Designing effective MOOCs

July 10th, 2015

I am currently writing a paper which I hope to submit to Educational Multimedia International which looks at effective ways of designing MOOCs. Here is the draft to date, comments welcome!


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have expanded significantly in recent years and are challenging traditional educational fee-paying offerings. The advantages of MOOCs are cited as the fact that they are free, that they enable participants to be part of a global community of peers and to have the experience of learning through social media, and that they offer the potential for opening up educational and facilitating social inclusion. Nonetheless there are challenges associated with MOOCs. Firstly, most have very high dropout rates. Secondly, there are challenges with approaches to recognition of learning and issues with learner authentication and cheating. Thirdly, there are issues with providing support at scale. This paper argues that effective design of MOOCs is key. It focuses on the description of a twelve-dimensional classification schema for describing and designing MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  It then uses the schema to describe five MOOCs, which are respectively based on associative, cognitive, constructivist, situative and connectivist pedagogies. It then describes the 7Cs of Learning Design framework and discusses how it can be used to design MOOCs.


A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is an online course taken by a significant number of participants.[1] MOOCs have gained traction in education in recent years and a number of evaluations have been undertaken to ascertain how learners are participating in them and how they are learning. The Open Education Europa ‘European MOOCs Scoreboard’,[2] indicates that there are currently over 800 MOOCs being offered by Europe-based institutions.

The original vision behind MOOCs was the idea of harnessing the potential of digital technologies to learn at scale through a network of peers. The original MOOC, Connectivism and Connected Knowledge (CCK08),[3] promoted a Connectivist approach to learning. Learners were encouraged to create their own Personalised Learning Environment and to engage in dialogue and exchange of ideas with their peers through appropriate social media. There was no formal learning pathway or correct set of prescribed tools; each learner adopted their own approach. This type of MOOC has been labelled a cMOOC. More recently we have seen the emergence of more individually focused, didactic MOOCs, where the emphasis is on learning primarily through content and videos, supported by e-assessment elements. These MOOCs have been labelled xMOOCs. The number of MOOCs increased dramatically following the first MOOC. Providers include: edX, Udacity, Coursera and FutureLearn. MOOCs are very much a disruptive technology (Christensen 1997), as they re challenging traditional educational business models. The rapid growth in the number of MOOCs lead to the New York Times naming 2012 ‘the year of the MOOC’.[4] A recent survey[5] suggests that MOOCs are supplementing traditional Higher Educational offerings and democratising learning. The survey looked at 13 MOOCs offered on the Coursera platform. Findings included:

  • Students in the younger group often reported taking MOOCs in topics not taught in their schools.
  • Students in the youngest group also reported taking MOOCs to explore different disciplines to help weigh academic and career choices.
  • Those in the over-65 group reported taking MOOCs to pursue lifelong learning, to keep their minds active and to mentor younger students in their own professional field.
  • Students who said they enrolled in MOOCs because of limited access to higher ed chose them because MOOCs were available despite their financial or mobility limitations.

Veltsianos et al. (Veletsianos, Collier et al. 2015) argue that in order to fully understand participation in MOOCs it is important to look at more than just log files and online interactions. They were interested in how people experience MOOCs and why they engage in particular activities in the way they do. The findings of their study included the following:

  • Successful learners have highly developed study habits.
  • Students take notes, if they take more than one MOOC on a similar topic they combine the notes.
  • There is evidence of off platform participation via social media or face to face.
  • Online learning is an emotional experience; both in terms of excitement and disappointment.
  • Life’s daily routines shape the way in which people participate in online courses, in other words the courses need to fit in with other activities individuals are involved with.
  • Finally, drop out rates are not necessarily negative, some learners choose to only do part of a course for a reason.

Opinions as to the value of MOOCs are divided. On a positive note they are free and hence are seen as potentially supporting social inclusion and providing an opportunity for participants to experience being part of a global community of peers. Kopp et al. conclude that there are good reasons for HE institutions to offer MOOCs in such a context: firstly, to ‘fulfil their obligations in the field of lifelong learning by providing scientific content to the general public’ (Kopp, Ebner et al. 2014) and secondly to enable students to accumulate credits towards their qualifications in a more flexible way by learning online.

On a negative note, many point to the high drop out rates and low levels of participation and some feel that MOOCs are more about ‘learning income’ rather than ‘learning outcomes’, and that they are merely a marketing exercise. Indeed many institutions who have developed MOOCs state that their main reason is to get a feel for the MOOC experience and look at how it sits alongside their traditional educational offerings.

A key issue with MOOCs is the way in which participants can achieve recognition for their learning. A number of models have emerged. Participants might pay to get a certificate of attendance or participation. Alternatively they may be awarded digital badges for an achievement or the gaining of particular competences. The OERu[6] is an international consortium of institutions. Learners can approach one of the members and ask for recognition from that institution of their learning for studying through OER or MOOCs.

The OpenCred project explored the range of ways in which non-formal open learning could be recognised. Non-formal learning is defined as learning which is embedded in planned activities not always explicitly designated as learning (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support), but which contain an important learning element. Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. The OpenCred project developed a typology around four characteristics of open educational courses:

  • Formality of recognition
  • Robustness of assessment
  • Eligibility for assessment/recognition
  • Affordability for learners.

The executive summary of the final OpenCred reports states:

The development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in the Higher Education sector is reaching a point of maturity, where they are no longer an experimental form of learning but moving towards being mainstream. Although few providers of open education have so far awarded credentials, this is beginning to change.

The key findings from the project were:

  • Robust assessment is central to recognition of open learning, and that the need to pay for robust assessment leads institutions to either pass on the cost of assessment to learners, or require learners to enrol at the institution – in both cases reducing the openness of the assessment and recognition process.
  • The recognition of open learning is, at present, limited to components of programmes rather than full qualifications. Some organisations are working towards this objective but such initiatives are in their infancy and, as yet, there are no examples available of an individual receiving a full qualification via open learning.
  • There are some common perceptions which impact on the sector’s ability to provide recognition. These relate to the way online learning in general is perceived, and online assessment in particular; the value of ECTS credits as a currency, and the value of badges as motivational tools in open education.
  • There are pockets of experimental practice in workplace settings, but these are currently very limited.

