Making Sense of MOOCs is a 20 page report (with 6 pages of citations) written in Sept 2012. The report is a lengthy read but offers some good context and insights about the current state of MOOCs from a long term veteran of on-line higher education.

The author, Sir John Daniel, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for services to higher education in 1994, holds 31 honorary doctorates and was Vice-Chancellor of the UK Open University (an accredited and highly respected distance learning university in Europe) from 1990-2001. He has been deeply involved with higher education distance learning for over two decades.

...MOOCs have already bifurcated into two types of course, which are known as cMOOCs and xMOOCs. They are so distinct in pedagogy that it is confusing to designate them by the same term (Hill, 2012)...

...A first myth is that university brand is a surrogate for teaching quality. It isn’t. The so-called elite universities that are rushing into xMOOCs gained their reputations in research. Nothing suggests that they are particularly talented in teaching, especially teaching online...

...Attitudes to completion rates create a sharp distinction between the xMOOCs providers and other distance learning institutions, both public and for profit...

...At the end of the Coursera partnership agreement a section on Possible Company Monetization Strategies lists eight potential business models. They are...

...We would not expect the current extensive commentary on xMOOCs in the US to consider events before the dotcom frenzy of 1999-2000, still less earlier developments outside North America such as the many open universities around the world. It is surprising, however, that little reference is made to the unhappy experience of some elite US schools with online learning in the mid-2000s...

...This, in turn, will put a focus on teaching and pedagogy to which these institutions are unaccustomed, which will be healthy. At the same time academics all around the world will make judgements about the intellectual quality and rigour of the institutions that have exposed themselves in this way. Other combinations of institutions and commercial partners will join the fray and a new pecking order will emerge...

The author states that the report is certainly not definitive given the highly dynamic state of MOOCs.

There is a claim of "58,000" enrolled students in Thrun/Norvig's first AI class that I found distracting, but upon reflection, realized may be a typo for "158,000". I found the 'pre-MOOC' history and referrences to failed attempts at HE Distance Learning to be particularly interesting.

PDF link: Making Sense of MOOCs

asked 02 Oct '12, 10:48

Norm%20Deplume's gravatar image

Norm Deplume ♦

edited 02 Oct '12, 10:50

Odd that he also made the error of placing the AI class in "early 2012." I'm only a few pages in, but he appears to have a definite bias against Stanford/Coursera. Still a very interesting paper though.
(02 Oct '12, 11:20) rseiter ♦ rseiter's gravatar image
Agreed, not necessarily up to the standards of an academic paper, but Daniels himself refers to it as an essay rather then a paper. Not all of the author's perspectives resonated with me, but he's been around HE-DL a lot longer then I have and overall I found it an interesting read, certainly more in depth then many of the 'media articles' on MOOCs.
(02 Oct '12, 11:35) Norm Deplume ♦ Norm%20Deplume's gravatar image

This came up in a thread in the Introduction to Mathematical Thinking forum recently.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the educational buzzword of 2012. Media frenzy surrounds them and commercial interests have moved in. Sober analysis is overwhelmed by apocalyptic predictions that ignore the history of earlier educational technology fads. The paper describes the short history of MOOCs and sets them in the wider context of the evolution of educational technology and open/distance learning. While the hype about MOOCs presaging a revolution in higher education has focussed on their scale, the real revolution is that universities with scarcity at the heart of their business models are embracing openness. We explore the paradoxes that permeate the MOOCs movement and explode some myths enlisted in its support. The competition inherent in the gadarene rush to offer MOOCs will create a sea change by obliging participating institutions to revisit their missions and focus on teaching quality and students as never before. It could also create a welcome deflationary trend in the costs of higher education.

I especially liked Prof. Keith Devlin's response in the forum:

Thanks for alerting us to this article! Very interesting reading. In their terms, I guess I'm trying to use xMOOC systems to achieve cMOOC goals.

For sure, what got my interest, was the sheer scale of the new MOOCs. With student enrollments in the many tens of thousands, two goals become attainable:

  1. Everyone gets something valuable from the course (at no financial cost); and

  2. A small number of highly gifted individuals in the world, with no traditional access to higher education, show up on the radar, and in a short time find themselves flown over to Palo Alto to be interviewed for a free scholarship at Stanford.

Goal 2 boils down to making traditional elitist education available to the most talented people in the world, regardless of their socio-ecomonic status. As a person from a decidedly non-elitist background who ended up at Stanford, both goals ring all my bells.



answered 02 Oct '12, 11:02

rseiter's gravatar image

rseiter ♦

edited 02 Oct '12, 11:09

Some more tidbits:

...A group of 6.002x students have created their own version of the follow-up course, 6.003, Signals and Systems, using material from MIT’s OpenCourseware site.

...Athabasca University Press (2012), a publisher of prize-winning academic books, has established the curious fact that ‘putting a scholar’s book on the web to be read for free increases both sales and citation impact’.

