Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Becoming MOOC

There are two types of MOOCs. On the one hand, there is the xMOOC - this is a formal course created in a site like Coursera or EdX. An xMOOC will have regular lessons, videos and assignments, be led by an elite university professor, and attract a large online audience. These are the MOOCs that have received most of the attention in recent years and have generally shaped people's impressions. But there's another type of MOOC, called the cMOOC, which is based on connection rather than content, which looks more like an online community than a course, and doesn't have a defined curriculum or formal assignments. These were the original MOOCs, and they posed a much greater challenge to both the educational institutions that offered them and the participants who studied in them.

One major criticism of the cMOOC is based on the free-form nature of the course. Students have to manage their own time, find their own resources, and structure their own learning. For this reason, it is argued, students must already have a high degree of skill and internet savvy in order to be successful. A student who cannot navigate complex websites, search for and assess resources, or make new friends through a social network may have difficulty navigating through a cMOOC. As Keith Brennan writes, "Not everyone knows how to be a node. Not everyone is comfortable with the type of chaos Connectivism asserts. Not everyone is a part of the network. Not everyone is a self-directed learner with advanced metacognition. Not everyone is already sufficiently an expert to thrive in a free-form environment. Not everyone thinks well enough of their ability to thrive in an environment where you need to think well of your ability to thrive." (Brennan, 2013)

But what makes a person able to function from the first day in such an environment? What constitutes the literacy that is missing in such a case? There's no clear answer, but proposals abound.
Brennan himself suggests that proficiency is based in learner efficacy. "Self-efficacy is our belief that a task is achievable by us, and that the environment in which we are working will allow us to achieve that task. It's that ticking heart that measures out the motivation in us," he writes. And in order to preserve and promote self-efficacy, design is important. Tasks must be challenging, in order to be satisfying, but not so frustrating as to create confusion. Whether a particular task satisfies these criteria, he writes, depends on cognitive load and prior knowledge. That's why "why we tend to teach absolute novices using techniques and contexts that are different to the ones we deploy for absolute experts, and why we avoid exposing novices to too much chaos." Other writers refer to these criteria under the heading of flow, and trace its origin to game design. (Baron, 2012)

But cognitive load theory assumes that there is some specific outcome to learning such that supporting experiences can be divided into those supporting the learning outcome (aka 'signal') and those that constitute part of the background (aka 'noise'). This is especially the case if the purpose of the learning experience is to remember some specific body of content, or to accomplish some particular task. However, in a cMOOC, neither is the case. Indeed, navigating the chaos and making learning decisions is the lesson in a cMOOC. The cMOOC is in this way similar to constructivism. As George Siemens writes, "Learners often select and pursue their own learning. Constructivist principles acknowledge that real-life learning is messy and complex. Classrooms which emulate the 'fuzziness' of this learning will be more effective in preparing learners for life-long learning." (Siemens, 2004)

What, then, would promote learner efficacy even in chaotic or noisy environments? A second, more robust, proposal takes the idea of literacy literally. A language might appear chaotic at first. Even if someone has learned how to spell the words, and even if they know what they mean, the nuances of using them in a sentence are many, and a language supports an infinite number of new sentence combinations. Each new experience with a language will be different, there are tens of thousands of words to choose from when forming a sentence, and only the barest of grammatical rules to aid construction. Imagine the language learner given a new text to read and criticize, picture them in front of a blank page they have to fill with words, and you have created an experience very similar to participating in a cMOOC.

What sort of literacy would be appropriate in a cMOOC? Two major types of literacies suggest themselves: 21st century literacies, and digital literacies.

21st century literacies are those literacies appropriate for living and working in the 21st century. This is an environment which changes at a much greater pace than in previous years, where there is a constant flow of information, where connectivity with people worldwide is part of our everyday reality, and where jobs that existed ten years ago have disappeared, and new ones have taken their place. A good example of this is the Framework for 21st Century Learning, which addresses several dimensions of this new type of learning, including core skills of collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking, and supporting skills such as workplace skills, information media skills, and the traditional core types of literacy and numeracy. (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills , 2011)

Alternatively, we can focus on literacies specific to the digital medium itself. For example, the Mozilla Foundation has developed and promoted a Web Literacy Map which describes in greater detail how to engage with digital media (as opposed to merely consuming it). (Belshaw, 2015) Three major types of skills are identified: exploring, building and connecting. The first describes how to find your way about the chaotic environment and even to make sense of it for yourself. The second examines traditional and new forms of content creation, including authoring and art, in a digital media environment. And the third addresses the previously under-represented function of sociality and connection. Taken together, these three literacies can be seen as a way for individuals to manage cognitive load for themselves, to adapt the task of making sense of the web to their own skill level, and therefore to manage even in an environment that is not well designed.

