MOOCs and Online Learning #wweopen13

Various discussions at the MOOC symposium and eLearning, highlights that one of the side effects of the popularity of MOOCs in the US has been the equivalence of MOOCs to online learning. Those who don't know any better, assume that MOOCs and online learning (such as courses offered for credit by universities and colleges) are the same thing. From a positive point of view, this has meant that online learning has recieved a rise in credibility. Universities and Colleges who had not previous considered online learning are now putting in place stragegies to make the leap. Learners will soon see many more opportunities to learn online.

An unfortunate side effect of equating online learning to MOOCs is that those who are new to online learning and are being asked to convert face-to-face courses to online think that their online courses need to look like MOOCs – some of which are quite poorly designed! In MOOCs, when you have classes involving thousands of students, the focus is on content-learner interaction – that is, you produce high quality content that the learner interacts with. See Anderson (2003) for more information on the different types of interaction in distance education. Note that I changed the direction of the focus – from leaner-content to content-learner – this is intentional, as the xMOOC focus has very much been on pushing the content to the learner in the form of didactic presentations. For example, many of the xMOOCs are very video driven. With a large anticipated audience, and often at least partially funded out of marketing budgets, universities such as Stanford are raising the bar on video production. For an xMOOC to be good, among other things, it needs to have high quality video presentation. This is something that is just not feasible (or necessarily desirable) for formal online learning.  When you have a class of 30 students, which is more typical in formal online courses, the focus should not be on content-learner interaction; rather, the focus should be on learner-learner interaction and learner-teacher interaction. A good online course does not need the high quality production that an xMOOC has, it isn't about marketing the university or boosting the ego of the presenting professor. The focus should be more on creating meaningful experiences for the learners – which doesn't require high production costs – rather it requires thoughtful learning design, which is mindful of the medium, but also mindful of the learner circumstances. 

Now another area of concern regarding online learning is the cost. Online learning is often seen by the organization (e.g. universities and colleges) as way to save money – unfortunately, this often translates into poor compensation for online instructional designers and instructors. MOOCs may be able to help this in some ways, as instructional designers and online instructors can draw upon excellent content which is often (but not always) provided using open access systems, thereby reducing the efforts associated with creating excellent learner-content interactions. This allows the online instructional designer and instructor to focus on the learner-learner and learner-teacher interactions. Unfortunately, I fear that any "savings" in this model will unfortunately go into the pockets of the organizations, rather than the pockets of the already under-compensated instructional designers and instructors.

So, the MOOC affect on online courses is a mixed blessing. Learners may very well benefit from the increase in the availability of online learning options, organizations will benefit from branding and perhaps lower cost for higher quality online course content materials, but online instructional designers and instructors won't see any increase in compensation, but will see an increase in expectations of quality from both learners and their organizations.

Do you agree? Am I sounding too pessimistic here?



Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning4(2). Retrieved from