Archive for April, 2014

A 12-Dimensional Classification Schema for MOOCs

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014


Every few years a new disruptive technology emerges, i.e. something that fundamentally changes the way we do things (Christensen 1997). The Internet, mobile devices and even Virtual Learning Environments are all examples. With the Internet, institutions moved from communication through paper memos to ubiquitous use of email, similarly all departments have a web presence, both to promote the department’s activities generally and to have at least some presence in terms of course offerings. Mobile phones have made landlines virtually redundant; and the functionality of today’s smart phones means that they are used for far, far more things than simply making a phone call. Virtual Learning Environments made institutions realise that technologies were an essential part of the service they offered students. They enabled teachers to upload content and provide mechanisms for students to communicate and collaborate via tools such as forums, blogs and wikis.

The latest in the line of disruptive technologies is Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Initiated by the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course created by Siemen’s et al. in 2008 (Wikipedia 2012), the number of MOOCs have proliferated in recent years. Indeed there isn’t a Vice Chancellor or Rector in the world who isn’t considering what the impact of these free online courses might have on traditional educational offerings. Martin Bean (Vice Chancellor of the Open University UK), talking about the announcement of FutureLearn,[1] stated:

In 2012 that wave of disruption hit higher education. By the end of the year, 18 of the top 20 universities in North America were offering MOOCs – so that’s the “great brands” box ticked (Bean 2013).

However, MOOCs have generated heated debate; opinions are divided about their value and importance. Some argue that they open up access to education and hence foster social inclusion, others cynically suggest that they are merely a marketing exercise – more about ‘learning income than learning outcomes’ and point to the phenomenally high drop out rates (typically between 95-98%).[2]

This blog post summarises some of the key discourses around MOOCs. It will describe the way in which they are being characterised as either xMOOCs or cMOOCs, but will suggest that this distinction is too limiting. It will put forward a categorisation that can better describe the nuances of different types of MOOCs and will demonstrate how this framework can be use to create more pedagogically effective MOOCs, which will enhance the learning experience and lead to quality enhancement of these types of courses (Conole 2012; Conole 2013).


A brief history of MOOCs

MOOCs have been defined as:

A massive open online course (MOOC) is an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for the students, professors, and TAs (Teaching Assistants) (Wikipedia 2012).

The acronym highlights the key components; i.e. that they are online courses which harness the potential for learning in a large-scale, distributed community of peers, through open practices.

Much has been written about the emergence of MOOCs as a phenomenon, these are not listed here, but for an up to date account of MOOC research, there are two recent special issues which point to much of the literature in the field,[3] and at the time of writing there is a call out for a special issue of Distance Education.[4] Siemens et al. created the first MOOC in 2008, called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’. The course was based on a connectivist pedagogy, which aimed to foster the affordances of social and participatory media. It relied on the benefits of scale though significant interaction with a distributed network of peers. Participants were encouraged to use a variety of technologies; to reflect on their learning and to interact with others. There was no ‘right way’ through the course; the emphasis was on personalised learning through a personal learning environment. Variants on this course emerged, collectively known as cMOOCs, examples included: David Wiley’s course on ‘Open Education’,[5]Personal Learning Environments and Networks (CCK11)’,[6] and ‘Learning Analytics (LAK12)’.[7]

A second type of MOOC emerged in 2011, namely xMOOCs. These were primarily based on interactive media, such as lectures, videos and text. xMOOCs adopted a more behaviourist pedagogical approach, with the emphasis on individual learning, rather than learning through peers. As a result a number of companies emerged, such as: Udacity,[8] EdX,[9] and Coursera.[10] These courses tend to be offered by prestigious institutions, such as Harvard and Stanford, the emphasis is on delivery of content via professors from these institutions.

Nkuyubwatsi provides a useful overview of MOOCs, including a review of some of the key courses from 2008 to the present day (Nkuyubwatsi 2013).  He discusses the key controversy around MOOCs, stating that MOOCs are hailed for their fit within a knowledge society, providing each learner with opportunities to engage with material via formative assessments and the ability to personalise their learning environment. However, he goes on to state that they are criticised for the lack of constructive feedback and the lack of creative and original thinking, citing Bates (2012) and low completion rates, citing Daniel (2012).

Pedagogical approaches

Participation in MOOCs can range from informal non-accredited participation through to engagement as part of a formal course offering. In some instances, tuition-paying students taking courses for credit join the same class as non-tuition paying, non-credit learners.

