Schrodinger’s MOOC

The open movement within higher education has both opponents and advocates. Nothing appears however, to be quite as divisive as the MOOC (Massive, Online, Open Course), at least if the headlines are to be believed. A look through the literature suggests that the MOOC is dead (or at least it should be) and simultaneously alive and well and a potential threat to HE as we know it. It’s been suggested that MOOCs have the potential for transforming teaching and learning and democratising higher education (Corte et al, 2016). They’ve even be described as a ‘phenomenon’ (Breslow, 2016). Martin Weller (2014) says that MOOCs cause despair and excitement in equal measure. In ‘The Battle for Open’ he points to some of the dramatic headlines accompanying articles about MOOCs. They include references to revolution, disruption, even killing.

There are debate too about what exactly amounts to a MOOC, their positioning, quality and exactly what and whom they are for. Are they competing with traditional formal education, or are they there to compliment learning or expand the curriculum — or just allow students to delve into an interest of their choosing when and where they want?

So what is the truth about MOOCS — and why are they so divisive? Are they a threat or an opportunity — or perhaps as Weller suggests — both at the same time? And finally — just how open are they?

Let’s start with the history.

A MOOC is an online course that is, or at least has the potential to be, massive in that it can support many learners simultaneously. It’s open in that the learning can, in theory, be accessed by anyone, anywhere. The online nature of the course removes the need for presence at a particular institution. This sounds fairly straightforward, but in the world of MOOCs, nothing is simple. Even what is regarded to be a MOOC is open to interpretation, as is the interpretation of each letter. Weller argues that the MOOC can be seen as a logical extension of the open education movement; they have certainly been responsible for increasing the level of attention to open practice in general. The idea behind them a simple one; make online courses available to anyone who wishes to undertake them whilst removing the cost of tutor support (2014).

Weller (2019) suggests the world’s first ever MOOC was run by the Open University, and was entitled ‘you, your computer and the net’. There were other early MOOCs, but it was a Stanford course on Artificial Intelligence in 2011 with over 160,000 learners (initially at least) where MOOCs really took off — and caught the attention of the media. Other large, high profile MOOCs followed, and so did the hype — as well as the funding.

The New York Times declared 2012 to be the ‘year of the MOOC’. Investment in platforms and programmes began, including the Open University (who is by their nature an institution based on ideas of open education) who launched their own MOOC platform, FutureLearn in 2013.

Different types of MOOC also evolved. There is the classic MOOC, where the student follows a linear path and is known as an xMOOC or transmissive MOOC — they focused on transmitting knowledge to the learner and follows a fairly classic pedagogical model. The alternative is known as the cMOOC or connectivist MOOC. It has a less directive structure, with material available to learners where it is used to create their own course and construct their own learning through interaction with other learners. Knowledge is therefore partly self-generated rather than taught (Pomerol et al, 2015).

What do we know about MOOCs so far? Research has been undertaken but it is still a fairly new area, and peer reviewed research remains limited (Haywood, 2016). That initial research indicates that learners are typically young, employed and already well educated, already having a first or second degree. This might suggest that, at least so far, the idea that MOOCs might democratise learning has been overstated. The reasons people give for studying MOOCS vary from wanting to experience online learning and simply to ‘learn new things’. We also know that there’s a challenge with low completion rates, although the extent to which this matters is just one more debate within the MOOC world.

Why the hype?

Weller (2011) talks about ‘next big thingism’; the over eager adoption of new technology and of amplified success. The narrative of the innovative, disruptive MOOC played well to the media. Gartner (2008) talk of the hype cycle of which there are five phases: technology trigger, peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, the slope to enlightenment and finally, a plateau of productivity. It seems that the MOOC may have fallen somewhat foul of both.

At what appears to be the peak of inflated expectations the co-founder of MOOC platform Udacity predicated that in 50 years only 10 institutions globally would provide HE.

