A framework for describing MOOCs

I am working on an article that provides a framework for describing MOOCs. I was inspired to do this after reading several case studies that failed to adequately describe the context for the MOOC in which they were reporting. As an instructional designer and educational researcher, I need to understand the full context of the MOOC before I can decide if the results being reported upon are of use to me. 

This framework is a work in progress. I would encourage you if you have an option, if you think I’m missing something, of if you think something shouldn’t be here, please let me know. Also, as I am still working on this article, I would be happy to have one or two co-authors if you are interested in making a substantive contribution to this work.

I currently have 10 characteristics that make up the context of a MOOC. They are: philosophical underpinnings, subject, structure, students/learners, time, size, technology, cost, access, and credentials. There is definitely overlap in some of these categories; however, there are also nuances to each, such that I think a rich description of a MOOC must draw upon each of these categories. I describe each in more detail below.

Philosophical Underpinnings

Most traditional university online courses are based upon social-construstivist learning theory, and self-paced eLearning is based upon behaviourist/cognitive learning theory.

MOOCs on the other hand can be based upon a vast array of learning theories. The two most common are the cMOOCs based upon connectivist learning theory – where the goal is to foster networked connections of people and objects surrounding a topic. xMOOCs on the other hand are typically based upon behaviourist/cognitive learning theory where learners work on their own through a set of videos and problems on the topic. There have, however, been explorations into MOOCs based upon different types of learning theory, such as the NovoEd, “Design Thinking Action Lab”, whose pedagogy was based upon constructionism. 


The subject being taught or addressed in the MOOC matters when you are looking for “what works” from an instructional design perspective. What works in teaching computer science is likely to be less effective when teaching history or English. In addition, the same subject could be tackled in vary different ways when you consider the other categories in this framework. We as designers and scholars need to be careful not to generalize across topics, even if the press is want to do this.


Structure is closely related to the philosophical underpinnings of a MOOC. Structure refers to the components that make up the MOOC itself (e.g. does the course have: learning objectives, course videos, course interactions, activities, assignments, synchronous sessions, etc.)? Understanding what makes the MOOC is necessary when attempting to interpret the results of the MOOC’s evaluation.

Students / Learners

Who is the target audience for this MOOC? What is their expected skill level? What is their expected digital literacy level? When designing a course, one of the first questions you ask is who the student or learner is. If you say “anyone who wants to”, you are being naive. The creator of the MOOC has someone in mind, even if it is themselves, when they put the content together. We need to be more vocal about who that someone is – if not in our MOOC offerings themselves (so as not to discourage people) at least in the scholarly reports and evaluations of MOOCs. Some of the reported “failure” in MOOCs occurs because a portion of those taking the MOOCs are not in the target audience. They do not have the requisite digital literacy skills prior to entering the MOOC.


MOOCs very in duration from days to weeks to months. One of the features of a MOOC is eventedness. This supports the idea of the MOOC as a special event, or a limited time community of practice. The length of time is significant when you are evaluating a MOOC, as participation and completion rates may very likely be tied to the length of time the MOOC runs.  If it runs too long, learners may not be able to commit the time. If it is too short, there isn’t enough time to form connections (especially in cMOOCs). In the cMOOC sense, there are courses like DS106 which have eclipsed this boundary and become an entity in and of itself; however, for the most part MOOCs are events – they have an eventedness that helps to make them success. 


Rather than using the hype language, let’s talk about the size of MOOCs. What about the size makes a MOOC different from traditional online education? First off, MOOCs are typically large enough that teacher – learner interaction is an unreasonable expectation. In a traditional online course, you may have 30-students, and teacher-learner interaction is expected.

One question that often gets asked is how many participants are necessary for the MOOC to meet the “massive” criteria in its name. Relating size to pedagogy, massive could simply mean large enough that the teacher-learner relationship is no longer feasible. In online learning, once you move beyond 30 or 40 students in a single class, you can not longer develop the same connections. As an instructor, you much then adopt a different pedagogy. This different pedagogy may change based upon the different scales of massiveness. We don’t know what those number are yet – so we need to be clearer when we report on the number of learners in a MOOC. We also need to outline the number of learners at different categories – for example the number that sign up, the number that lurk, the number that complete most of the activities, etc.


The underlying technology supporting online courses affects the pedagogy. Most LMSs (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle) are built with a socio-constructivist learning theory in mind. The courses in these platforms are typically very presentation/reading followed by discussion oriented. The platform lends itself well to delivering some form of textual / video presentation followed by reflection or discussion. The system supports learner-learner and teacher-learner interactions.

MOOCs on the other hand very based upon the platform in which they are delivered. Many connectivist MOOCs do not specify the platforms – rather, they provide content on a website, and allow the learners to decide which technologies support interactions. I recall one MOOC, EDUMOOC, which coincided with the launch of Google Plus. The MOOC itself became a study in the advantages and disadvantages of Google Plus as a platform. 

I’ve also talked to professors who have created courses for Coursera. Again, they platform constrains what they are able to do in the design of the course. The platform provides expectations of what a course looks like, and also enables (or doesn’t enable) certain types of interaction. We need to hear more about how MOOC design decisions were made because of the delivery platform.