Another issue is how to support learners participating in a MOOC, with often tens of thousands of participants, providing tailored individual support is not possible. There are a number of alternatives. The first, prevalent in cMOOCs, is to encourage participants to create their own Personal Learning Environment (PLE) of tools and peers to support their learning. This might include use of hashtags on social media to filter information or the creation and use of a network of peers to interact with. The second is to provide tutors, who summarise key elements of learning at key points in the MOOC.

EFQUEL facilitated a 12-week series of blog posts exploring the issue of quality and MOOCs.[7] Selwyn and Bulfin (2014) did a meta analysis of the MOOC literature and identified the following themes: the fact that MOOCs vary in size and scale, the issue as to whether they are free or not, how they sit alongside traditional educational offerings, the issue as to whether they are transformative, the way in which they are challenging traditional educational business models, the types of pedagogical approaches that are facilitated, the nature of the content and degree of interactivity and communication, the relationship between the participants and the tutors, the forms of recognition of learning and assessment, and the ways in which technologies are used.

A classification schema for MOOCs

The classification of MOOCs as either xMOOCs or cMOOCs is arguably too simple given the diversity of MOOCs we are now seeing. Conole (2014) has developed a classification schema for MOOCs, which consists of twelve dimensions (Tables 1). Each dimension can be seen as a spectrum, from little or no evidence of that dimension through to a significant amount.

Table 1: A twelve dimensional classification schema for MOOCs





The degree to which the MOOC is open, ranging from closed Learning Management System courses which require the users to login and potentially pay for access through to completely open courses that use open source tools, where participants are encouraged to share their learning outputs using a creative commons license.


How large the MOOC is in terms of the number of participants, which may range from a few hundred to thousands.


How diverse the participant population is; a small specialised course for local doctors for example is likely to be fairly homogenous in terms of the background and experience of the participants, in contrast a large MOOC on Art Aesthetics is likely to have a diverse participant population



In terms of how much and what type of multimedia is used. Some MOOCs are primarily text-based whereas others make significant use of multimedia and have a high degree of interactivity.


This dimension describes the way in which participants are encouraged to communicate with their peers and their tutors. This might range from limited use of discussion forums (which may or may not be moderated by the tutors), through to significant use of communication through a variety of social media tools.


This dimension refers to the ways in which participants are encourage to collaborate together, this might range from no collaboration (particularly in xMOOCs where participants primarily work through the materials on their own) through to significant collaboration with participants working in groups on a shared set of activities.


Reflection is an important facet of learning (Dewey 1916). This dimension reflects the extent to which participants are encouraged to reflect on (and perhaps apply) their learning. Some MOOCs will not explicitly state this, whilst others might include statements such as ‘reflect on what you have learnt to date’ or ‘apply your understanding to your context’. Alternatively the participants might be encouraged to write reflective blogs and comment on the blog posts of other participants.

Learning pathway

Some MOOCs, such as cMOOCs, deliberately do not have a specified learning pathway through the materials; the emphasis is on participants creating their own learning pathway and Personal Learning Environments. Other MOOCs may have a prescribed learning pathway to guide the learners. Other still might have alternative learning pathways through the materials for example in the form of a ‘MOOC-lite’ route or a more extensive route through the materials.

Quality Assurance

This dimension evidences the degree to which the MOOC, when it is being designed and in the evaluation of its delivery, has an associated quality assurance process. This might range from no quality assurance, where the MOOC is developed by an individual teacher, through to some form of relatively informal peer review through to high quality assurance through a formal review process and a number of iterations and improvements.


This ranges from no certification associated with the MOOC, through to the assignment of badges on completion or different aspects of the MOOC or achievement of particular competences, through to certificates for participation or completion.

Formal Learning

This is concerned with whether or not the MOOC is linked to a formal educational offering. This can range from the MOOC being informal and optional through to perhaps being part of a formal educational offering, where MOOC participants learn alongside fee-paying students on a course.


This is the extent to which participants are expected to work individually through the MOOC and take control of their learning with little or no tutor support through to the participants being given a certain degree of tutor support. This might include forum moderation, or formative assessment on artefacts the participants produce.

This classification schema has a number of uses. It can be used to describe a MOOC in terms of these twelve dimensions, and hence provide a mechanism to compare different MOOCs.

Using the classification schema to describe different MOOCs 

This section describes how the classification schema can be used to describe five different MOOCs. Each MOOC is based on a particular pedagogical approach; namely: associative, cognitive, constructivist, situative or connectivist. Pedagogical approaches (Mayes and De Freitas 2004, Conole 2010) can be classified as:

·           Associative – where the focus is on the individual. It is about associating a stimulus with a response or in other words operant conditioning. Examples of ways in which technologies can facilitate associated pedagogies include drill and practice, and e-assessment. An example of an associative MOOC is a course on Chinese provided by the Open University UK.[8] The MOOC is based around a series of podcasts and interactive assessment elements to test knowledge and understanding.

·           Cognitive – where the emphasis is on learning by experiencing a stimuli, with learners encouraged to contemplate on their learning. An example of a cognitivist MOOC is a coursera’s course on songwriting.[9] The MOOC starts from the learner’s current level of experience.

·           Constructivist – where the emphasis is on building on prior knowledge; i.e. applying a meaning to and building on what the learner already knows. This is more active and task orientated. Example of ways in which technologies can facilitate constructivist pedagogies include: problem-based or inquiry learning. An example of a construcivist MOOC is a course on Learning Design run by the Open University, UK.[10] The course begins by examining participants existing level of knowledge of teaching and of design and builds on this as the course progresses.

·           Situative – where the emphasis is on learning in a context and through dialogue. Examples of how situative pedagogies can be facilitated include learning through virtual worlds. An example of a situative MOOC is a coursera course on Clinical Neurology.[11] It is an applied, contextual course, intended to provide continuing professional development to professionals working in the field.

