount of social pressure and presence of leadership
  • Social presence
    • described as sense people have online of others being present
    • can be generated by short response time, not necessarily by many postings
    • is strongly positively related with etiquette
  • maturity
    • COI/COP need time to form and grow, in order to develop, in Wenger’s (1998) terms, ‘mutual understanding’, ‘common language’ and ‘reified artefacts’

Comparing these criteria with Stephen Downes’ description of characteristics of successful networks, highlights some of the differences between communities and networks:

  • autonomy
    • degree to which a network and its members can act independently
    • not a criterion for a community, rather are coherence and a sense of belonging to group (identification)
  • diversity
    • degree to which various backgrounds and opinions are represented in the network
    • communities require a mutual understanding and shared repertoire.
  • openness
    • degree to which the community is open to new members
    • * although not mentioned, I believe this was a major weakness of the COP of physics teachers in the Jones and Preece (2006) study.


Preece, J. (2000) Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, John Wiley & Sons.

Jones, A. and Preece, J. (2006) ‘Online communities for teachers and lifelong learners: a framework for comparing similarities and identifying differences in communities of practice and communities of interest’, International Journal of Learning Technology, 2(2), pp. 112–137.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B. and De Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands, Available online

2012, Year of the MOOC?

funny-farm-animals-04In various places (such as the New York Times) 2012 has been heralded as the year of the Massive Open & Online Course, also called MOOC.  Although MOOCs have been around since 2008 or so, developed by researchers like Stephen Downes, David Courmier, George Siemens, Jim Groom and others.

“In the summer of 2008 I invited George Siemens and Stephen Downes to come to edtechtalk and tell us about the new course they were teaching. They had 25 people registered (paid), at the university of Manitoba, but they had opened the class for online registration to whomever wanted to come along. Hundreds (and then a couple thousand) people took them up on it. We started talking about what it meant to have lots and lots of people learning together… somewhere in there, i called them a massive open online course… for which i have been often chastised :)” (from Dave Courmier’s blog)

They are based on a connectivist pedagogy, characterised by distributed content, network formation, creation of artefacts outside course-related structures and superfluous course boundaries.  MOOCs based on these principles are often dubbed cMOOCs, to distinguish them from their less salubrious nephews.

The main in change in 2012 has been the entering of Ivy League institutions in the MOOC fray.  As OU vice-chancellor Martin Bean notes, the arrival of great brands, lots of (venture capital) money has vastly increased the forces of disruption.  The entrance of Silicon Valley in MOOCs has been spearheaded by Coursera, Udacity (both offshoots from an open Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford University) and edX (grown from MITx after investment and participation from Harvard University and UC Berkeley).  Online courses from these providers routinely attract tens of thousands of people (although drop-out rates are stratospheric).  Mass media have picked up the phenomenon (New York Times, The Economist, Financial Times).  Coursera has been gradually expanding its offer to non-US universities and currently offers more than 200 courses from 62 universities and 14 countries, including France, The Netherlands, Hong Kong and Italy (no, not from Belgium yet, no surprises there).  It’s interesting to note that these institutions have largely missed out the evolution to online learning so far and their  Silicon-centredness and lack of regard for 40 years of research in distance and online learning has been derided by researchers.  In the UK the Open University (OU) has recently announced its own MOOC platform, Futurelearn – here is a worthwhile reflection from OU researcher Doug Clow – and in March a ‘regular’ online course (h817) will be offered partly as a free open course.

Dubbing 2012 the ‘year of the MOOC’ may seem condescending to institutions and researchers who have been active on the topic for years.  However, there’s no denying in the worldwide appeal of the Ivy League institutions and their disruptive power.  Many challenges remain, in terms of business models, learner interaction, accreditation and quality.  It will be interesting to watch if also this disruptive innovation, like radio and television before, will evolve from an open, bottom-up structure full of creativity towards a commercialised and closed system, as described so beautifully by Tim Wu in ‘The Master Swith’ (blog post on the book).