Many xMOOCs are primarily based on interactive material and videos plus multiple-choice quizzes. Udacity, Coursera and EdX courses consist mainly of lecture videos, course materials, quizzes and assignments. Some do contain wikis and discussion forums, although these are not extensively promoted or used. In some cases forum posts can be up- or down-voted by other participants; if a post is up-voted that participant receives a ‘karma point’. For some Udacity courses, participants have organized their own meet-ups with others who are Geographically co-located. Udacity has set up a meet-up site to facilitate this.

Cormier, in a video describing the nature of Connectivist MOOCs,[11] defines five steps to success: orient, declare, network, cluster and focus. He also argues that knowledge in a MOOC is emergent and dependent on the interaction with others. In his PLENK2010 course he defines four types of activities: aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward. Therefore the intention of cMOOCs is to harness the power of social and participatory media to enable participants to communicate and collaborate through a variety of channels; for example Twitter, blogs, wikis, etc. and the use hashtags and curation tools (such as Pinterist or to filter and aggregate. The focus is on personalisation, but also collective intelligence (Lévy 1997). Each participate forges their own learning path through the materials; picking and mixing which content, activities and communications are meaningful for them. These types of course align well with Cormier’s notion of Rhizomatic learning (Cormier 2008; Cormier 2011), i.e. networks are horizontal, dynamic and emergent, developing in different directions for different individuals. Barry provides a nice comparison of three different MOOCs in terms of workload, technology, content, pedagogy, assessment, etc. (Barry 2013).

Assessment models for MOOCs vary, from simple Multiple Choice responses, through to peer-reviewed feedback and more formal, traditional modes of assessment. DS106,[12] adopted an interesting approach to assessment, whereby course assignments were collectively created by participants and then posted to an assessment bank (EDUCAUSE 2013). Participants could then choose which assignment they wanted to do which were rated on a difficulty of 1 – 5. In this model the assessment bank expanded for use by further participants. An interesting recent innovation in terms of assessment is the use of open badges. The concept is simple; learners can apply for badges demonstrating their completion of aspects of a MOOC. This may be as simple as completion of part of the course or evidence of particular aspects of learning. Badges have criteria associated with them; learners are expected to demonstrate how they have achieved these criteria and this is validated either by peers or tutors. The Mozilla’s Open Badges,[13] are perhaps the best known examples of badges. Their slogan is ‘Get recognition for skills you learn anywhere’. There are three parts to the process: earn (earn badges for skills you learn online and off), issue (get recognition for things you teach) and display (show your badges on the places that matter).

Therefore there are a variety of different pedagogical approaches being adopted in different MOOCs, some emphisising individual learning through interactive materials, others focusing more on social learning.


The stakeholders for MOOCs are essentially learners (in terms of participating in the MOOCs, tutors (if there are any – in terms of facilitating the MOOCs), teachers (in terms of designing and assessing the MOOCs), institutional managers (in terms of considering their place alongside traditional educational offerings), policy makers (in terms of thinking of the longer term implications for the educational landscape) and venture capitalists (looking to get a return on investment).

Arguably the origin of MOOCs was bottom up; developed by individuals with a vision for promoting open educational practices[14] and fostering connectivist learning approaches through use of social and participatory media. However the recent emergence of start-ups, like Audacity, and initiatives like FutureLearn suggest a shift to a more top down structured approach. Coupled with this, there is evidence of an increase in the notion of open education at policy debate. For example, in December 2012, the Opening up Education through Technologies conference was held in Oslo. The conference was aimed at ministers of education across Europe, to inform them of current thinking on openness and the implications for policy. UNESCO has long being a promoted of Open Educational Resources, stating that:

UNESCO believes that universal access to high quality education is key to the building of peace, sustainable social and economic development, and intercultural dialogue. Open Educational Resources (OER) provide a strategic opportunity to improve the quality of education as well as facilitate policy dialogue, knowledge sharing and capacity building.[15] Whether there is a tension between the grass roots initiatives and the more structured approaches remains to be seen.

The plethora of MOOCs now available, in a variety of languages (although the majority are still in English), is staggering. Recent examples include: the announcement in the UK of FutureLearn (with 21 UK institutions), Open2Study from the Open University of Australia and the EU-based OpenUpEd.