·           Connectivist – where the emphasis is on learning in a networked context, through a distributed community of peers. Learners create their own personal learning environment and repertoire of digital tools. This encourages reflective, personalised learning. An example of a Connectivist MOOC is the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course.[12]

Table 2 provides a comparison of these five MOOCs using the twelve dimensional classification schema, with quantification along each of the dimensions to indicate the degree to which they are present.


Table 2: Comparison of five different MOOC courses

The classification schema can also be used to design a MOOC, using the criteria for each of the dimensions as a starting point. This can be used in conjunction with the resources associated with the 7Cs of Learning Design framework, which considers seven aspects of the design process.

The importance of Learning Design 

Designing for learning is arguably one of the key challenges facing education today. Digital technologies offer a plethora of ways in which learners can interact with rich multimedia resources and ways in which they can communicate and collaborate with peers. Despite this technologies are not used extensively and teachers lack the necessary digital literacies (Jenkins 2006, Jenkins 2009) to make effective use of technologies in their teaching. A 2014 survey[13] of the effective use of learning technology in education lists the following as key barriers to the uptake of learning technologies:

  • Lack of resource to provide release and support for staff to enable them to incorporate technology in their practices.
  • Reliance on individuals to champion innovation and exploitation of their willingness to support colleagues.
  • Lack of direction at a strategic level resulting in fragmentation of practice across provider curriculum areas and levels of work.
  • Lack of credit and recognition for innovative uses of technology by key influencers such as government agencies, awarding bodies, governing bodies.
  • Lack of headroom for managers to support innovation and risk taking.
  • Focus on omission and error in inspection and quality assurance, which does not encourage experimentation and exploration of the potential of technology.
  • Little recognition that learning technologies are diverging between central sensitive data for administration, and independent and collaborative use by teachers and learners.
  • Lack of funding to purchase technology.
  • Lack of guidance on what would constitute outstanding and good practice across the range of technology use.
  • Funding methodologies that are inimical to technology supported learning e.g. focusing on classroom activity.
  • Staff not encouraged to use technology so many focus on the mandated administrative processes (e.g. quality assurance requirements, registers, outcomes, summative assessment).

In other words the key barriers can be grouped under the following five themes: lack of staff time and support, lack of support at senior level, lack of leadership in effective use of technology, lack of incentives, and lack of funding for technology.

A survey by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt surveyed more than 1,000 teachers and administrators on the use of technologies,[14] and found the following were the top needs in classrooms:

  • More engagement from parents of students
  • More time with students to cover the curriculum
  • Training on the use of technologies devices in the classroom
  • More money for classroom materials
  • More training on technology implementation
  • New standards aligned to instructional materials
  • More job embedded professional development
  • More stand alone professional development.

Key findings were that 97% of teachers use some form of digital content, 51% of teachers use Apps/digital games in the classroom, only 36% use laptops or desktops and 61% do not use tablets, 60% of teachers stated that they saw increased student engagement when using technologies such as digital content, online applications and games.

Learning Design aims to help bridge this gap and guide teachers in their design practice. Learning Design as a research field has emerged in the last fifteen years or so, driven mainly by academics in Europe and Australia. It is an alternative to the more established field of Instructional Design. It aims to provide an holistic overview of the whole design process and helps teachers make more effective design decisions that are pedagogically informed and make appropriate use of digital technologies. Conole (2013, pg. 7) defines Learning Design as:

It is a methodology for enabling teachers/designers to make more informed decisions in how they go about designing learning activities and interventions, which is pedagogically informed and makes effective use of appropriate resources and technologies. This includes the design of resources and individual learning activities right u to curriculum-level design. A key principle is to make the design process more explicit and shareable. Learning Design as an area of research and development includes both gathering empirical evidence to understand the design process and the development of a range of Learning Design resources, tools and activities.

There are three facets to Learning Design: guidance (to help the teacher make design decisions), visualisation (to help teachers represent their designs visually from different perspectives) and sharing (with peers). It is based on a socio-cultural theoretical approach, and in particular the concept of what mediating artefacts teachers use in the design process (Conole 2013). Learning Design helps teachers think beyond content to the activities learners will engage with and the learner experience. The Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design provides an overview of the emergence of Learning Design and the key concepts.[15]

Frey[16] suggests that a:

Good Learning Experience Design can create relevant, engaging and memorable educational experiences that successfully address the specific challenges of these adult learners.

He suggests the following facets of design:

  • The importance of designing a purposeful journey and making this clear to the learners.
  • Making efficient use of the limited time available to learners.
  • Directly linking learning goals to activities.
  • Building on existing understanding and addressing any gaps in understandings
  • Providing immersive, real-world simulations or experiences. 

MOOCs provide an alternative to campus-based courses, and emphasis the power of harnessing a global, distributed community of peers for learning. However, the design of MOOCs is challenging and to date most have been developed on a fairly ad hoc basis. This paper describes how Learning Design can be used to design more effective MOOCs and in particular the use of the 7Cs of Learning Design framework, which is described in the next section.

The 7Cs of Learning Design

This section describes the 7Cs of Learning Design framework, which can be used to help teachers/designers to make more informed design decisions. Figure 1 illustrates the 7Cs of Learning Design framework. For each C there are a range of resources and activities, some of which are described here.[17]


Figure 1: The 7Cs of Learning Design Framework

The first C, Conceptualise, is about creating a vision for the course or module being designed. It helps the teacher/designer think about the nature of the learners who are likely to take the course or module, their age range, diversity, characteristics, skills, perceptions and aspirations. It is also about articulating the core principles associated with the course or module. In terms of a MOOC this is about identifying the type of learners who are likely to participate, along with some understanding of their perceptions about MOOCs and their reasons for wanting to participate. It is also about establishing their level of experience with using technologies and their educational background. This can be achieved through the creation of ‘personas’[18] describing the types of learners who are likely to take the course. Personas are a tool for the MOOC designers to articulate their understanding of expected participants, as a starting point for design. In addition the Course Features activity helps the designers to articulate their vision for the MOOC in terms of:

  • The pedagogical approaches used
  • The core principles of the MOOC
  • The nature of the guidance and support provided
  • The types of content and activities
  • The forms of communication and collaboration that are encouraged
  • The ways in which reflection is encouraged and how the participants can demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes.