As Weller (2011) comments, although the hype cycle model isn’t one that should be taken too seriously, it should nevertheless be a reminder to us that our attitude to technology goes through phases. It isn’t so long ago that email was the new best thing — now it’s seen as a hindrance to everything from productivity to work life balance. Weller says ‘after initial enthusiasm may come a period of rejection before the tool settles into a pattern in working life’. The extent to which the MOOC will become a regular part of our working (and learning) lives is still unknown, although as FutureLearn have just secured a £50m investment into their MOOC platform, it looks like there is plenty of optimism that they will.

The O in MOOC

Martin Weller (2019) says that the MOOC is just one more interpretation of open (Weller, 2019). It’s also been said that with MOOCs, every letter is negotiable. This certainly appears to be true of the O. What do we mean by open in the context of a MOOC? There are several lenses through which we can view the openness of the MOOC. We can consider to which it meets the various definitions, and we can also look at the barriers to entry and completion. Just how open are MOOCs — or can they be? And does this even matter?

Let’s start by considering what we mean by open. Within the broad notion of open within higher education, various definitions, ideas and approaches exist. There’s green and gold open access when it comes to publication. There’s open scholarship. Open peer review and research. There’s the Open University approach of ‘open to people, places, methods and ideas’. There is no one single definition — Weller (2014) refers to it as an umbrella term that encompasses a multitude of interpretations and motives.

In 2007 (notably before the rise of MOOCs) David Wiley developed the 4 Rs of Reuse — according to Weller one potential tight definition of open. The 4 Rs are reuse, revise, remix, redistribute. He then added a 5th R — retain. Generally, none of these Rs will be present in the typical MOOC model. There is no right to adapt or modify the content, mix it with other content to create something new or share copies. With the freemium approach of many MOOCs (free to take, but with access to content expiring unless a fee is paid) there’s no automatic retention either. So within this definition — a MOOC isn’t very open at all. This isn’t quite what advocates of open education had in mind. Some are concerned about the redefinition of open to mean simply online or free, but without the opportunity for reuse.

A fellow MOOC blogger pointed me towards the definition of open learning by Roger Lewis. Written in 1986, this article pre-dates the rise of not only the MOOC but all of the technology we now take for granted. His points still resonate. He talks of open as a continuum; at one side a closed system with high barriers to leaning. Learning is at fixed times, in a single location, with entry requirements based upon previous educational attainments. At the other end, learning open to all where the learner can formulate their own path and decide the pace and place, using a wide range of materials and constructing their own assessment. Not entirely unlike some type of MOOCs. Lewis notes no single method of learning can be entirely open — and although much has changed in the 30 years, this is still an accurate observation.

Lewis goes onto consider open learning as the removal of barriers. He identifies barriers to open as physical (location of learning), learning design, the individual (being able to participate perhaps through lacking entry requirements or even confidence) and financial. Although the technology has moved on, these barriers are also present today — and they impact too on the openness of the MOOC.

Pomerol et al said that a MOOC is ‘open to all audiences who wish to acquire knowledge’ (Pomerol et al). But is that really true? It doesn’t seem so.

First of all, there’s the issue of how the learner accesses the content. Before learning can take place, the learner has to register to take part. Internet access, along with the ability to use the relevant technology are prerequisites for learning through MOOCs. The open approach is only made possible by technology. We live much of our lives on line and we used to learning on demand and at the point of need, wherever we might happen to be. Want a recipe? Check Pinterest. Wonder how to do a DIY job? Google is your friend. Someone, somewhere has done that exact task, filmed it and uploaded it to YouTube. In our increasingly connected world, everything we could ever want to know is held within a device in our pockets that we still call a phone. But although it is easy to assume that this technology is ubiquitous that isn’t necessarily the case. Devices and the ability to connect them come with a financial cost for the device its self or its connection. If you have a device, you also need to know how to use it in order to fully engage with the learning platform. There’s also the issue of where. Whilst many of us are used to a regular 4G network where access is pretty much content, this isn’t true of the rest of the world. These are the first practical and financial barriers to MOOC participation.