Belshaw writes, "In its current form, the Web Literacy Map comprises a collection of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web. Web literacy is about more than just coding. The web literacy standard covers every part of web literacy-from learning basic coding skills to taking action around privacy and security." In this sense, the modern understanding is about more than communication and meaning in a language or symbol system. It is about operating and interacting in a complex and multi-dimensional environment. This makes it particularly relevant to an understanding of the difference between literacies required in traditional courses and the contemporary literacies required in a much less structure learning environment such as a MOOC.

These types of literacies can be combined into an overarching set of literacies that may be described under the heading of 'critical literacies'. These literacies encompass not only the skills related to comprehension and sense-making, but also the creative abilities that support criticism, construction and communication. And they go beyond this in addressing the dynamics of today's world. They include, at a minimum, the following: the ability to detect and define syntax, structure, patterns and similarities; the ability to identify and generate meaning, purpose and goal; the ability to sense and create context or environment; the ability to apply or use language, literacy and communication to accomplish tasks; the ability to support a conclusion, criticize an argument, offer an explanation or define a term; and an understanding of how to recognize, manage and create change. Or, in brief: syntax, semantics, context, use, cognition and change. (Downes, 2009)

These literacies may be necessary for success in a MOOC, but they are more widely applicable as well. The theory of knowledge underlying the creation of the cMOOC suggests that learning is not based on the idea of remembering content, nor even the acquisition of specific skills or dispositions, but rather, in engaging in experiences that support and aid in recognition of phenomena and possibilities in the world. When we reason using our brains, we are reasoning using complex neural nets that shape and reshape themselves the more we are exposed to different phenomena. Choice, chance, diversity and interactivity are what support learning in neural nets, not simple and static content. Cognitive dissonance is what creates learning experiences. To learn is to be able to learn for oneself, not to learn what one is told; it is to be able to work despite cognitive overload, not to remain vulnerable to it. So the cMOOC is harder, requiring a greater degree of literacy, but in developing these literacies, promotes a deeper learning experience.

Finally, an understanding of the literacies required also helps us understand the difference between traditional courses, including the xMOOC, and the less structured cMOOC. It also offers ground for criticism of the former. Traditional literacies are rooted in our comprehension of, and ability to work within, abstract symbol systems (and in particular, language and mathematics). It is no coincidence that PISA, for example, measures student performance in language, science and mathematics. These are be languages of learning, as well as the content of learning. But from the perspective of the cMOOC, these traditional literacies are inadequate. They form only a part of the learning environment, and not even the most interesting part, as we engage in environments that cannot be described through timeless abstractions or static facts and figures. But this is exactly what we face when we attempt to extend our learning from the eternal present and into the vanishing past or future. We need to learn to engage with, interact with, and recognize form and change in the environment for ourselves, rather than attempt a static and distanced description.

Learning in a MOOC and literacy in a MOOC become synonymous. We are not acquiring content or using language and literacy, we are becoming literate, becoming MOOC. Each bit of experience, each frustrated facing of a new chaos, changes you, shapes you. Participating in a MOOC is like walking through a forest, trying to see where animals have walked in the past, trying to determine whether that flash of orange is a tiger. There are no easy successes, and often no sense of flow. But you feel the flush of success every time you recognize a form you defined, achieve a skill you needed, and gradually gradually you become a skilled inhabitant of the forest, or of 21st century human society.

Baron, S. (2012, March 22). Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design. Retrieved from Gamasutra:

Belshaw, D. (2015, January 13). Web Literacy Map. Retrieved from Mozilla:

Brennan, K. (2013, July 24). In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice. Retrieved from Hybrid Pedagogy:

Downes, S. (2009, November 12). Speaking in LOLCats: what literacy means in teh digital era. Retrieved from Stephen's Web:

Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved from elearnspace:

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills . (2011, March). 21st Century Student Outcomes and Support Systems. Retrieved from

Note: this article originated as a submission requested by a magizine, but when I learned that they wanted an article that was 2,000 characters long, not 2,000 words, this article became available as a blog post.


  1. Stephen,
    Thanks for this article. Your comments about literacy and MOOCs/literacy as MOOCs tracks with my experience in Change2011. As a member, I was learning to learn, in addition to learning what I ended up learning. And all of this happened in my connections with others. And it was chaotic and even scary and overwhelming at times (all of which were good).
    In my own research and teaching, I am looking at how Connectivism can apply in a more typical classroom setting when the students are given the opportunity, as they would be in an online MOOC, to explore and learn and connect.
    Your comments about literacy seem very relevant to this activity. Thanks.


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