The next four Cs are concerned with designing the resources and activities that the learners will engage with.

The Create C helps the teacher/designer articulate what learning materials need to be created, whether these are text-bases, interactive materials, podcasts or videos. In addition, it covers the use or repurposing of Open Educational Resources. Finally, the teacher/designer might also create some activities, which require the learners to create their own content. Depending on the subject nature of the MOOC there may be many existing OER which can be reused; for more specialised MOOCs it is likely that the designers will need to create the majority of the resources.

The Communicate C is concerned with methods to facilitate communication, between the learner and the tutor, the learner and their peers, and the broader community through social media. This might range from effective mechanisms for fostering discussion in a forum, through effective moderation, or looser communication through social media. In cMOOCs there is likely to be a significant emphasis on communication and encouraging participants to communicate with their peers, particularly through social media. This might include the use of a hashtag for the MOOC on Twitter or the setting up of a facebook page for the MOOC. In xMOOCs the focus is more on the individual so communication might be mainly restricted to interaction with the tutors via email.

Similarly, the Collaborate C is about fostering mechanisms to enable collaboration or group work. Again this is likely to be more prevalent in cMOOCs than xMOOCs. This could include the use of the jigsaw pedagogical pattern (Hernándex-Leo, Asensio-Pérez et al. 2010). In this participants are put into groups of four. Each person is given a topic to research, they then get together with others who have been researching the same topic and pool their collective knowledge. Finally, they return to their home team and share their combined understanding of the four topics assigned.

Finally, the Consider C, is concerned with ways in which reflection can be encouraged and the ways in which the learners can demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes. Assessment might be diagnostic, formative or summative. Reflection in cMOOCs might be through interaction with other participants or might include encouraging participants to write and share reflective blogs on their learning. xMOOCs usually include formative assessment elements, through for example interactive formative quizzes. Participants might also get recognition of their learning through certificates of participation or attendance, or the awarding of digital badges for particular achievements or development of competences.

The Combine C enables the teacher/designer to step back and reflect on the design process to date and look at the design from different perspectives. This includes creativity an activity profile[19] showing how much time participants are spending on the following types of tasks:

  • Assimilative activities – such as reading, listening or viewing
  • Information handling – such as finding and collating resource or manipulating data in a spreadsheet
  • Communication – for example in forums or through social media
  • Productive – creating learning artefacts, for example a chemical compound or an architectural model
  • Adaptive – interacting with modelling or simulation tools
  • Experimental – such as drill and practice or practising skills in a particular context or undertaking an investigation
  • Assessment – recognition of learning through either formative or summative assessment.

It is also possible to create a Course View Map which describes in details the nature of the MOOC in terms of:

  • What guidance and support is provided
  • The nature of the content and activities the participants will engage with
  • The way in which communication and collaboration is encouraged
  • The way in which reflection is encouraged and how participants can demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes.

The storyboard enables the designer to map out what the participants are doing over time. Figure 2 shows an example of a story board. At the top the weeks and topics are listed. On the left hand side the learning outcomes are listed. In the centre are the activities the participants will engage with. For example in week one they are reading an article and listening to a video. In week two they listen to a podcast and read a document. In the final weeks they listen to a podcast, read a document and watch a video. In week one, the output is for them to write an essay. In week two they write a blog post. In the final week they do a group presentation and write a reflective essay on their learning. Under this the assessment elements are listed. So in week one the tutor provides formative feedback on the assay. In week two participants provide feedback on some of their peers’ blog posts. In the final week there is a summative assessment of a group presentation and a reflective review of their learning. Finally, the learning outcomes are mapped to the assessment elements, to ensure constructive alignment (Biggs n.d.).



Figure 2: An example of a storyboard

Finally, the Consolidate C is about implementing the design in a real-life context and evaluating its effectiveness. This might include the development of an evaluation rubric. Evaluation methods might include analysis of participants’ interactions with the MOOC, a survey or interviews.[20] In addition the MOOC classification schema can be used to evaluate how effective a MOOC is in terms of the extent to which the design is effectively implemented.


This paper has described a twelve dimensional classification schema for MOOCs, which can be used to design, describe and evaluate MOOCs. Five examples of different pedagogical MOOCs have been mapped against the schema. 

MOOCs represent a sign of the times; they instantiate an example of how technologies can disrupt the status quo of education and are a forewarning of further changes to come. Whether or not MOOCs will reach the potential hype currently being discussed is a mote point, what is clear is that we need to take them seriously. More importantly, for both MOOCs and traditional educational offerings we need to make more informed design decisions that are pedagogically effective, leading to an enhanced learner experience and ensuring quality assurance.

The key value of MOOCs is that they are challenging traditional educational institutions and having to make them think, in particular on their educational business model and the distinctiveness of their offering. As a recent article states MOOCs are challenging traditional institutional business models about what they are offering, how it is distinctive and what the unique learner experience will be at their institution. As Cormier (2013) states:

When we use the MOOC as a lens to examine Higher Education, some interesting things come to light. The question of the ‘reason’ for education comes into focus.

Furthermore, UNESCO estimates that more than 100 million children can’t afford formal education.[21] MOOCs provide them with a real lifeline to get above the poverty line. This, and the fact that MOOCs provide access to millions.

As Creelman (2013) notes:

Whatever you think of them they are opening up new learning opportunities for millions of people and that is really the main point of it all.

So for me the value of MOOCs to promote social inclusion, coupled with them making traditional institutions reconsider the educational offering they are providing and what is distinctive about their institution. These factors signify the importance of MOOCs as a disruptive technology, challenging existing educational business models and, hence, whether they survive or not is not important, if they result in an opening up of education and a better quality of the learner experience that has got to be for the good.


