Defining MOOCs…if we must

MOOC Definitions

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) published Making Sense of MOOCs: A Guide for Policy Makers in Developing Countries (2016) where they define the term, Massive, Open, Online Course (MOOC). They preface the definition by admitting that how one defines the term is open to interpretation, and go on to state that their approach in reaching a definition was to consider a variety of prior definitions first, then present commonalities in ascertaining what they mean by massive, open, online, and course (p. 17). Since defining a MOOC is open to interpretation, I offer an alternative definition after presenting how UNESCO and COL define each of the four facets. I include italicized text where I feel there are shortcomings in UNESCO/COL’s interpretation and attempt for mass appeal. When planning, implementing, and evaluating a MOOC, definitions do matter, but admit that reaching a consensus about a single definition is not all that important. My thoughts on the matter are what crosses my mind when I am confined to using such a nebulous term.

The itemized list below is how UNESCO and COL define massive, open, online, and course (p. 17):

  • Massive: designed for, in theory, an unlimited number of participants. This means that the course is designed such that the effort required to provide all services does not increase significantly as the number of participants increases.
  • Open: access to the course is free, and there are no entry qualifications.
  • Online: the full course is available through the Internet (using a laptop or desktop computer, a tablet computer or a smartphone).
  • Course: the offering is a course, meaning that it offers a complete learning experience — i.e., it is structured around a set of learning goals in a defined area of study and includes the course materials, assessment tools such as quizzes, feedback, an examination and a certificate of completion.

I particularly like how they define online when they say the course is available through the Internet and not that it is necessarily delivered through the Internet (although it often is). But I view the other three definitions from a slightly different perspective. I define each and then provide a rationale as follows:

  • Massive: The course is designed to be scalable; it has less to do with an actual number of participants and more to do with the potential to educate. The course is designed such that the effort required to deliver the course does not increase significantly as the number of participants increases. Rationale: A MOOC, even in theory, is not designed for an unlimited number of participants based on much of my explanation related to the term course (see below). One should not expect that a MOOC of any kind provide all services to the educative experience, even if the term all services could possibly be defined. Trying to come up with a magic number that defines “massive” misses the point: MOOCs are scalable when it comes to the potential of having a larger number of participants interact without changing much in the way the course is planned and implemented (from a learning design perspective). Of course the implementation of the course (from the learner’s perspective) will vary greatly when more participants are engaged, but it does not relate to the effort course designers or instructors put into the course per se. The higher number of participants, the higher learning potential, and the greater level uncertainty or variation into types of assessment and engagement. Uncertainty and variation depend on the degree of prestige and power potential (as social networking concepts) course creators have with the target audience.
  • Open: like any open educational resource (OER), access to the course and any subsequent engagement throughout the course may be “retained, reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed” by anyone (p. 20). Rationale: The term free (as in free beer) is irrelevant because learners may still participate in a MOOC but pay a fee in order to receive more direct feedback (e.g., as one might expect in formal education situations) or they may not pay for the course and rely on emergent feedback that is more dependent on the learner’s personal learning network (PLN). Feedback (i.e., formative and summative assessment) coming from a learner who pays for the course usually comes from an educator from an institution who then accredits the learner for having participated in a MOOC, likely engaging with other accrediting and non-accrediting learners alike. The attributes of a MOOC are independent to whether the learner pays for the course or not. Also, stating that there are “no entry qualifications” is misleading if 1) the learner needs to take the course and get accredited (when receiving accreditation is for a fee); 2) the learner fails to have the appropriate readiness level or prior knowledge to begin or to complete the course; 3) the learner does not have the technological wherewithal to access a course available online (e.g., Internet connection, hardware, software, etc.); or 4) the learner does not have the appropriate habit of mind (or metacognitive skill sets) necessary to begin or complete the course (e.g., navigating course content, online engagement, etc.). Depending on the target audience, these considerations may need to be addressed at the beginning of the course in order to make entry qualifications explicit.
  • Online: Course is available publicly online. Rationale: Fine for a general definition but would need to be clearer depending on the context. Some discussion of blended or blended online learning would more than likely be necessary and would directly link to the entry qualifications mentioned above.
  • Course: the offering is a course, meaning that it has a set of course objectives around a particular domain that includes either a recommended or required (synchronous and/or asynchronous) timeframe to complete learning outcomes. Rationale: Of the four facets, this is the one that misses the mark the most. In no way is a MOOC a “complete learning experience”. When compared with the learner designer, there is greater potential for the learners themselves to create an educative experience by using a PLN for a particular learning purpose within the context of the MOOC. The learning experience comes from learner decisions (based on both course and personal learning objectives) as to how to interact with the content and with others; it does not come from instruction and differs from differentiating instruction. And a MOOC does not inherently include all course materials and assessment. Course materials used in a MOOC come from learner decisions to one’s PLN and may or may not be part of any course content provided by learning designers. And assessment relates to the rationale provided above under open. Assessment for non-accredited learners will depend a lot on how the learner interacts within the individual’s PLN, and subsequently will receive forms of assessment on a complete voluntary basis (presumably formative assessment over summative assessment). Assessment for accredited learners (who usually pay a fee) is typically more adopted and adapted to the learner’s needs, wants, and hopefully learning preferences, and although should include good amounts of formative assessment can be assured to receive some form of summative assessment. Calling this kind of educative experience a course though does not mean that all forms of assessment are inherent or guaranteed which could be a reason for the low completion rate around MOOCs.

If one is to make sense of MOOCs, then one needs to understand what it is under the particulars that make up the educative experience. For me, it’s still all about SCHOOL!

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