MOOCs poised to transform Higher Education?

Massive Open Online Courses are a response to the challenges faced by organisations and distributed disciplines, whereby thousands of people from around the world confluence in one unified learning experience (Cormier, 2010). MOOCs are based on principles stemming from Connectivist pedagogy, including aggregation, re-mixing, re-purposing, and feeding forward with the purpose of creating more connected and hence effective learning (Downes, 2011). There are many potential benefits of MOOCs, including flexible access, multiple learning pathways, social inclusion, intercultural collaboration, digital literacy development, and potentially immersion in a community of practice that may result in a lifelong learning network.

World leading Universities are identifying the transformative nature of MOOCs and investing in their development, for instance the recent $US60 million partnership between Harvard and MIT to create their edX massive open online course exchange (Lavoie, 2012). Yale and Carnegie- Mellon, have similarly been experimenting with teaching to a global audience online. These MOOCs often have staggering numbers of participants, for instance up to 120,000 students at one time (Lavoie, 2012). For an online directory of MOOCs offered by Stanford’s Coursera, MIT and Harvard led edX (MITx and Harvardx), and Udacity, please see Class Central (

However, simply launching a MOOC is no guarantee of success, and there are many criticisms of the pedagogies embedded in the MOOC approach to learning. For instance, the Khan Academy ( which has delivered over 150 million lessons to students around the world has been criticised for being unclearly organised and lacking learner support (Holton, 2012). Udacity and Coursera MOOCs have been criticised for lacking interactivity and scaffolding, and for poorly applying fundamental learning design principles (Holton, 2012). Poorly designed MOOCs may lead to students feeling disoriented, isolated, unmotivated, and hence ineffective learning.

There are a diversity of opinions about the role of MOOCs in Higher Education and their potential impact on the field (Basu, 2012). MOOCs not only have the potential to alter the relationship between learner and instructor, but also between academe and the wider community (EDUCAUSE, 2011). Part of the interest in MOOCs stems from their potential to transform the Higher Education landscape – whereby in the future it is subject offerings (rather than programs) that are competing online for students from around the world. In turn, there is also a great deal of interest in researching how students learn in these environments and which learning designs and teaching approaches are most successful (Lavoie, 2012).


Basu, K. (2012). MOOCs and the Professoriate. Retrieved 25 May, 2012, from moocs

Bates, T. (2012). Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction. Retrieved 25th May, 2012, from introduction/

Cormier, D. (Producer). (2010) What is a MOOC? Retrieved 25 May 2012 from

Downes, S. (2011). ‘Connectivism’ and Connective Knowledge. Retrieved 25 May, 2012, from connecti_b_804653.html

EDUCAUSE (2011). Seven things you should know about MOOCs. Retrieved 25 May, 2012, from

Holton, D. (2012). What’s the problem with MOOCs? Retrieved 25 May, 2012, from

Lavoie, D. (2012). EdX online learning project announced by Harvard, MIT. Retrieved 25 May, 2012, from onli_n_1471180.html


Excerpts from “What is a MOOC?”, by Dave Cormier (2010).  Available at 

Massive Open Online Courses are a response to the challenges faced by organisations and distributed disciplines in a time of information overload… MOOCs are built for a world where information is everywhere, where a social network obsessed with the same thing as you is a click away, a digital world. A world where an Internet connection gives you access to a staggering amount of information.  

A MOOC is a course that is open, participatory, distributed, and supports life-long networked learning… A MOOC is not just an online course, it’s a way to connect and collaborate while developing digital skills. It’s a way of engaging in the learning process that engages what it means to be a student. It’s an event where people who care about a topic can get together and work and talk about it in a structured way.  

The course is open – all of the work gets done in areas accessible for people to read and reflect and comment on… You might pay to get the credit for an institution, but you’re not paying to participate in the course. It’s also open in the sense that work done in the course is shared between all the people taking it. All is negotiated in the open. You get to keep your work and everyone else gets to learn from it.

The course is participatory… Participants are not asked to complete assignments, but rather to engage with the material, with each other, and other material that they may find on the web. You make connections between ideas, and between you and other people. You network. One of the outcomes that people get from the course are the network connections they get from engaging with one another.

The course is distributed, and all of these blog posts, articles, discussion posts, tweets and tags all knit together to create a networked course. They are mostly not found in one place but rather all over the Internet in different pockets and clusters. There is no right way to complete the course, no single path from the first week to the last. This allows for new ideas to develop and for different points of view to co-exist. It also means that one of the side-effects of a MOOC is the building of a distributed knowledge base on the Net.

The course is a step on the road to life-long learning. MOOCs promote independence among learners and encourage participants to work in their own spaces and to create authentic networks that they can easily maintain after the course finishes. A MOOC can promote the kind of network creation that life long learning is all about. The course part is just the beginning. How can you go about finding one of these? … People who have reputations for interesting skills or innovative thinking on a topic decide to collaborate by offering an open online course covering that topic. Anyone who wants to join in can.  

In a MOOC you can choose what you do, how you participate. And only you can tell in the end if you have been successful, just like real life.

About matthewbower

Professor at Macquarie University.
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