Biggs, J. (n.d.). “Constructive alignment.” John Biggs

Christensen, C. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard, Harvard University Press.

Conole, G. (2010) “Review of pedagogical frameworks and models and their use in e-learning.”

Conole, G. (2013). Designing for learning in an open world. New York, Springer.

Conole, G. (2014). “A new classification schema for MOOCs.” INNOQUAL 2(3).

Cormier, D. (2013). “Week 3 – Forget the learners, how do I measure a MOOC quality experience for ME! By Dave Cormier.” MOOC Quality Project

Creelman, A. (2013). “Make hay whilt the sunshines.” The corridor of uncertainty

Dewey, J. (1916). Experience and Nature. New York, Dover.

Hernándex-Leo, D., J. I. Asensio-Pérez, Y. Dimitriadis and E. D. Villasclaras-Fernández (2010). Generating CSCL Scripts: From a Conceptual Model of Pattern

Languages to the Design of Real Scripts. E-learning design patterns. P. Goodyear and S. Retalis. Rotterdam, Sense Publishers: 49-64.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide, NYU Press.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century, Mit Pr.

Kopp, M., M. Ebner and A. Dorfer-Novak (2014). “Introducing MOOCs to Austrian Universities: is it worth it to accept the challenge?” The International Journal for Innovation and Quality in Learning, INNOQUAL November 2014.

Mayes, T. and S. De Freitas (2004). Review of e-learning frameworks, models and theories, JISC e-learning models desk study.

Selwyn, N. and S. Buffin (2014). MOOC research initiative - final report.

Veletsianos, G., A. Collier and E. Schneider (2015). “Digging deeper into learners’ experiences in MOOCs: Participation in social networks outside of MOOCs, notetaking and contexts surrounding content consumption.” British Journal of Educational Technology 46(3): 570 - 587.




[1] A video describing the original idea behind MOOCs can be found here and provides a list of MOOCs

































[17] The full set of resources and activities associated with the framework are available from here




[19] More information on the Activity Profile can be found at, this includes an interactive widget to create an Activity Profile


[20] The LTDI evaluation cookbook is a useful resource describing different evaluation techniques – see




Internationalisation, cross-border education and e-learning conference

June 19th, 2015


Image source 

A few weeks ago I did a keynote at the internationaalisation, cross-border education and e-learning conference in Nicosia. Here are some notes on some of the other speakers. Michael Gaebel (head of the higher education policy unit, European University Association), gave a talk entitled ‘Trends in Higher Education Internationalisation’. He pointed to a number of useful reports on trends including the e-learning and HE, and argued that internationalisation and digitisation are two key priorities for institutions. He said that there was a wide range of activities around these across institutions and that most did have some form of international strategy, less had dedicated e-learning strategies. A key issue was mobility in terms of quality and the development of student skills. A recent e-learning survey indicates that more and more institutions are developing blended learning and online learning offerings, as well as the development of MOOCs. George Veletsianos reported on some recent studies he has been involved with on learners’ experience and perceptions of MOOCs. The focus was on how students are using social media for scholarship and what challenges arise in new learning environments. Part of the work has recently been published (BJET, 46(3), 570 – 587).


Researchers describe with increasing confidence what they observe participants doing in massive open online courses (MOOCs). However, our understanding of learner activities in open courses is limited by researchers’ extensive dependence on log file analyses and clickstream data to make inferences about learner behaviors. Further, the field lacks an empirical understanding of how people experience MOOCs andwhy they engage in particular activities in the ways that they do. In this paper, we report three findings derived by interviewing 13 individuals about their experiences in MOOCs. We report on learner interactions in social networks outside of MOOC platforms, notetaking, and the contexts that surround content consumption. The examination and analysis of these practices contribute to a greater understanding of the MOOC phenomenon and to the limitations of clickstream-based research methods. Based on these findings, we conclude by making pragmatic suggestions for pedagogical and technological refinements to enhance open teaching and learning.

The results of the studies included the following:

  • Successful learners have highly developed study habits
  • Students take notes, if they take more than one MOOC on a similar topic they combine the notes
  • There is evidence of off platform participation via social media or face to face
  • Online learning is an emotional experience; both in terms of excitement and disappointment
  • Life’s daily routines shapes the way in which people participate in online courses, in other words the courses need to fit in with other activities individuals are involved with
  • Finally, drop out rates are not necessarily negative, some learners choose to only do part of a course for a reason

George, Pambos Vrasidas and I took part in a symposium on ‘design issues and participation in MOOCs’ in the afternoon. Pambos highlighted the following challenges of MOOCs

  • High student-teacher ratio
  • Assessment
  • Less contact with instructor
  • Learning Design issues
  • High drop out rates
  • Lack of a real college experience
  • The increase of Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs)
  • Return on investment 

And he listed the following as some of the opportunities

  • Democratisation of education
  • Providing ivy-league courses to everyone
  • Creating a vast pool of data
  • Marketing and recruitment
  • Making quality education available at a distance for a large population
  • New business models are emerging 

TELL-OP survey

June 15th, 2015


I am current involved in an exciting EU project called TELL-OP being coordinated by Murcia University. The project focuses on the development of mobile Apps for second language acquisition. We are currently undertaking a survey and would be grateful if you could take the time to complete if this is of interest to you.

Here are the details: 

Dear Colleague,

TELL-OP is a EU-funded Strategic Partnership that seeks to promote the take-up of innovative practices in European language learning by supporting personalized learning approaches that rely on the use of information and communication technologies and open education resources.

Our aim is to promote cooperation in the field of language learning and we hope to foster the use of already available web 2.0 services to facilitate the personalized e-learning of languages in the contexts of higher and adult education, in particular, through the use of mobile devices. To learn more about us, you can visit our website at

In the framework of our project, we intend to create a mobile application for foreign language learning that includes a selection of language processing technologies.

We have designed a survey to help us learn more about the current use of these technologies and mobile devices in the European teaching context. Our survey seeks to explore the spread and take-up of language, and/or text, processing technologies for language learning.

