What is a MOOC? What are the different types of MOOC? xMOOCs and cMOOCs

The acronym “MOOC” has been in vogue recently, with lots of discussion about organisations like udacitycoursera and edX. The acronym stands for “Massive Open Online Course.”

These organisations provide one interpretation of the MOOC model. They focus on concise, targeted video content – with short videos rather than full-length lectures to wade through – and use automated testing to check students’ understanding as they work through the content.

These MOOCS have been dubbed “xMOOCs”. Whilst they include discussion forums, and allow people to bounce ideas around and discuss learning together, the centre of the course is the instructor-guided lesson. Each student’s journey/trajectory through the course is linear and based on the absorption and understanding of fixed competencies. Learning is seen as something that can be tested and certified.

I’ve taken and completed a couple of xMOOCS so far. I took coursera’s CS101 and Human-Computer Interaction courses, and am part-way through udacity’s CS101 (more focused and programming-oriented than the coursera offering). In both programming courses, the mechanistic nature of the tasks has lent itself nicely to automated validation of my answers. This doesn’t work so well for conceptual problems, but generally the ‘answer’  videos do a good job of pre-empting and dealing with these issues.

I’ve found the video lectures to be an improvement on the traditional lecture format. The smaller units of consumption and testing of comprehension as you go make the experience much more engaging than the one-sided broadcast that constitutes most lectures. These in-lecture comprehension tests – which at present don’t do anything other than help the learner absorb the material – could be used to inform the automated testing process further on, adapting to the needs of the individual learner.

But, of course, the one-on-one interaction and easy back-and-forth questioning that can happen at the end of a formal lecture cannot take place in an xMOOC. Questions can – and do – find their way to the professor through the course’s forum – if enough people deem them to be important and a teaching assistant is looking in the right direction – but this is a much more formal and less spontaneous process than you’d get in person. So not a great arena for free and easy discussion with the person ostensibly leading the learning.

Coursera recently implemented a system for crowd-sourcing peer assessment. (The Human Computer Interaction course saw students marking each other’s work to a clear rubric, having been themselves evaluated to be an adequately accurate assessor. (Evaluation was based on one’s ability to grade a set of papers to a similar mark as the professor.)) The HCI course seemed to do a good job of peer assessing more creative contributions – the rubrics were generally clear and helpful. They did certainly constrain one’s output, but this seemed a fair compromise for getting others to mark your work to an accepted and uniform standard. Initially there wasn’t much in the way of feedback from peers – just numbers. But the peer feedback element was bulked up towards the end of the course.


So what is the other type of MOOC, and how is it different?

The other type of MOOC is based on connectivism. These are the cMOOCS.

The connected aspect of learning is brought to the fore in a cMOOC. It’s a chaotic experience (as @RosemarySewart put it) and is inherently personal and subjective, as participants create their meaning and build and navigate their own web of connections.

cMOOCs are not proscriptive, and participants set their own learning goals and type of engagement. They won’t necessarily walk away with a fixed and tested set of specific skills or competencies, or knowledge of a set body of content. This makes cMOOCs tricky to grade or assess or certify. This, combined with the fact that the platform is totally open, means that they probably aren’t very easy to make any money from.

cMOOCs are discursive communities creating knowledge together. Based on my experience in the MOOCMOOC, I’m a big fan, and I’d love to see them get a bit more attention.

The best way to understand a connectivist course is to participate in one. It may be a bit of a culture shock at first, but you’ll soon find your feet and begin to enjoy the thrill of the experience.

Rory McGreal and George Siemens are leading a cMOOC on openness in education, starting on 10 September 2012. I’d recommend joining in and seeing what connectivism has to offer.

As a springboard for more on MOOCs, check out the readings from Sunday and Monday of this month’s MOOCMOOC, and have a look at this piece on the MOOC Misnomer which does a nice job of dismantling lazy use of the term.

Update: I’ve now created a list of cMOOCs in an attempt to help people keep track of the different courses that are going on.

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44 Responses to What is a MOOC? What are the different types of MOOC? xMOOCs and cMOOCs

  1. With the emphasis on remixing, the idea that cMOOC’s create knowledge may be a stretch. See the comment section here: http://bit.ly/NCUqKa for more. Would it be more appropriate to say that cMOOC’s create something else? Maybe comprehension, connections or understanding? All of these have value.

    • Good point. I hadn’t thought of a distinction between knowledge creation and content creation before – really interesting points.

      I’m a big believer in the power of remixing, so see it as a genuine creative act. I’ve come at remixing from the context of historical recreation of meaning, and through studying golden age hip-hop culture, where it’s incredibly fertile. The way it builds on what comes before – and works with and against it – if anything makes it more creative.

  2. I agree that one of the easiest ways to taxonomize cMOOCs and xMOOCs is through their relative ability to accurately access student learning. I also completely agree with your take on video lectures being preferable in many ways to the “real thing.” I am not naturally an aural learner, so the ability to take lectures in small chunks—and to rewatch them—has been really useful for me.