#H807 E-learning Models and their Implications for Activity Design

Copyright: Oliver Merkel

With the submission of TMA03 the focus in H807 shifts to the design of e-tivities (Salmon, 2000).  The ultimate block starts with a study of the theoretical foundations that underpin activity design explicitly or, more often, implicitly, as pedagogic assumptions.  The key text is a review of e-learning theories by Mayes and de Freitas (2004), complemented by e-books from Terry Anderson (2008) and Peter Goodyear (2001).

E-learning theories are not new theories, but rather e-enhancements of existing learning theories (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).  They form “sets of beliefs: about the nature of knowledge and competence, about the purposes of learning, about how learning occurs, about how people should and should not be treated, etc” (Goodyear, 2001, p.51)

Consecutive learning theories don’t replace, but rather complement each other, each contributing its legacy to learning.  Theories are situated at various levels of aggregation, with associative/behaviourist approaches addressing observable factors, cognitive approaches focusing on the ‘detailed structures and processes that underlie individual performance’ and situative approaches taking into account the social and cultural aspects of learning (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).

Activity designs are usually a blend of different learning theories.  Being aware of the main learning theories helps building a consistent design and clarifying what type of learning and interaction is intended. An example provided by Goodyear (2001):

It is not uncommon to find some members of a team believing that learners are poor at organizing themselves and learn best by being fed information in small amounts, while other members of the team want to promote active, student-managed learning.

The table below summarizes key concepts of different learning theories and their implications for online learning, taken from the publications from Anderson, Mayes and de Freitas and Goodyear.

Associative/ Behaviourist approaches Design principles
Looking for observable behaviour Explicitly mentioning course outcomes
Behavioural objectives Ability to test achievement of learning outcomes
Instructional Systems Design (ISD) Decomposing learning into small chunks
Routines of organised activity
Learning hierarchies (controversial!) Sequencing learning materials with increasing complexity
Giving direct feedback on learning
Individualized learning trajectories
Cognitive psychology (constructivism)
Types of memory (sensory – short term – long term) Maximize sensations: strategic screen layout
Research on memory, perception, reasoning, concept formation. Maximize sensations: well-paced information
Learning is active Maximize sensations: highlighting main elements
Learning is individual (knowledge construction) Relate difficulty level to cognitive level of learner: providing links to easier and more advanced resources
Use of comparative advance organizers
Use of conceptual models
Importance of prior knowledge structures Pre-instructional & prerequisite questions
Experimentation toward discovery of broad principles
Promote deep processing Use of information maps zooming in/ out
Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al, 1989) Interactive environments for construction of understanding
Metacognition (reflection, self-regulation) Relate to real-life (apply, analyse, synthesize)
Learning styles (controversial!) Address various learning styles
Cognitive styles Let students prepare a journal
Dual coding theory Use both visual information and text
Motivate learners (ARCS model) Use techniques to catch attention, explain relevance,  build confidence and increase satisfaction
Situated learning (constructivism)
Personal knowledge construction Personal meaning to learning
Situated learning: motivation Relate to real life (relevance)
Holistic/ Systemic approaches Conduct research on internet
Build confidence with learners
Identity development Use of first-hand information (not filtered by instructor)
Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger) Collaborative activities
Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) Fostering the growth of learning communities
Learning as act of participation Legitimate (peripheral) practice, apprenticeships
Lifelong learning Authentic learning and assessment tasks
Information explosion Digital literacies
Learning in network environment Keep up-to-date in field
Knowledge base Multi-channel learning
Distributed learning Build diversity, openness in learning (different opinions), autonomy
Personal Learning Environment  self-directed learning, just-in-time

Some comments on the table:

1. It’s difficult to draw sharp lines between these theories.  Some authors distinguish between cognitive constructivism (based on the work from Piaget) and social-cultural constructivism (based on the work from Vygotsky).  The work of Vygotsky formed the basis for the anthropological work from Jean Lave and the concept of ‘communities of practice’. The work of Engeström on activity theory forms a bridge between situative learning (with the activity system, it takes a more social unit of analysis than the individual) and constructivist approaches.