...the Academic Partnerships (AP) programme launched in 2008 by Best Associates, a merchant bank based in Dallas, Texas (Academic Partnerships, 2012a). So far, although it has global ambitions, AP works with some 20 public universities in the US (e.g. University of Arkansas at Jonesboro, University of Texas at Arlington, Lamar University). These institutions may be less prestigious than those flocking to the Coursera and Udacity platforms, but at least they have found a way of making money and achieving good degree graduation rates.

...In Siemens’ words: ‘our cMOOC model emphasises creation, creativity, autonomy and social networking learning. The Coursera model emphasises a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication’.

...Although (the University of) Phoenix has engaged in dodgy business practices, it is likely that because it operates as a teaching-learning system the quality of its instruction is objectively better than the new wave of online xMOOCs. (note: I would like to see what definition of quality is being used here)

...what decides whether or not a student can obtain a degree is determined not by their mastery of the courses, but by the admissions process to the university. This is an untenable nonsense. To give but one example, the UK Open University, which has no academic admission requirements, has awarded over a million highly regarded degrees to its students. Entry to the Open University is easy; exit with a degree is difficult.

...Kolowich (2012b), using the example of the University of Maryland, has shown that ‘students can expect to spend a minimum of $1,300 to convert the learning picked up in an xMOOC into three college credits. That is, of course, in addition to the hours and effort they sink into actually taking the xMOOC’.

...the open educational resources (OER) movement (UNESCO, 2012) to make knowledge the common property of humankind, and to find a business model that generates money for doing it. The business case for OER is developing nicely and OER will transform the availability of school textbooks (Butcher & Hoosen, 2012).

...MOOCs, both cMOOCs and xMOOCs are a fascinating development. This essay has taken a critical stance because the discourse about MOOCs is overloaded with hype and myth while the reality is shot through with paradoxes and contradictions. However, an important process is underway that will chart new paths for the universities involved and for higher education generally.

...results of teaching quality assessments by discipline had accumulated over ten years a small former teachers’ college ranked in the top ten (out of ~100) and the Open University was in 5th place, one above Oxford.

I think the author completely misses the idea that completion rates for paid courses are almost certain to be higher because of the financial commitment involved. (I'm sorry, but I consider this so obvious that I think a lack of acknowledgment of this point is an indicator of bias and making a "dishonest" argument)

I need to learn more about the UK Open University. One of the contributors on the Quantum Computing forums made multiple positive statements about it.

Despite some complaints, I think this paper is a great addition to the conversation. The list of references cited is overwhelming (and provides many leads for further reading).


answered 02 Oct '12, 11:58

rseiter's gravatar image

rseiter ♦

I was surprised how low the compeltion rate cited was for U. of Phoenix undergratuate degrees (30%-35%), given the non-trivial expense of their programs. That makes the Coursera completion rates surprisingly high IMHO.
(02 Oct '12, 13:45) Norm Deplume ♦ Norm%20Deplume's gravatar image
I wonder how the U. of Phoenix completion rate is calculated. Will a significant number of people not in the 30-35% eventually finish? (colleges usually address this by quoting an n-year completion rate, but that's not as applicable to continuing education).
(02 Oct '12, 14:05) rseiter ♦ rseiter's gravatar image

I agree with @rseiter that Daniel appears to have some biases in his analysis that I would disagree with. The largest one for me is that Daniel compares xMOOCs to an ideal that is basically an on-line version of a traditional university with the end goal of completion/granting of a degree. IMHO the xMOOCs do not have that as an explicit objective right now and perhaps never will.

If we clearly separate the educational objectives of mass dissemination of knowledge, effective individual learning, and individual accreditation, we may find that distinct forms of organizations are optimal for each of the objectives and that it is economically feasible for distinct forms of each to co-exist in the internet space (or not). That is the experimental adventure that MOOCs are currently embarked upon, an attempt at a real paradigm shift, it seems to me.

Much of the commentary that I've seen about MOOCs implicitly assumes that all 3 objectives must be addressed by a single form of organization and Daniel's paper reflects that point of view IMHO.

Nonetheless, I did find much worthwhile information in Making Sense of MOOCs . As @rseiter points out, it is 'a great addition to the conversation'.


answered 02 Oct '12, 14:01

Norm%20Deplume's gravatar image

Norm Deplume ♦

You might find Stephen Downes' comments on this blog post interesting:

I think that Daniel is correct to point to the similarity between the current crop of xMOOCs and the elite universities’ previous unsuccessful forays into the world of online learning (does anyone remember Universitas 21 or California Virtual University?) but given that we (the cMOOC people) were around then and that this is what we built instead, it is all more disappointing that Daniel didn’t attempt more than a cursory look at cMOOCs.


answered 02 Oct '12, 17:35

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robrambusch ♦

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