Completing the survey should not take more than 10 minutes.

By answering the questions, you will be taking part in a European project that seeks to foster the use of new technologies in adult and Higher Education for the learning of languages. You will similarly have the possibility to be among the first teachers to test our TELL-OP app as soon as it becomes available  (during the first half of 2017). Please make sure you leave your e-mail so we can get back to you.

Survey in English

Survey in French

Survey in German

Survey in Spanish

Survey in Turkish


Thank you for your time, support and feedback!


The TELL-OP team.



June 10th, 2015

1.    cyberstalking.jpeg

Image from

As many of you know I am pretty open on social media and on the whole the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. It’s great to get comments on blog posts, get people replying or retweeting my tweets, participating in debates on fb or remotely following a conference. But recently I have had some experiences that have made me rethink my open policy. In general on fb I accept friendship requests if we have mutual friends or I can see that they are in the same line of work. Recently I have had quite a lot of friendship requests from people I have no connection with, furthermore when I look at their fb page, there is nothing there… Needless to say I don’t accept their friendship request. Another recent incident was that someone I did accept a friendship request from started fb messaging me, for some reason I felt uneasy about this and didn’t respond. Then this morning he started liking literally hundreds of my posts, so naturally I de-friended him. What on earth did he think he was doing? Cyberstalking can be defined as “Cyberstalking is the use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, a group, or an organization.” Bonnie Stewart and George Veletsianos are doing an interesting study at the moment about disclosure online, people who are being staked, or victims of identity crime. I think given the openness of the web and the potential dangers of adopting open practice this is a timely and important study. I look forward to seeing the results. 

Designing effective MOOCs

May 26th, 2015


Image source: 

Next week I am taking part in a symposium entitled ‘Design issues and participation in MOOCs’ along with Pambos Vrasidas and George Veletsianos, at the ‘Internationalization, Cross-Border Education and E-Learning Conference‘, which is taking place in Nicosia, Cyprus on 4 - 5th June. The symposium will explore three main questions:

  1.  What are the key design elements of successful MOOCs?
  2. What is it like to learn in Massive Open Online Courses?
  3. What are the challenges and possibilities offered by MOOCs?

As part of this I have prepared a positional paper on ‘Designing effective MOOCs’. This is available on slideshare, comments welcome!

Digital technologies… two sides of a coin

May 20th, 2015



I did a keynote at the LINQ conference in Brussels last week, I focused in particular on the positive and negative aspects of digital technologies, i.e. that there are always two sides to a coin. I began by showing one of the Pearson videos on the future of education. The videos are great as they really give a glimpse of what learning might look like in the near future; personalised, contextual, interactive, and visual.


In general digital technologies are beneficial because they can: enhance, augment, supplement, replace, enrich, expand and empower. They can be negative in that they can: detract, lessen, confuse, overwhelm, infringe and be time consuming or addictive. I then looked at this theme from five perspectives: openness, mobile learning, social media, digital identity and distributed cognition.


In terms of openness digital technologies enable more open practices and in the last ten years or so we have seen the massive increase in the number of Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). We have also seen an increase in free resources, tools and expertise being available via online webinars, blogs, open repositories and journals, and social media. Much has been written about the pros and cons of these; positive in terms of opening up access and enabling social inclusion, negative in terms of being primarily elitist and more about ‘learning income than learning outcomes’. The positive aspects of more open practices are that they enable better transparency, afford a greater reach, facilitate equity and social inclusion, challenge existing business models, and result in a disaggregation of formal educational offerings. In terms of negative aspects, adopting an open approach has the danger of ‘laying yourself bare’, gives rise to issues about surveillance and privacy issues, can result in a misuse or misinterpretation of data, raises issues about quality and accreditation, and can raise issues around ownership. I referenced a number of projects that I have been involved with about openness; the 7Cs of Learning Design framework, the VMPass project on accreditation of non-formal and informal learning, a report for IPTS, OpenCred, on recognition of non-formal and informal learning and a current project, MOOCS4ALL which is developing a MOOC to help people design MOOCs.


Smart phones and tablets are now practically ubiquitous, and we have practically near ubiquitous wifi connectivity. They are now much more affordance, robust, light and with a good battery life. There is a range of excellent Apps available to support communication, productivity, curation and learning. The positive aspects of these mobile devices are that they mean learning anywhere, anytime is now a reality, more and more websites are mobile ready, learning is possible across contexts and devices. The negative aspects are that being online all the time means that there is no ‘down time’; people are expected to be online 24/7. We are increasingly dependent on these devices and more and more of our data is stored in the cloud. Finally many learners and teachers lack the necessary digital literacy skills to make effective use of these devices for learning purposes.


The third perspective I focused on was social media. I argued that we have seen a shift from a passive web to a participatory, interactive and social web, which is distributed, networked, dynamic, participatory, complex and open. There are now many many tools to support communication and collaboration and we are now part of a global, distributed networked of peers. The positive aspects of social media are that they provide us with a rich variety of ways to communicate and collaborate, enable us to be part of a global community of peers, provide us with access to a vast amount of information, facilitate rapid dissemination of information, and benefits of adopting crowd sourcing approaches. The negative aspects are that there is a lack of privacy, we leave digital traces, which can be negative, there is a danger of misuse of data, being openly online can result in cyberbulling and trolling, and there are issues around privacy and security. Finally they can be time consuming and addictive. I then showed a clip from a film I saw recently, ‘unfriended’, which is a horror move about social media. The film is shot entirely via a computer interface, through Skype and chat.


The fourth perspective was on digital identity. I raised the issue of how each of use presents ourselves online and how we interact with others. I argued that there were five facets associated with digital identity: reputation, impact, influence, productivity, and openness. And also that there was a relationship between identity, interaction and presence. Focusing a little more on presence, I referenced Mark Childs definition in terms of mediated presence (being there, immersion), social presence (projection of oneself, and perception of others, copresence (being somewhere with others), and self presence (or embodiment). The positive aspects of digital identity are that it can act as an extensive of your ‘real self – which can either be the same or different, to enables us to have an extended reach, and offers us the opportunity to explore the medium. The negative aspects are that it can lay ourselves bare, can result in a misinterpretation of identity, can lead to cyber-stalking or identity theft. I recounted my own negative experience of online dating, which I have blogged about before. I am looking forward to talking more about this when I take part in some research Bonnie Stewart and George Veletsianos are doing.