2 .Constructivism doesn’t really fit into the overview.  Goodyear (2001, p.75) mentions the following description of constructivism:

“…learning is a constructive process in which the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended….this view of knowledge does not necessarily deny the existence of the real world..but contends that all we know of the world are human interpretations of our experience of the world….learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts…” In other words, constructivism states that knowledge is relative and is different for every user.  Learning, in this position, means actively building a personal and contextualised interpretation of experience.



#H800 Communities of Practice, Networked Individualism, Network Dynamics and Mycorrizhal Networks

Communities of Practice

The concept of Communities of Practice (COP) was introduced by Lave and Wenger (1991) to highlight and conceptualize forms of learning that focus on participation and are not limited to the individual level (don’t stop ‘at the skin of the individual’).  Legitimate peripheral practice is the conceptualization of the apprentice learning a craft with a master, thereby gradually gaining mastery in the subject. Learning was an inevitable aspect of all productive practices and not limited to a formal setting within schools or institutions.  The communities in the COP can be characterised as:

Clearly bounded structure, with rules for membership.

  • Single centre of supreme skill and mastery
  • A hierarchical structure where new members (apprentices) start at the ‘periphery’ and gradually move toward the centre of the community as they obtain mastery.  Also called a ‘centripetal’ structure.


However, recent work by Engeström (2007) challenges Wenger’s analysis by pointing out oppression by dominant figures in communities and rebellion by apprentices.  He argues that learning is not smooth and necessarily centripetal. Instead, the movement of learning is shaped by learning’s participants.  Those at the hub of the learning experience exert the greatest influence.
Jones (2004) recalls the successful application of network dynamics in domains like transport and politics.  He argues that mathematical network principles like power laws, clustering and the strength of weak ties can be applied on learning networks.  Networks can be identified from the level of societies and institutions down to individuals and ideas.  Individuals can be nodes in a network, engaged in linking to other persons, agents and resources.  Or, ideas can be considered as nodes with associations between them forming the links of the network.  His ideas remind me of Connectivism – discussed in an earlier blog post– which claims to be a learning theory for the internet age.  Connectivism describes learning as building networks, not only of physical persons, but of associated ideas.
Engeström considers COP as a-historical structures (unlike activity systems in Activity Theory) , which means they are not connected with the varying dominant organisational structures in a society.  Engeström argues that COP are mainly useful in a society dominated by craft and industrial production.  Craft is characterised by a master-apprentice relationship and industrial production is characterised by teams, small groups with well-defined membership and with members who have complementary competences and work together on certain task.  Gradually, however, a ‘co-configuration’ model is evolving in which companies are becoming more susceptible for input from customers and other outside sources (co-creation of value as described by Prahalad and Rawasmamy, 2004).  Adler and Hecksher (2006, cited in Engeström, 2007) call the organisational structure for the post-industrial society a ‘collaborative community’.
A collaborative community is different from a team in 4 aspects:
  • Boundaries become more fluid;
  • Very high level of division of labour and diversity of knowledge;
  • Authority based on knowledge and expertise instead of status;
  • Values are orienting and motivating elements for members of the community.
  • Increased importance of motivation follows from looser membership rules.
Engeström points out that such a collaborative community is no longer a team, but a network.
Social production and the mycorrizhae analogy
For Engeström the organisational structure of the information society is social production. The flagship example of social production is the open source movement.  Thousands of developers and bug fixers work together in a loosely-structured network without a clear centre – although a success factor of the Linux and Moodle open source networks is arguably the role of their respective leaders -, but with a compelling common goal, called ‘runaway objects’.  Examples are global warming and a free operating system.
Engeström develops an analogy with a mycorrizhae system.  This is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and the roots or rhizoids of a plant.  The fungus delivers nutrients and water to the plant, which returns the favour by providing the fungus with energy-rich sugars.
The analogy plays out as follows:
  • A underground network of roots with interspersed nodes resembles a loosely connected and expanding network of individuals, exchanging information and with multiple loyalties.
  • Visible fungi resemble the visible, erect, bounded and institutionalised structures that emerge from this network.  Engeström uses the term ‘wildfires’ to describe sudden bursts of activity – in the same of a different place – with long dormant periods in between.
  • There is no hierarchical structure in mycorrizhae as is the case in the root system of plants.
  • The mycorrizhae work in symbiosis with plants as informal learning networks can work in symbiosis with formal structures.
  • The mycorrizhae is hard to kill, but also vulnerable due to the lack of clear leadership.
Networked individualism
The model is very suitable for a mobile generation of learners, who form very easily temporary networks, dominated by weak bounds.  Castells (2008) calls this a ‘networked individualism’, claiming that not mobile, but individual is the defining property of the mobile generation, since people experience a much higher freedom.

