Lesson 11 - Massive Open Online Courses

4. A Taxonomy of MOOCs

4.2. cMOOCs

cMOOCs, the first of which was developed by three instructors for a course at the University of Manitoba in 2008, are based on network learning, where learning develops through the connections and discussions between participants over social media. There is no standard technology platform for cMOOCs, which use a combination of webcasts, participant blogs, tweets, software that connects blogs and tweets on the same topic via hashtags, and online discussion forums. Although usually there are some experts who initiate and participate in cMOOCs, they are by and large driven by the interests and contributions of the participants. Usually there is no attempt at formal assessment.

Key Design Principles for cMOOCs

Downes (2014) has identified four key design principles for cMOOCs:

  • Autonomy of the learner: Although whoever organizes the MOOC will usually choose a main topic and invite participants, there is no formal curriculum; participants decide what to discuss, what to read, and what they wish to contribute towards the topic.
  • Diversity: In the tools used, the range of participants, their knowledge levels, and the varied content.
  • Interactivity: In terms of co-operative learning, communication between participants, resulting in ’emergent’ knowledge.
  • Open-ness: In terms of access, content, activities and assessment.

Thus, for the proponents of cMOOCs, learning results not from the transmission of information from an expert to novices, as in xMOOCs, but from the sharing and flow of knowledge between participants.

From Principles to Practice

Identifying how these key design features for cMOOCs are turned into practice is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint because cMOOCs depend on an evolving set of practices. Most cMOOCs to date have in fact made some use of ‘experts’, both in the organization and promotion of the MOOC, and in providing ‘nodes’ of content around which discussion tends to revolve.  In other words, the design practices of cMOOCs are still more a work in progress than those of xMOOCs.

Nevertheless, at the moment the following are key design practices in cMOOCs:

  • Use of Social Media: Partly because most cMOOCs are not institutionally based or supported, they do not at present use a shared platform or platforms but are more loosely supported by a range of openly accessible ‘connected’ tools and media. These may include a simple online registration system, and the use of web conferencing tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect, streamed video or audio files, blogs, wikis, ‘open’ learning management systems such as Moodle or Canvas, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, all enabling participants to share their contributions. Indeed, as new apps and social media tools develop, they too are likely to be incorporated into cMOOCs. All these tools are connected through web-based hashtags or other web-based linking mechanisms, enabling participants to identify social media contributions from other participants. Thus, the use of loosely linked or connected social media is a key design component of cMOOCs.
  • Participant-driven Content: In principle, other than a common topic that may be decided by someone wanting to organize a cMOOC, content is decided upon and contributed by the participants themselves. Indeed, there may be no formally identified instructor. In practice though cMOOC organizers (who themselves tend to have some expertise in the topic of the MOOC) are likely to invite potential participants who have expertise or are known already to have a well-articulated approach to a topic, to make contributions which form the basis of discussion and debate. Participants choose their own ways to contribute or communicate, the most common being through blog posts, tweets, or comments on other participants’ blog posts, although some cMOOCs use wikis or open-source online discussion forums. The key design practice with regard to content is that all participants contribute to and share content.
  • Distributed Communication: This is probably the most difficult design practice to understand for those not familiar with cMOOCs – and even for those who have participated. With participants numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, each contributing individually through a variety of social media, there are a myriad different inter-connection between participants that are impossible to track (in total) by any single participant. This results in many sub-conversations, more commonly at a binary level of two people communicating with each other than an integrated group discussion, although all conversations are ‘open’ and all other participants are able to contribute to a conversation if they know it exists. The key design practice then with regard to communication is a self-organizing network with many sub-components.
  • Assessment: There is no formal assessment, although participants may seek feedback from other, more knowledgeable participants, on an informal basis. Basically, participants decide for themselves whether what they have learned is appropriate to them.

cMOOCs Summary

cMOOCs therefore primarily use a networked approach to learning based on autonomous learners connecting with each other across open and connected social media and sharing knowledge through their own personal contributions. There is no pre-set curriculum and no formal teacher-student relationship, either for delivery of content or for learner support. Participants learn from the contributions of others, from the meta-level knowledge generated through the community, and from self-reflection on their own contributions, thus reflecting many of the features of communities of interest or practice.

cMOOCs have a very different educational philosophy from xMOOCs. Downes and Siemens have argued that cMOOCs reflect a new theory of learning, ‘connectivism’, based on exploiting online social networks. cMOOCs certainly reflect a constructivist epistemology.