The next potential barrier to open is learning support. With few support services built into the MOOC model, the struggling learner will have to seek peer support or withdraw from the course (Weller 2014). This favours the experienced learner who doesn’t need much support or feedback, or indeed motivation to keep going with the programme, and aligns with the data that many MOOC learners are experienced who have already undertaken higher education.

Now let us turn to the costs of MOOCs. Does open mean free?

Probably not. At the Open University, open is considered to mean open to all without entry requirements — but it doesn’t mean free to learn. In his blog on Technology Enhanced Learning, Peter Sloep reflects on the openness of MOOCs. He argues that ‘MOOCs are open in the sense that Google’s services are open; they can be used freely but they are not for free’ (2014). Is this a bad thing? Not really he concludes — after all, the platforms need to pay their bills. For some, the ‘openness’ element of the MOOC turns on the fact that it’s unrestricted, and isn’t limited to being enrolled a particular educational institution, location or previous academic attainment. In this context too, open doesn’t mean free (Pomerol et al, 2015). Where data is costly, financial barriers exist there too. The cost of downloading and watching a single YouTube video in some countries will be prohibitive.

As well as the costs of connecting online to undertake a course, there is also the cost of undertaking it. Many MOOCs are free, but even when the course itself has no upfront cost, some platforms have a ‘premium’ offering — if you want to have a certificate of completion or to retain access to the content after completion then there is a fee to pay. This model is followed by the Open University’s MOOC platform FutureLearn. After the initial production costs incurred by provider, MOOCs cost very little to run on an ongoing basis — but that doesn’t mean that organisations will want to run them for free, whether they are developed within a University or by a MOOC specific provider.

Returning to the questions posed by this post; are MOOCS open? It depends on your point of view. Simply taking the ‘O’ in MOOC, we can see from the various viewpoints highlighted here, that there’s no settled definition of what this really means — and might not be possible or necessary — or even desirable.

Finally, are MOOCS alive or dead? Are they still the next big thing or is it all just hype? The early excitement of MOOCs (partly fuelled by media attention) along with their simplistic ‘next big thing’ narrative made for an exaggerated promise — but the reality isn’t simplistic. It’s likely to be a much more nuanced reality (Weller, 2014) — and it is still evolving.

Roy Amara said that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long term. Perhaps we expected too much of the MOOC, too soon. The best might be yet to come as the technology and pedagogy settles into regular use.

Rumours of the death of the MOOC appear to have been very much exaggerated. Whether they can or should be truly open (assuming of course we can define that too) is still up for debate. The commercial nature of MOOC providers means that it’s unlikely they will meet many people’s definition of open. But they definitely aren’t terminal. We need to let the technology settle. The future is still downloading.

Returning to Weller’s thoughts: ‘a technology may not completely change the world in the next 18 months, but it may significantly change practice in the next decade’. I guess the only way to know for sure will be to revisit this blog in 2029. Maybe I’ll see you then……


Breslow, L. (2016) MOOC research: some of what we know and avenues for the future, in From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Edited by Erik De Corte, Lars Engwall and Ulrich Teichler, Portland Press Limited.

Corte, E., Engwall, L and Teihler, U. (2016) The hype of MOOCs, in From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Edited by Erik De Corte, Lars Engwall and Ulrich Teichler, Portland Press Limited.

Haywood, J (2016) Learning from MOOCs: lessons for the future, in From Books to MOOCs? Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Edited by Erik De Corte, Lars Engwall and Ulrich Teichler, Portland Press Limited

Lewis, R. (1986) What is open learning Accessed 4th May 2019

Pomerol, J-C., Epelboin, Y. and Thoury, C. MOOCs: Design, use and business models, First Edition, ISTE Ltd and John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Pope, J. (2014) What are MOOCs good for? Accessed 4th May 2019

Sloep, P. (2014) MOOCs; every letter is negotiable Accessed 4th May 2019

Smith, J. (2017) Opening Up Massive Online Learning Accessed 4th May 2019.

Weller, M. (2014) The Battle for Open — how openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press.

Weller, M. (2019) From the University of the Air to the university everywhere Accessed 4th May 2019.