    I’ve long thought that some sort of ranking method would be necessary for peer-assessment of student work to be viable, but I didn’t realize that this had already been put into place with the Human Computer Interaction course. Thanks for the tip!

  3. I agree that “The best way to understand a connectivist course is to participate in one.” But ultimately that is not a solution that scales. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons so much educational reform fails. Somebody tries some new exciting pedagogical, loves the experience, shares the experience with other people, they love it and talk to everybody about it. But the more people only heard about it, the more they make it like the things they already know in practice.

    Here I tried to come up with a list MOOC features to give people more options for MOOCification: http://researchity.net/2012/08/14/what-is-and-what-is-not-a-mooc-a-picture-of-family-resemblance-working-undefinition-moocmooc/

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  8. Since taking the MOOCMOOC I’ve taken the step of trying to make it easier for people to find out about when new connectivist MOOCs are happening.

    I’ve set up the website http://www.connectivistmoocs.org to do this – please let me know of any additions, edits or other changes that could improve it.

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  12. wiltwhatman says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    I’m signed up for a Connectivist MOOC starting at the moment, and the process looks set to be interesting.

    I read Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work” a while back ( http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf ) and it noted a couple of things.

    It’s talking about novice learners, and argues a minimal guidance constructivist approach is significantly less efficient than a worked example approach where instructiojn is linear and laid out (and about as useful as old style transmission teaching) for novice learners. Conversely, it looks like for experts, a minimal guidance constructivist approach is more efficient than a worked example approach.

    They argue it’s a cognitive load issue (though it looks likely that it may also be a persistence and challenge level/motivation issue too), and that lack of concept checking and clarification results in huge learner inefficiency (if memory serves, they posit a 25% figure for time spent pursuing incorrect conceptualisations, and abandonment of inquiry), and that access to an More Knowledgeable Other who can scaffold and structire learning for novices and intermediates is the most efficient course.

    So, it looks (to a MOOC newbie and rube like me) like a connectivist MOOC is one for the experts ( or people with highly developed learning strategies, stronger than average drive, and a capacity to remain motivated in the face of heightened challenge levels) and an instructionist MOOC with good guidance is one for novice and intermediate learners.

    That said, I’m planning to take a closer look this month.

    Wow. This is much more detailed than planned.

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  14. David Wees says:

    I read Sweller et al as well, and I can see their point, but they have painted a fairly broad brush with their definition of “minimal guidance constructivist approach.” Very few people actually use this kind of approach, almost all constructivist approaches include significant guidance and scaffolding. They’ve essentially said “It doesn’t work when you expect learners to figure it all out themselves without guidance. Therefore direct instruction is better.” This is a classic example of a false dichotomy. They’ve started with a limited definition of what it means to use a constructivist approach, paint all investigative approaches with the same brush, and then compare those approaches to another approach “direct instruction” which itself uses a wide variety of approaches within it’s genre!

    As you can see, I’m not a fan of this particular piece of research. I predict that It will become a classic example of how definitions can be used to distort findings in research.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Hi David…

      I disagree with your assertions of misrepresentation.

      Sweller e al conflate several types of learning, and could be a lot clearer, in their initial paper, that they are talking about novices. Their original paper could be clearer, and the entire debate could have been conducted with better transparency and lucidity.

      In their second paper on the topic – Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques
      Do Not Work: A Reply to Commentaries , a response to Schwartz, Kuhn and Hmelo-Silver, available here http://cogtech.usc.edu/publications/sweller_kirschner_clark_reply_ep07.pdf , they point out that the commentaries which argue for scaffolding in constructivist practice are arguing for direct instruction, and are essentially in agreement with their argument. They don’t have much of a problem with scaffolding, and, in fact, their issue is with a lack of scaffolding (something they back up with a deree of eidence). To argue that they use evidence based problems with minimal guidance to undermine scaffolding is to disregard their own assertion that scaffolding is a dform of direct instruction, and an example of what they are calling for, and an area of common ground between them and some of their critics, though there may be disagreement over the degree and manifestation.

      Where their papers do fall is in clarifying how we are to judge and assess the level of scaffolding required, and in providing evidence for worked examples being superior to problem based learning at intermediate levels.

      They also re-iterate that their criticism is of unguided problem based, discovery, or conructivist learning for novices, and that guided constructivist learning is not really a problem for them in most contexts. That said, their preference for good worked examples may be another debate (they do make a good case for them being superior to unguided instruction, and for them being superior to problem based learning, again for novices) – the argument about what shou;d constitute scaffolding is still open, and none of the papers in the debate resolves it.

      They also argue that their if some evidence to indicate that higher learners may be at a disadvantage with direct instruction, and that minimal guidance problem based learning may be more appropriate.

