4. A Taxonomy of MOOCs

4.3. What’s Going on Here?

It is not surprising that over time, the design of MOOCs is evolving. There seem to be three distinct kinds of development:

  • Some of the newer MOOCs, especially those from institutions with a history of credit-based online learning prior to the introduction of MOOCs, are beginning to apply some of the best practices, such as organised and moderated discussion groups, from online credit courses to MOOCs.
  • Others are trying to open up their regular campus classes also, simultaneously, to non-registered students (which in fact is how the first MOOC, from Cormier, Downes and Siemens originated).
  • Yet others are trying to blend online MOOC materials or content with their on-campus teaching.

It is likely that innovation in MOOC design and the way MOOCs are used will continue. In particular, different kinds of MOOC come and go.

However, some of these developments also indicate a good deal of confusion around the definition and goals of MOOCs, especially regarding massiveness and open-ness. If participants from outside a university have to pay a hefty fee to participate in an otherwise ‘closed’, on-campus course, or if off-campus participants have to be selected on certain criteria before they can participate, is it really open? Is the term MOOC now being used to describe any unconventional online offering or any online continuing education course? It’s difficult to see how a SPOC for instance differs from a typical online continuing education course, except perhaps in that it uses a recorded lecture rather than a learning management system. There is a danger of having any online course ending up being described as a MOOC, when in fact there are major differences in design and philosophy.

Although each of these individual innovations, often the result of the initiative of an individual instructor, are to be welcomed in principle, the consequences need to be carefully considered in fairness to potential participants. Individual instructors designing MOOCs really need to make sure that the design is consistent in terms of educational philosophy and be clear as to why they are opting for a MOOC rather than a conventional online course. This is particularly important if there is to be any form of formal assessment. The status of such an assessment for participants who are not formally admitted to or registered as a student in an institution needs to be clear and consistent.

There is even more confusion about mixing MOOCs with on-campus teaching. At the moment the strategy appears to be to first develop a MOOC then see how it can be adapted for on-campus teaching. However, a better strategy might be to develop a conventional, for-credit online course, in terms of design, then see how it could be scaled for open access to other participants. Another strategy might be to use open social media, such as a course wiki and student blogs, to widen access to the teaching of a formal course, rather than develop a full-blown MOOC.

Thinking through the policy implications of incorporating MOOCs or MOOC materials with on-campus teaching does not appear to be happening at the moment in most institutions experimenting with ‘blended’ MOOCs. If MOOC participants are taking exactly the same course and assessment as registered on-campus for-credit students, will the institution award the external MOOC participants who successfully complete the assessment credit for it and/or admit them to the institution? If not, why not? For an excellent discussion of these issues framed for an institution’s Board of Governors, see Green, 2013.

Thus, some of these MOOC developments seem to be operating in a policy vacuum regarding open learning in general. At some point, institutions will need to develop a clearer, more consistent strategy for open learning, in terms of how it can best be provided, how it calibrates with formal learning, and how open learning can be accommodated within the fiscal constraints of the institution, and then where MOOCs, other OERs, and conventional for-credit online courses might fit with the strategy. For more on this topic, see Lesson 10.