Classifying MOOCs

Terminology is always tricky when trying to describe a new disruptive technology. Even the term for the use of technology to support learning is contested and various terms have been used over the years: educational technology, learning technology, networked learning, Technology-Enhanced Learning, etc. (Conole and Oliver 2007). MOOCs can be seen along a spectrum of adopting more open education practices; from the concept of Learning Objects (Littlejohn 2003) and more recently Open Educational Resources (Glennie, Harley et al. 2012).

As mentioned earlier, to date, MOOCs have been classified as either xMOOCs or cMOOcs. I want to argue that such a classification is too simplistic and in this section put forward an alternative mechanism for describing the nature of MOOCs. Downes suggest four criteria: autonomy, diversity, openness, and interactivity (Downes 2010). Clark (2013) recently provided the follow taxonomy of types of MOOCs:

·      transferMOOCs – where existing courses are transferred to a MOOC

·      madeMOOCs – which are more innovative, making effective use of video and interactive material and are more quality driven

·      synchMOOCs – with a fixed start and end date

·      asynchMOOCs – which don’t have fixed start and end dates and have more flexible assignment deadlines

·      adaptiveMOOCs – which provide personalised learning experiences, based on dynamic assessment and data gathering on the course 

·      groupMOOCs –where the focus is on collaboration in small groups

·      connectivistMOOCS – emphasis on connection across a network of peers

·      miniMOOCSs  - which are much smaller than the traditional massive MOOC

Reich asked the question is a MOOC a textbook or a course (Reich 2013)? He suggests that even the notion of a course is contentious, with parameters such as: start/end dates, self-paced or directed learning, skills or content based, the nature of interactions and whether or not certification is included. He suggests there are two analogies for MOOCs; as books or courses. I think these analogies are flawed. Learning occurs along a spectrum from informal to formal; from loosely based resource-based learning to a structured, time-defined course, which is accredited. MOOCs, in my view, can fit along any point of this spectrum; i.e. they can be used by individuals to support informal learning, where learners might not complete all of the MOOC, but instead dip into different aspects - through to receiving full accreditation and being part of an institutional provided formal course.

I want to suggest that a better classification of MOOCs is in terms of a set of twelve dimensions: the degree of openness, the scale of participation (massification), the amount of use of multimedia, the amount of communication, the extent to which collaboration is included, the type of learner pathway (from learner centred to teacher-centred and highly structured), the level of quality assurance, the extent to which reflection is encouraged, the level of assessment, how informal or formal it is, autonomy, and diversity. MOOCs can then be measured against these twelve dimensions (Table 1). The first three dimensions are related to the context of the MOOC; i.e. how open it is, how large and how diverse the participants are. The remaining nine dimensions are associated with the pedagogical approach adopted, i.e: how much multimedia is use, the nature of communication and collaboration involved, the degree to which reflection is encourage, the nature of the learning pathway provided, what quality assurance process are in place, whether there is any accreditation possible, the link to any formal learning, and the degree of learner autonomy.

Table 1: The 12 dimensional schema





How open the MOOC is


The scale of the MOOC/Number of participants


The diversity of the participants


Use of multimedia

The amount and variety of multimedia

Degree of communication

The forms of communication

Degree of collaboration

The forms of collaboration

Amount of reflection

The extent to which reflection is encouraged

Learning pathway

The nature of the learning pathway

Quality Assurance

The form of quality assurance


Whether any form of accreditation is possible

Formal learning

Link into formal educational offerings


The degree of learner autonomy


Table 2 classifies five MOOCs against these twelve dimensions:

1.     Connectivism and Connective Learning 2011 (CCK).[16] The course took part over twelve weeks. The course uses a variety of technologies, for example, blogs, Second Life, RSS Readers, UStream, etc. Course resources were provided using gRSShopper and online seminars delivered using Elluminate. Participants were encouraged to use a variety of social media and to connect with peer learners, creating their own Personal Learning Environment and network of co-learners.

2.     Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI) 2011 (CS221).[17] The course ran over three months and included feedback and a statement of accomplishment. A small percentage of participants enrolled registered for the campus-based Stanford course. The course was primarily based around interactive multimedia resources. The course is now based on the Audacity platform.

3.     OLDS (Learning Design) (OLDS) 2013.[18] The course ran over eight weeks, with a ninth reflection week. It was delivered using Google Apps, the main course site being built in Google Drive, Google forums and Hangouts were also used. Cloudworks[19] was used as a space for participants to share and discuss their course artefacts and to claim credit for badges against course achievements.