By definition MOOCs are open courses, but cost is not just in the cost of signing up for MOOCs. There are costs associated with required textbooks or required readings that exist behind a paywall. These are costs to the learner. There are also production costs associated with the creation of the MOOC itself. Does a MOOC need a $20000 or $50000 or more budget to be a “quality” MOOC? 


Like cost, the term access is related to the openness of MOOCs. Traditional online courses are housed within an institution’s learning management system. Students are given access to that information for a specific period of time, and at some point in time that information becomes unavailable (it gets deleted). This is also true for some MOOCs. 

In addition to access to students while they are taking the course, there is another level of openness in MOOC content. That is, does the MOOC provide permission for remixing. Can other instructors use part of the content? Can the content be modified to better suit the needs of a different class. Can other instructors effectively extend the content?


Credentials in a MOOC support different purposes.  Sometimes a certificate may serve as motivation for students to complete. The thought goes something like – if I am going to do A, B, and C … if I only need D to get the certificate, I might as well do it – since I already did the first few parts. There are also students who need the certificate as proof of their learning (or participation in the MOOC). The way in which credentials are provided, and the criteria for receiving the certificate may have an affect on the way students interact with the course.


In summary, In order for this area of research to mature, we need to be able to make valid comparisons across MOOCs. This cannot be done successfully if we do not begin by adequately describing the MOOCs in which we are researching. As scholars we need to start doing better job providing rich descriptions of the MOOC in which we are reporting. I hope this framework helps to provide a way to better describe the context of MOOCs, so that we can better critique the evaluation and design of MOOCs.

10 Comments on A framework for describing MOOCs

  1. Right, but there is also bad “offline” learning, and these problems have not been solved anyway.

    This seems to be one reason why many players in higher ed build their hopes on xMOOCs and stuff like that. Simply to damn those learning trends will not lead to solution at all.

    But the one thing we know is that (online) media will surely be part of these solutions, let us call them ??OCs, the holy grail of higher ed or whatever you want.

    Hugs to you all

  2. Greetings Rebecca,

    Interesting work… Your MOOC’s framework should put more emphasis on « assessments », their typologies and encompass learning analytics.

    You should not overlook the importance of learning analytics in MOOCs. MOOCs are precisely the best means to collect huge amount of data from students (http://goo.gl/drdpJ9) in order to improve learning.

  3. hi Rebecca – horses for courses I guess – I mean I’m doing a couple of moocs at once that have very different design principles, but they’re both great – it depends what you’re doing it for, and there’s surely no such thing as a single design or theoretical framework that is ‘good’ for everyone all the time. I agree that the really fine thing about the moo course is that you can pick it up and drop it in an instant – no obligations, no implications – freedom to graze and make it work on your own terms. I’m not quite convinced that any course follows one theory or another in some prescriptive manner…. I mean, a ‘theory’ is just an attempt to describe and explain a phenomenon, not a recipe for how to put a course together, and we might have lots of different types of reading in mind when designing a course, or trying to make sense of what the open learning phenomenon ‘is’…. or?

  4. Hi Rebecca, my take on MOOCs is they reside, or should reside, outside the educational system. As someone who feels closed out of the exclusiveness of the educational compound the idea of their being a version of education I can participate in excites me. Building a structure around MOOCs is a shame.

    • Scott, your comment made me think. Why is it necessary for MOOCs to reside outside of an educational system? For that matter, what is the definition of an educational system? A high school, college or university? Can an educational system be something like Lynda.com, ALISON or SkillPort? I don’t see MOOCs as separate from an educational system (i.e completely divorced from it). I do think that ‘regulating’ can kill the creativity and educational experimentation, but they can be part of an educational system’s sphere and still open, available, and experimental.

  5. I guess that’s a point I’d want to make, Rebecca – that there’s a lot of bad eTeaching around, it’s not confined to MOOCs. It’s probably not as much of a problem with a MOOC, is it, as we can just silently drop out. Hadn’t thought if that, good point though.


  6. Hi Rebecca (warning: soap box rant follows!)

    Well, I know that VLEs like Blackboard and Moodle *say* that they’re built for asocial constructivist theory of learning, but in my experience the majority of courses are actually instructivist, because the lecturer shoves up their lecture notes/slides, posts announcements on the forums and … that is it. Students rarely use the forums for discussion, and it is really rare to see the collaborative tools such as wikis being used at all. With so much being said about xMOOCs I think that this is a point that needs to be made, though maybe I’m shouting in the wrong place!

    You’ve mentioned the bog MOOC book a couple of times now and I was interested in hearing more about who’s contributing to it, how it’s being published, etc.

    • Hi Sarah,

      You have me wondering. We definitely have lots of bad eLearning out there, and there is lots of bad online learning. Usually when students tell me they don’t like online learning it is because they had a instructor who didn’t understand the medium and didn’t use it to its potential. But, I wonder, because of the widely public nature of MOOCs, is bad “MOOCs” as much of a problem as bad elearning or bad online learning?

      My experience within online learning has been largely socio-constructivist, but I’ve been pretty choosy about my online learning experience. Now, self-paced eLearning – boy there is a lot of crap out there!



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