Final remarks

These post-industrial organisation modes seem fit to explain learning activity in a Web 2.0 environment.  Students are developing personal learning networks (PLE) as a complement to the institution’s learning management system (LMS), in which they communicate not only with peers, but with a wider network of friends, alumni, bloggers, staff and domain experts.  Twitter seems the ultimate tool to facilitate this kind of weak-tie dominated networks, much more than Facebook, which has a more personal and bounded network structure.  An interesting analysis how Google + mixes weak-tie and strong-tie networks was made here by George Siemens.  Traditional classroom practice can be described as a community of practice, with a clear master (the teacher), a bounded membership structure (the classroom) and a clear, externally defined objective (the curriculum and assessment).  The current trends in (higher) education towards a more student-centred learning approach, with a higher responsibility for the student to create a learning network, more flexibility in courses and more fluid boundaries between formal and informal learning seem fit with a network approach and a mycorrizhae analogy.

Main references

Engeström, Y. (2007) ‘From communities of practice to mycorrhizae’ in Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds) Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

Jones, C. (2004) ‘Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks’, Association for Learning Technology Journal, vol.12, no.1, pp.81–93

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge university press.

Castells, M. et al (2004) ‘The Mobile Communication Society: A cross-cultural analysis of available evidence on the social uses of wireless communication technology, A research report prepared for the International Workshop on Wireless Communication Policies and Prospects: A Global Perspective, held at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2004

#H800 The IALC, Connectivism and Sfard’s Learning Metaphors

The Interpersonal Action & Learning Cycle (IALC) assumes that the only knowledge we have is our own perceptions and what sense we can make of them. In this way, all knowledge is constructed.  According to Zimmer, collaborative discussion makes knowledge jointly constructed within the discussion. In my view, learning as construction is a more accurate metaphor than learning as acquiring.  

For example, when a physics teacher explains heat transfer to students with experiments and exercises, students will build for themselves an understanding of heat transfer based on the what the teacher says, prior knowledge, intuition or experiences in daily life.  The likely outcome is that the understanding of heat transfer that the student has built will be very different from the understanding that the teacher has.  They may both be scientifically correct, but the student may link heat transfer with other examples, or may not make the link between heat transfer and atom structure of materials.  

Learning as transfer assumes that the object of learning is fixed and is passed from teacher to student.  Learning as construction accounts for the individual building of understanding.  Learners engaging in collaborative discussion are building an understanding together, whereas in a competitive debate learners want to imposes their perception of the learning object on each other.  I found this idea of joint construction of knowledge very similar to the learning theory of Connectivism, where knowledge is also regarded as a network phenomenon.  Knowing something in Connectivism means that that something is connected to other concepts and ideas, so it gets a meaning.  This network can be individually constructed or in a community.

Applying the metaphor to my own learning of the IALC, I didn’t learn by acquiring it from a teacher, but I constructed my idea of the IALC by reading the manual and article, linking it with forum discussion and relating it to my own experience in online and offline learning.  In this way, my understanding will be very different, but not necessarily less correct, than those of other learners, who made sense of the theory by linking it to their own environment.