Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

Archive for December 2013

Give xMOOCs a Chance !

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Kiss me

Don’t turn up your nose at xMOOCs!

(‘Kiss Me’ by Florian Seiffert on Flickr)

Connectivists are inclined to turn up their noses at xMOOCs. I’ve done this myself, (Why can’t an xMOOC be more like a cMOOC ?), pointing at the instructivist pedagogy that xMOOCs inherit from traditional courses. Now, one way or another, I’ve participated in several xMOOCs and I’ve even completed ‘Introduction to Philosophy‘ and ‘Quantum Mechanics for Scientists and Engineers. I’m under no illusions about becoming expert in either of these topics but I did learn something worthwhile and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience – rather more than some traditional courses I’ve known!

So what’s there to like about xMOOCs ?

Videoed Lectures – minutely planned and rehearsed in advance, these are but distant cousins of any lecture in any traditional course. View whenever you like or wherever you are. Pause, rewind, fast forward or repeat segments, even speed up the presentation if you think you know it all or slow it down if you don’t – what luxury! If you have language difficulties or want to construct your own notes there’s probably lecture transcripts available too.

What a contrast with traditional lectures! When I was a student (years before the Internet) a certain mathematics lecturer would enter the lecture room and start writing notes from the top of the left blackboard. When all the boards were full he wiped out everything and started again. He rarely spoke and we spent the entire hour just copying notes that were essential for the examination. Little else was studied and we only followed up by some question spotting shortly before the exam. Of course not all traditional lectures are like that but as vehicles for learning, xMOOC videos seem to be head and shoulders above what many traditional lectures can offer in practice.

Expert Tuition – xMOOC video professors who participate in the forums can progress learning by swiftly clearing up ambiguities, developing points of interest and, by their example, set high standards for communication between students. A large number of participants who are not active in the forums probably benefit too.

Experts with the necessary skills to intervene at the right time or place and in the right way are greatly appreciated in xMOOC forums. Quantum Mechanics may be an extreme example but where understanding rests on theoretical concepts with little intuitive appeal effective learning can become very difficult without someone having expert knowledge of the unfamiliar facts and methods that are the accepted nuts and bolts of the subject. This can also apply in xMOOCs dealing with humanities topics, even when there’s greater scope for participants to interact and learn from each other other. I did learn something reading 101 different participant accounts of ‘The Meaning of Life’ in the Philosophy MOOC but rather more from one or two succinct comments by the professors!

Catalytic Learning – xMOOCs can motivate and consolidate learning by spilling over into open networks in ways that may be unexpected and serendipitous. xMOOCs influence learning outside themselves or inside other MOOCs. For example, Jenny Mackness in a MOOC on ‘Modern and Contemporary American Poetry‘ is surprised to find “so many connections with my research into online teaching and learning“. Karen Carlson’s excellent video, ‘When MOOCs Collide‘ illustrates how several ‘cross-breeding’ MOOCs have influenced her learning while Louise Taylor’s open notes on various MOOCs are so detailed they become an education in themselves.


Community – ‘Massive’ and ‘Open’ almost guarantees a diversity of MOOC participants with different backgrounds and levels of prior knowledge. Only a small fraction may be active in xMOOC forums at any time but many do provide mutual help and encouragement. Perhaps surprisingly, this can include expert tuition by altruistic participants with no formal connection to the MOOC. Community in an xMOOC may not bear comparison with the cMOOC ideal where knowledge is created and shared in a distributed network but who knows? Perhaps inside every xMOOC there’s a cMOOC trying to get out!.

Quizzes, Assignments and Deadlines – Rightly or wrongly, many xMOOC participants place great importance on gaining certificates. ‘Passing’ a series of multiple choice questions or assignments marked by other learners is hardly a decent measure of competence but it does help to reinforce basic concepts and the challenge can be motivating. I doubt if I would have kept up the pace without the spur of weekly deadlines, particularly in Quantum Mechanics where the assignments involved considerable number crunching work.

Now I may have been very lucky in my choice of xMOOCs and I know that xMOOCs are not all of the same standard but whatever their pedagogical and other failings they evidently benefit large numbers of people across the globe. (Eg ‘Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom Research into edX’s First MOOC‘, reports that of about 155,000 registrants only about 26,000 were US based.) People without the resources or even the motivation to join a traditional course benefit from xMOOCs in ways that are often overlooked. The mostly silent majority also benefit – the so-called ‘lurkers’, ‘toe-dippers’ and ‘drop-outs’ who, for a miscellany of reasons ‘milk the MOOC‘ but do not qualify for a certificate.

xMOOCs are bound to improve with the technology and with a bit of push and shove may be capable of developing towards more open communities that put students at the center of learning. Some connectivists seem to avoid joining xMOOCs on principle whereas their presence might help shake off some of the baggage that xMOOCs inherit from traditional courses. If you can’t beat them, be pragmatic and join them – give xMOOCs a chance!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

December 6, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Mooc