Lesson 11 - Massive Open Online Courses

4. A Taxonomy of MOOCs

4.1. xMOOCs

MOOCs developed initially by Stanford University professors and a little later by MIT and Harvard instructors are based primarily on a strongly behaviorist, information transmission model, the core teaching being through online recorded videos of short lectures, combined with computer automated testing, and sometimes also through the use of peer assessment. These MOOCs are offered through special cloud-based software platforms such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn.

xMOOCs is a term coined by Stephen Downes (2012) for courses developed by Coursera, Udacity, and edX. At the time of writing (2019) xMOOCs are by far the most common MOOC. Instructors have considerable flexibility in the design of the course, so there is considerable variation in the details, but in general xMOOCs have the following common design features:

Specially Designed Platform Software

Most very large xMOOCs use specially designed platform software such as Coursera, edX or FutureLearn that allows for the registration of very large numbers of participants, provides facilities for the storing and streaming on-demand of digital materials, and automates assessment procedures and student performance tracking. The software platform also allows the companies that provide the software to collect and analyze student data.

However, more and more smaller institutions are offering their own xMOOCs through using or adapting their continuing education online registration process, their own video servers, and ‘off-the-shelf’ automated feedback, testing and marking tools.

Video Lectures

xMOOCs use the standard lecture mode, delivered online by participants downloading on-demand recorded video lectures. These video lectures are normally available on a weekly basis over a period of 10-13 weeks. Initially, these were often 50-minute lectures, but as a result of experience, some xMOOCs now are using shorter recordings (sometimes down to 15 minutes in length) and thus there may be more video segments. As well, xMOOC courses are becoming shorter in length, some now lasting only five weeks. Various video production methods have been used, including lecture capture (recording face-to-face on-campus lectures, then storing them and streaming them on demand), full studio production, or desk-top recording by the instructor.

Computer-marked Assignments

Students complete an online test and receive immediate computerized feedback. These tests are usually offered throughout the course and may be used just for participant feedback. Alternatively, the tests may be used for determining the award of a certificate. Another option is for an end of the course grade or certificate-based solely on an end-of-course online test. Most xMOOC assignments are based on multiple-choice, computer-marked questions, but some MOOCs have also used text or formula boxes for participants to enter answers, such as coding in a computer science course, or mathematical formulae, and in one or two cases, short text answers, but in most cases, these will be computer-marked.

Peer Assessment

Some xMOOCs have experimented with assigning students randomly to small groups for peer assessment, especially for more open-ended or more evaluative assignment questions. This has often proved problematic though because of wide variations in expertise between the different members of a group, and because of the different levels of involvement in the course of different participants.

Supporting Materials

Sometimes copies of slides, supplementary audio files, URLs to other resources and online articles may be included for downloading by participants.

A Shared Comment/Discussion Space

These are places where participants can post questions, ask for help, or comment on the content of the course.

No, or Very Light, Discussion Moderation

The extent to which the discussion or comments are moderated varies probably more than any other feature in xMOOCs but at its most, moderation is directed at all participants rather than to individuals. Because of the very large numbers participating and commenting, moderation of individual comments by the instructor(s) offering the MOOC is rarely possible. Some instructors offer no moderation whatsoever, so participants rely on other participants to respond to questions or comments. Some instructors ‘sample’ comments and questions, and post comments in response to these. Some instructors use volunteers or paid teaching assistants to comb comments to identify common areas of concern shared by a number of participants then the instructor and/or the teaching assistants will respond. However, in most cases, participants moderate each other’s comments or questions.

Badges or Certificates

Most xMOOCs award some kind of recognition for successful completion of a course, based on a final computer-marked assessment. However, at the time of writing, MOOC badges or certificates have in most cases not been recognized for credit or admission purposes even by the institutions offering a MOOC – even when the lectures are the same as for on-campus students. Little evidence exists to date about employer acceptance of MOOC qualifications (see for instance, Banks and Meinart, 2016 or Gatuguta-Gitau, 2017). However, with the increasing development of partnerships between major employers and MOOC providers to develop microcredentials, this may change (see for example, Gordon, 2018).

Learning Analytics

Although to date there has not been a great deal of published information about the use of learning analytics in xMOOCs, the xMOOC platforms have the capacity to collect and analyze ‘big data’ about participants and their performance, enabling, at least in theory, for immediate feedback to instructors about areas where the content or design needs improving and possibly directing automated cues or hints for individuals. For examples of the use of learning analytics in MOOCs, see Laveti et al., 2017 or Eradze and Tammets, 2017.

xMOOCs Summary

xMOOCs therefore primarily use a teaching model focused on the transmission of information, with high-quality content delivery, computer-marked assessment (mainly for student feedback purposes), and automation of all key transactions between participants and the learning platform. There is rarely any direct interaction between an individual participant and the instructor responsible for the course, although instructors may post general comments in response to a range of participants’ comments. Thus, there is a highly behaviouristic/objectivist epistemology underlying xMOOCs.