Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice

October 13, 2014 Tony Bates
They're big: but will they survive? Image: © Wikipedia

They’re big: but will they survive? Image: © Wikipedia

The story so far

For my open textbook Teaching in a Digital Age, I am writing a chapter on different design models for teaching and learning. I have started writing the section on MOOCs, and in my previous post, ‘What is a MOOC?‘, I gave a brief history and described the key common characteristics of all MOOCs.

In this post I examine the differences in philosophy and practice between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

Design models for MOOCs

MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon and as a result are still evolving, particularly in terms of their design. However the early MOOC courses had relatively identifiable designs which still permeate most MOOCs. At the same time, there are two quite different philosophical positions underpinning xMOOCs and cMOOCs, so we need to look at each design model separately.

xMOOCs

I am starting with xMOOCs because at the time of writing they are by far the most common MOOC. Because instructors have considerable flexibility in the design of the course, there is considerable variation in the details, but in general xMOOCs have the following common design features:

  • specially designed platform software: xMOOCs use specially designed platform software that allows for the registration of very large numbers of participants, provides facilities for the storing and streaming on demand of digital materials, and automates assessment procedures and student performance tracking.
  • video lectures: xMOOCs use the standard lecture mode, but delivered online by participants downloading on demand recorded video lectures. These video lectures are normally available on a weekly basis over a period of 10-13 weeks. Initially these were often 50 minute lectures, but as a result of experience some xMOOCs now are using shorter recordings (sometimes down to 15 minutes in length) and thus there may be more video segments. Over time, xMOOC courses, as well as the videos, are becoming shorter in length, some now lasting only five weeks. Various video production methods have been used, including lecture capture (recording face-to-face on-campus lectures, then storing them and streaming them on demand), full studio production, or desk-top recording by the instructor on their own.
  • computer-marked assignments: students complete an online test and receive immediate computerised feedback. These tests are usually offered throughout the course, and may be used just for participant feedback. Alternatively the tests may be used for determining the award of a certificate. Another option is for an end of course grade or certificate based solely on an end-of-course online test. Most xMOOC assignments are based on multiple-choice, computer-marked questions, but some MOOCs have also used text or formula boxes for participants to enter answers, such as coding in a computer science course, or mathematical formulae, and in one or two cases, short text answers, but in all cases these are computer-marked.
  • peer assessment: some xMOOCs have experimented with assigning students randomly to small groups for peer assessment, especially for more open-ended or more evaluative assignment questions. This has often proved problematic though because of wide variations in expertise between the different members of a group, and because of the different levels of involvement in the course of different participants.
  • supporting materials: sometimes copies of slides, supplementary audio files, urls to other resources, and online articles may be included for downloading by participants.
  • a shared comment/discussion space where participants can post questions, ask for help, or comment on the content of the course.
  • no or very light discussion moderation: the extent to which the discussion or comments are moderated varies probably more than any other feature in xMOOCs, but at its most, moderation is directed at all participants rather than to individuals. Because of the very large numbers participating and commenting, moderation of individual comments by the instructor(s) offering the MOOC is impossible. Some instructors offer no moderation whatsoever, so participants rely on other participants to respond to questions or comments. Some instructors ‘sample’ comments and questions, and post comments in response to these. Some instructors use teaching assistants to comb for or identify common areas of concern shared by a number of participants then the instructor or teaching assistants will respond. However, in most cases, participants moderate each other’s comments or questions.
  • badges or certificates: most xMOOCs award some kind of recognition for successful completion of a course, based on a final computer-marked assessment. However, at the time of writing, MOOC badges or certificates have not been recognised for credit or admission purposes even by the institutions offering a MOOC, or even when the lectures are the same as for on-campus students. No evidence exists to date about employer acceptance of MOOC qualifications.
  • learning analytics: Although to date there has not been a great deal of published information about the use of learning analytics in xMOOCs, the xMOOC platforms have the capacity to collect and analyse ‘big data’ about participants and their performance, enabling, at least in theory, for immediate feedback to instructors about areas where the content or design needs improving and possibly directing automated cues or hints for individuals.

xMOOCs therefore primarily use a teaching model focused on the transmission of information, with high quality content delivery, computer-marked assessment (mainly for student feedback purposes), and automation of all key transactions between participants and the learning platform. There is almost no direct interaction between an individual participant and the instructor responsible for the course.

cMOOCs

cMOOCs have a very different educational philosophy from xMOOCs, in that cMOOCs place heavy emphasis on networking and in particular on strong content contributions from the participants themselves.