Finally I talked about distributed cognition, referencing Solomon’s use of the term.  In terms of positive aspects I referenced Perkin’s concept of ‘Person Plus’, i.e. our cognition is distributed between our brain and our online digital environment. Today’s digital environment provides us with access to vast amounts of information, and there are more and more sophisticated tools for finding, curating, managing and filtering information. In terms of the negative aspects, many lack the necessary digital literacy skills to harness digital technologies and it is easy to get lost or confused. Technologies are constantly changing and hence there is a lack of permanency. Some would argue that we are becoming over dependent on technologies and there is a growing moving for a call to ‘slow learning’ equivalent to the ‘slow cooking’ movement. Some, such as Stephen Hawkins, warn that with the increasingly sophistication of Artificial Intelligence, there is a danger that machines will take over… 


So clearly digital technologies have many advantages and disadvantages, perhaps most chilling though are the words of Paul Virilio in his book the information bomb. He argues that technologies cannot exist without accidents, and that they separate us from real time and space…. Therefore, when not if technologies fail, that is it! Our lives are so utterly dependent and perhaps controlled by technologies. We can’t stop the march of technologies, and whilst we should celebrate the ways in which they can enhance our lives, we should also be aware of the potential downsides.




Tips and hints for getting the most out of conferences

May 19th, 2015



Last week I gave a keynote at the LINQ conference in Brussels. It got me thinking about the value of conferences and how to make the most of them. So I have put together this list. Is there anything I have missed?


  • Good way to present research findings and get feedback.
  • Good to disseminate research work and promote the university and the school.
  • Useful in terms of networking and finding potential people to collaborate with and potential work on bids with.
  • An easy and effective way of keeping up to date with current research
  • A means of working towards a research publication. Even if the conference only requires an abstract it is a good idea to work up a paper to take to the conference, which can then be submitted to a journal. Many conferences have an associated journal or print selected conference papers in a special issue.
  • It is useful to go through the delegate list and target people you want to meet.
  • Take notes during the session and in particular useful links and references, and then write a blog post summarising the main points. Twitter and facebook the link.
  • Use a curation tool, such as pearltrees to note useful links associated with the conference presentations.
  • Attend interactive workshop sessions to learn new skills.
  • Be active in using the conference hashtag and connect with others who are also using it and have shared interests.
  • Encourage newer researchers to write abstracts/papers with more established colleagues.
  • Ensure that the abstract/paper aligns to the conference themes; make this explicit if possible.
  • Offer to be a reviewer to get experience at how to write good conference papers.
  •  Take leaflets to distribute about research projects, teaching programmes and PhD opportunities.
  • Use the breaks and social events to network.

Good e-learning conferences (primarily tertiary focus):


  • Networked Learning (Europe) – every two years, excellent high quality conference, selected papers are published as a Springer book.
  • EDEN (Europe) – annual conference in June, good papers and a nice community, has an associated journal EURODL.
  • EDEN (Europe) research workshop in the Autumn.
  • ICEM (worldwide) – long established conference over 60 years, very international.
  • ICDE (worldwide)– large conference very international.
  • ASCILITE – good high quality papers, both practical and theoretically grounded, usually in Australia.
  • Online Educa, December in Berlin, expensive but a good place to be seen in terms of EU projects, commission people usually attend.
  • AECT (USA) – large well-established conference.
  • Edmedia (alternates between Europe and North America – large well-established conference.
  • Sloane (USA) – well-established conference.

How do you promote e-learning?

May 6th, 2015


Image from a blog post 

Part of my role at Bath Spa University is to promote the use of technology for learning, teaching and research. I am just about to take over chairing the school of Education’s e-learning group; one of our first tasks will be to articulate a vision for e-learning and a clear implementation plan. We’ve started an initial brainstorm of activities that might be set up to take this forward. I believe that variety is the key, different things will appeal to different people, but as always what is challenging is finding ways to get beyond the usual suspects and enthusiasts to the mainstream. Much has been written about the challenges and opportunities of Technology-Enhanced Learning, see for example an article by Adrian Kirkwood and Linda Price.

I think effective use of technologies is for everyone across the university, not just the academics; so this includes: support staff, administrators, librarians, educational developers, IT support staff, learning technologies, etc. I am impressed with the way that Bath Spa is using Google tools effectively and routinely, not something I have experienced elsewhere.

Here is my initial starter for ten, not very imaginative I suspect, but tried and tested methods. Any suggestions for other things would be welcome!




Preschool meeting share and tell sessions

To enable staff to share how they are using technologies, initial focus on the use of iPads

Not enough staff are willing to share

E-learning induction programme for new staff

To provide an overview of e-learning in the school and indicate where they can get support and training

New staff are not willing to engage or the session isn’t implemented

Series of external speakers – both face to face and via webinars

To bring in external expertise

Not able to recruit enough external speakers, poor attendance

E-learning festival – a two-hour session with lunch in the Commons, series of posters and stalls of exemplars of good practice

To recognise innovation, to showcase good practice, effective use of time

Not enough people willing to offer sessions, poor attendance

Development projects – competition for a learning innovation development with funding, working with learning technologist to design and implement, showcase at the end of the year

Provides a team-based approach, provides support and time out to undertake innovation, rewards innovation through showcase

Funding may be an issue, staff may not have time to invest

Hands-on workshops, examples might include: Learning Design, Mobile Learning, use of iPads, e-pedagogies, social media

Half-day or one-day sessions with lunch, practical hands-on focus, given by experts internally or externally

Not enough people volunteer to offer sessions, poor attendance

Participation in e-learning sessions advertise via social media, via organisations such as EDEN, ICEM and ICDE