4.     Openness and innovation in elearning (H817).[20] The course is part of the Masters in Open and Distance Education offered by the Open University UK. H817 runs between February and October 2013 months, however the MOOC component of the course consists of 100 learning hours spread over seven weeks from March 2013 and is open to a wider audience than those registered on the OU course. The course adopts an ‘activity-based’ pedagogy. There is an emphasis on communication through blog postings and the forum.  Participants have the opportunity to acquire badges for accomplishments.

5.     Introduction to Openness in Education (OE).[21] The course tutor advocates that “learning occurs through construction, annotation and maintenance of learning artifacts,” which is the philosophy that underpins the design of the course. Participant could acquire badges for various accomplishments.

Table 2: Mapping 5 course to the 10 dimensions of MOOCs








H817, OE, AI



OLDS, H817, OE





H817, AI, OLDS



Use of multimedia




Degree of communication


OLDS, H817, OE


Degree of collaboration




Amount of reflection




Learning pathway


OLDS, H817, OE


Quality Assurance








Formal learning



H817, OE



H817, OE


The table demonstrates that, in terms of the twelve dimensions, the five MOOCs illustrate examples of low, medium and high degrees of each. I would argue that at a glance this classification framework gives a far better indication of the nature of each MOOC than the simple classification as xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

Use of the classification schema

The classification schema can be used to describe MOOCs, but can also be used as a checklist to guide the design process and a means of evaluating a MOOC. Table 3 provides an example of this.

Table 3: Example of using the MOOC criteria in the design of a course


Degree of evidence


High - The course is built using open source tools and participants are encouraged to share their learning outputs using the creative commons license.


Low – The course is designed for Continuing Professional Development for Medics in a local authority.

Use of multimedia

High – The course uses a range of multimedia and interactive media, along with an extensive range of medical OER.

Degree of communication

Medium – The participants are encourage to contribute to a number of key debates on the discussion forum, as well as keeping a reflective blog of how the course relates to their professional practice.

Degree of collaboration

Low – The course is designed for busy working professionals, collaboration is kept to a minimum.

Learning pathway

Medium – There are two structured routes through the course – an advanced and a lite version.

Quality Assurance

Medium – The course is peer-reviewed prior to delivery.

Amount of reflection

High – Participants are asked to reflect continually during the course, their personal blogs are particularly important in this respect.


Medium – Participants can obtain a number of badges on completion of different aspects of the course and receive a certificate of attendance.

Formal learning

Low – The course is informal and optional.


High – Participants are expected to work individually and take control of their learning, there is little in the way of tutor support.


Low – The course is specialised for UK medics in one local authority.




It is evident that there are a number of drivers impacting on education. Firstly, universities are increasingly looking to expand their online offerings and make more effective use of technologies. Secondly, there is increasing demand from higher student numbers and greater diversity. Thirdly, there is a need to shift from knowledge recall to development of skills to find and use information effectively. In this respect, there is a need to enable learners to develop 21st Century digital literacy skills (Jenkins 2009) to equip them for an increasingly complex and changing societal context. Finally, given the proliferation of new competitors, there is a need for traditional institutions to tackle new competitive niches and business models.[23] 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.

Finally, the key value of MOOCs for me is that they are challenging traditional educational institutions and having to make them think about what they are offering, how it is distinctive and what the unique learner experience will be at their institution. As Cormier states:

When we use the MOOC as a lense to examine Higher Education, some interesting things come to light. The question of the ‘reason’ for education comes into focus (Cormier 2013)Furthermore, UNESCO estimate that more than 100 million children can’t afford formal education,[24] 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 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 (Creelman 2013)So for me the value of MOOCs to promote social inclusion, coupled with them making traditional institutions look harder at what they are providing their students, signifies their importance as a disruptive technology. For me therefore, whether they survive or not, 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.


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[2] For a debate on the pros and cons see the video of ASCILITE’s ‘The great MOOC debate’


[3] and (due out late 2013).






















[14] Open Educational Practices (OEP) were first defined in relation to the creation, management and repurposes of Open Educational Resources (OER) as part of the OPAL initiative (, i.e. a focus on how OER are being used rather than their production per se. The notion has seen been expanded to cover other facets of Open Education, including MOOCs. Therefore I would argue OEP relate to adopting more open practices in educational contexts.
















[22] Although it was possible to obtain certification from the University of Manitoba for completion of the course


[23] As a recent article states MOOCs are challenging traditional institutional business models