Key design principles

Downes (2014) has identified four key design principles for cMOOCs:

  • autonomy of the learner: in terms of learners choosing what content or skills they wish to learn, learning is personal, and thus there being no formal curriculum
  • diversity: in terms of the tools used, the range of participants and their knowledge levels, and varied content
  • interactivity: in terms of co-operative learning, communication between participants, resulting in emergent knowledge
  • open-ness: in terms of access, content, activities and assessment

Thus for the proponents of cMOOCs, learning results not from the transmission of information from an expert to novices, as in xMOOCs, but from sharing of knowledge between participants.

From principles to practice

Identifying how these key design features for cMOOCs are turned into practice is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint, because cMOOCs depend on an evolving set of practices. Most cMOOCs to date have in fact made some use of ‘experts’, both in the organization and promotion of the MOOC, and in providing ‘nodes’ of content around which discussion tends to revolve.  In other words, the design practices of cMOOCs are still more a work in progress than those of xMOOCs.

Nevertheless, I see the following as key design practices to date in cMOOCs:

  • use of social media: partly because most cMOOCs are not institutionally based or supported, they do not at present use a shared platform or platforms but are more loosely supported by a range of ‘connected’ tools and media. These may include a simple online registration system, and the use of web conferencing tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect, streamed video or audio files, blogs, wikis, ‘open’ learning management systems such as Moodle or Canvas, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, all enabling participants to share their contributions. Indeed, as new apps and social media tools develop, they too are likely to be incorporated into cMOOCs. All these tools are connected through web-based hashtags or other web-based linking mechanisms, enabling participants to identify social media contributions from other participants. Downes (2014) is working on a Learning and Performance Support System that could be used to help both participants and cMOOC organisers to communicate more easily across the whole MOOC and to organise their personal learning. Thus the use of loosely linked/connected social media is a key design practice in cMOOCs
  • participant-driven content: in principle, other than a common topic that may be decided by someone wanting to organise a cMOOC, content is decided upon and contributed by the participants themselves, in this sense very much like any other community of practice. In practice though cMOOC organisers (who themselves tend to have some expertise in the topic of the cMOOC) are likely to invite potential participants who have expertise or are known already to have a well articulated approach to a topic to make contributions around which participants can discuss and debate. Other participants choose their own ways to contribute or communicate, the most common being through blog posts, tweets, or comments on other participants’ blog posts, although some cMOOCs use wikis or open source online discussion forums. The key design practice with regard to content is that all participants contribute to and share content.
  • distributed communication: this is probably the most difficult design practice to understand for those not familiar with cMOOCs – and even for those who have participated. With participants numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, each contributing individually through a variety of social media, there are a myriad different inter-connections between participants that are impossible to track (in total) for any single participant. This results in many sub-conversations, more commonly at a binary level of two people communicating with each other than an integrated group discussion, although all conversations are ‘open’ and all other participants are able to contribute to a conversation if they know it exists. The key design practice then with regard to communication is a self-organising network with many sub-components.
  • assessment: there is no formal assessment, although participants may seek feedback from other, more knowledgeable participants, on an informal basis. Basically participants decide for themselves whether what they have learned is appropriate to them.

cMOOCs therefore primarily use a networked approach to learning based on autonomous learners connecting with each other across open and connected social media and sharing knowledge through their own personal contributions. There is no pre-set curriculum and no formal teacher-student relationship, either for delivery of content or for learner support. Participants learn from the contributions of others, from the meta-level knowledge generated through the community, and from self-reflection on their own contributions.

This is very much a personal interpretation of how cMOOCs work in practice, based largely on my own experience as a participant, but much more has been written and spoken about the philosophy of cMOOCs, and much less about the implementation of that philosophy, presumably because cMOOC proponents want to leave it open to practitioners to decide how best to put that philosophy into practice.

What is clear though is that Downes was correct in clearly distinguishing cMOOCs from xMOOCs – they are very different beasts.

Coming next to a web page near you

Now for the fun part. Over the next few days I will be writing about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs, focusing particularly on the following question:

Can or do MOOCs provide the learning and skills that students will need in the future? 

I can in fact provide you with the short answer now: a resounding NO, for both kinds of MOOC, although one is a bit better than the other! Tune in later for the full details.

Feedback, please

In the meantime, I need to know whether I have got it right in describing the two kinds of MOOCs. Does my description – because that is all it’s meant to be at this stage – match your experience of MOOCs? Have I missed important characteristics? Do I have my facts wrong? Is this useful or is there a better way to approach this topic?

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