      I think it’s a misrepresentation to suggest they say ““It doesn’t work when you expect learners to figure it all out themselves without guidance. Therefore direct instruction is better.” “. I think a clearer and more accurate statement might be ” It doesn’t work any better than transmission teaching, and sometimes worse, when you give no guidance, for novices, and worked examples work better than both of those, but it mightn’t work as well when you give worked axamples to experts, and they would probably benefit from problem based learning with minimal guidance, and we think that scaffolded learning is commensurate with and an example of our idea of direct instruction, and so we see common ground with some of ourt construyctivist critics, and constructivist learning with scaffolding is, in some senses, exactly what we are suggesting, and we need to do a lot of work on what constitutes scaffolding. And for novices, worked examples to introduce the basic concepts are better than giving them material which is an actual example of the methodology and practices of the discipline under study because of the well established cognitive load concerns”

      • David Wees says:

        Thank you for the lengthy clarification. I have not read their response to critics yet, so I will have to do so.

        I have yet to see anyone using “unguided discovery” in my own teaching experience though, so I’d have to do some digging and see if this actually exists as an educational practice. I’ve never really considered constructivism to be unguided. Even exploration in the programming language Logo (as per Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms) is in a highly structured space where certain kinds of thinking are clearly advantaged over other types of thinking. Papert recommends that we create “Mathland” just like we have France (and other French speaking countries) for learning French, which is clearly not going to happen if you don’t provide significant guidance, scaffolding, and deliberate creating of learning space.

      • wiltwhatman says:

        Hi David.

        Version three of Mindstorms is hitting the shelves, with gesture technology linked to smartphones. Which is totally cool.

        I don’t think we are in disagreement about scaffolding (though what the best type of scalffolding is is still up for debate – I’d argue it needs to be tailored, flexible and responsive to a degree, and may involve worked examples, but may also involve, for example, constructionism ala Papert, or access to an MKO in an instructor or amongst peers ala Vygotsky. It may be asking the right questions, or it might be task setting in a conversational fraework ala Laurillard).

        The Sweller et al debate did bring Cognitive Load into the debate, along with important concerns about how you scaffold, and the relative efficiencies of different types of interventions. It also brought some badly argued and at times non evidence based replies from the Constructivist community. Kuhn’s reply seemed particularly vague and wooly, and Schmidt’s reply, though containing substantive and interesting replies, made the argument that because problem based learning was superior in testing to no prior learning, as an answewr to Sweller et al arguing for direct instruction. I guess my point here is that of the various conributor,s Sweller, Kirschner and Clark were clearest, most direct and explicated, and evidence based.

        The Cognitive Load aspects do have implications for how you scaffold with novices, and probably with intermediate learners, and with threshold and troublesome concepts – something Constructivist practices, despite prior learning being a shared concern of Cognitivism and (some) Constructivist practices, tend to ignore.

        It seems clear that lowering extraneous cognitive load is something that should be a priority in scaffolding for novices, intermediates, and where the degree of novelty or troublesomeness is high. Bandura’s ideas about the relationship between self efficacy and persistence would seem tio support it.

        Or, to put it another way, the challenge level is a constantly shifting target. Part of our job is to guage and alter tasks to maintain it’s sweet spot until students are sufficiently expert to render us obsolete.

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  26. robertmcguire says:

    “cMOOCs are discursive communities creating knowledge together. Based on my experience in the MOOCMOOC, I’m a big fan, and I’d love to see them get a bit more attention.”

    And I’d love to assist. Will you or anyone interested in reviewing individual MOOC courses please be in touch with me at robert at moocnewsandreviews dot com? I’d love to talk with you more about what we’re trying to do without spamming up your comments section.



  27. esacosta says:

    A great article. But what do you thing about tMOOC. This is the name that I have do to the task type of MOOC that I introduce in another article (http://revistaeducacionvirtual.com/mooc-resultados-reales/) but that is referenced on an interesting article (http://lisahistory.net/wordpress/2012/08/three-kinds-of-moocs/).
    Is an intermediate an interesting way of teach by tasks. Why not?

    I’ll try to explain more. Consider the following video (http://youtu.be/Ptac4d4bHow) (yes, a tie) and think MOOC types to perform. cMOOC, xMOOC and tMOOC.

    - XMOOC: We see the video (when you want) and we put a few pictures in the evaluation of steps to get the tie, and if we choose the right one, that well, we won a badge.
    - CMOOC: We see the video (in the week to tell us) and we put some pictures that we have to decide if it is well placed or not, we ask teachers and other students if they have questions about the steps, etc.. We are in the week of the course.
    - TMOOC: The task is to learn to become the tie and send a photo to the course with our tie made​​. We have at our disposal at all times, several texts videos, forums, teachers, etc.. Homework. The problem is who will tell us if we have sent the tie is on straight? Is another student? Do multiple? Do we put all the photos and you mark those that are evil and subtracts scores among all? Sure there are many ways to assess this.

    I think the task system is better (in my opinion) but still need to be improved to support these things MOOC

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