Access to the broader e-learning community

People may not be used social media, will advertise sessions via education mailing list

Encourage presentation and participation in relevant e-learning conferences

Access to the broader e-learning community

People may need support in working up presentations and need help in targeting the right conferences

E-learning audit of existing practice

To gain a clear picture of current practice, to highlight good practice and identify areas for development

People may not be willing to share what they are doing


My personal digital network

May 1st, 2015



As part of my talk this morning to the librarians I shared with them my personal digital network. I use social media on a daily basis, both for work activities and in my personal life. I use Facebook and Twitter extensively; Twitter is mainly for professional purposes, such as: tweeting useful resources, disseminating research, pointing to blog posts, etc. In contrast Facebook is a mixture of personal and professional stuff; you will find an electric mix of pictures of cats and food (#foodporn), interspersed with links to interesting research articles or conferences. I use Slideshare to post presentations, but also sometimes articles I have written. It’s very motivating to see how many people have viewed a presentation! I am in LinkedIn, but don’t really find it very useful. Blogging has changed the way I work as an academic, I have had my professional blog since 2007; I blog about ideas I am developing, interesting notes from conferences I have attended or articles I have read, summaries of talks I have given. I also have a personal blog about cooking and travel, two of my favourite pastimes ;-)


Endnote is invaluable as a tool for curating references; it has made writing papers so much easier! I tried other tools such as Mendeley and Zotero, but didn’t really get on with them and found myself reverting to Endnote. Dropbox is great for sharing documents with others, but Google Drive is also useful. Skype is great for video conferencing, either with individuals or for group meetings. I have also used it to give webinars. Other video conferencing tools include Google Hangouts, Adobe Connect and Flashmeeting.  I have recently discovered a great App for my iPad Air; peartrees and I am finding it great for curating useful resources around different tools. 


Interesting… when I first put this list together I forgot to include email, Freudian slip? Would be interested to here examples of other people’s digital networks and the reasons why you use particular tools. 

Characteristics of digital technologies

April 30th, 2015


Image source: 


I am doing a talk here at Bath Spa University to the librarians tomorrow morning and have been working on my slides. I plan to give an overview of digital technologies before describing my research around three phases of the evolution of technologies over the last thirty years or so: multimedia and the Internet, social media and Learning Design. It got me thinking about the characteristics of digital technologies. I brainstormed some ideas, put them together as a diagram and posted on fb and Twitter and invited others to add to. I was surprised by the amount of responses.

The positive characteristics of digital technologies include:

  • Across devices – now it is possible to access content across multiple devices, particularly through cloud services
  • Mobile – the emergence of mobile devices in recent years means it is now possible to be online anywhere, anytime
  • Dynamic – we constantly co-evolve with technologies, as we start to incorporate particular tools into our daily practices, a recent example for me was the use of the curation tool, pearltrees, which I am finding invaluable
  • Personalised – each of us has a different set of tools we use on a regular basis, making up our own personalised digital environment, for me this includes email (of course), fb, Twitter, Skype, etc.
  • Connected – we are now part of a global community of peers, through social networking sites such as fb, Twitter and LinkedIn
  • Ubiquitous  - now more than ever almost everywhere has wifi, so we can be constantly online, even the number 38 bus to Bristol has wifi!
  • Global – there are no longer national boundaries, it is possible to easily connect with people around the globe
  • Robust – most devices are pretty robust and reliable these days, it is rare for them to go wrong
  • Interactive – a key characteristic of social media in particular is that they are interactive, the web is no longer a passive consumption space, but an interactive two-way space
  • Intuitive – it is rare for a site to be badly design, most sites and Apps these days are pretty intuitive, if they are not then people will not use them
  • Free – there are now many free resources and Apps online, such as Open Educational Resources and Massive Open Online Courses, although it is worth pointing out that nothing is entirely free, they may for example have irritating adverts associated with them, or you may need to pay for a premium version of the service
  • Open – a key characteristic of social and participatory media is that they are open, making interactions more visible and promoting digital scholarship.

The negative aspects or challenges of digital technologies include:

  • Battery life – whilst iPads tend to have a good battery life, some smart phones, such as the iPhone 5 have dreadful batteries, meaning that you are constantly searching for a plug socket
  • Insecure – many sites and Apps are not secure and may even sell on your data
  • Privacy – adopting more open practice comes with a price and raises significant privacy issues
  • Accessibility – many sites are not well designed and take no account of the needs of those users with accessibility issues, for example by making alternative text available for images or videos
  • Quantity – the Internet now has a vast amount of information, however the sheer size means it can be difficult to find things
  • Intrusive – communication via the variety of channels available online, means that we are connected 24/7, many are calling for the concept of ‘slow learning’ the equivalent of the ‘slow cooking’ movement
  • Quality – the quality of resources varies enormously, learners and teachers need appropriate digital literacy skills to assess the validity and relevance of different resources
  • Time consuming – participating in social media has many benefits, but is also very time consuming
  • Trivial – whilst there is a lot of valuable information on the Internet there is also a lot of trivia and noise, filtering these out to get to relevant information is a challenge
  • Training – navigating digital technologies and harnessing their affordances is a skill, learners and teachers need training and support on how to use them most effectively
  • Cost – whilst many resources and tools appear ‘free’ there is usually a cost, whether that is in advertising or via the device used to access them
  • Unreliable – sometimes Apps or websites crash or get hacked
  • Transitory – sites are constantly developing and adapting, you just get used to a site or interface and suddenly it changes
  • Connectivity – whilst it is true that we have near ubiquitous access, this means that when we are not connected there are problems. I was in India a few years ago and the wifi wasn’t very good, a colleague texted me and said ‘Are you dead? You haven’t been online for three days!’

So there you have it, an interesting list, no doubt there are more things I could add. As always there are two sides to everything, digital technologies offer us access to rich multimedia and provide us with a variety of channels to communicate and collaborate with others, they have many advantages, but also have associated risks and challenges.