The 'Course' in MOOC

A discussion taking place on the OER-Forum Discussion List. Posts by other people in italics.

Abel Caine wrote, "I have to intervene with the developing country perspective. Millions of smart, motivated children/students for many reasons do not complete regular school or university. Given the opportunity, these learners have a burning desire to 'complete' the course. "Well-designed and smartly-delivered" MOOCs with a valid, transferable certificate of completion (learning experience) may be 1 viable solution. I hope new global initiatives such as Education First will take this into account."

Andy Lane wrote, "Yes participants whether they complete or not can gain from the experience but we also know that many can be adversely affected by the experience through a sense of failure or lack of esteem. I have no issue with low completion rates as long as people do not claim that this is widening participation amongst the currently disenfranchised as I suspect most who complete MOOCs are already adept learners with plenty of privileges. At the UKOU we have struggled to support those suffering multiple deprivations in terms of access to education and the resources needed to support that education."

With respect to cMOOCs, the student experience is more like joining a community than working their way through a body of content. In this sense, the concept of course completion doesn't really make sense - what is it to 'complete' joining a community? You are more or less engaged with the community; you are more or less engaged with the material.

John Sener wrote, "I agree with Stephen's observations in that it is unrealistic to expect high completion rates from MOOCs because of their structure. However, this structural characteristic is one of several reasons why MOOCs are better seen through the lens of open learning resources rather than open educational resources IMO. Perhaps the "C" in MOOC should be changed to mean "Community" in that case, because the  concept of "course" does imply a sense of completion, i.e., something > with a beginning and an end which is determined by an entity besides the learner. (Or change the name to MOOLE where LE = Learning Experience.)"

Here's why the C in MOOC continues to stand for 'Course'. A MOOC typically has a fixed start and end date. Between those dates there is a fixed series of events. I characterize them has being similar to a 'course of lectures' in the traditional sense (eg. ). Today, of course, they're not necessarily lectures any more. But the idea of a series of events structured around a topic continues. Hence, a MOOC is a 'course'. But again, it doesn't make sense to talk about 'completing' a MOOC, even if it is structured around a series of events, because again, like a community, you can dip into these events as much or as little as you want.

It's like watching a TV series. We don't typically talk about 'completing' a TV series (though you can do that if you want; last year I watched all 134 episodes of Xena; I 'completed' the series (it took me half a year)). Even if there is a story arc across the seasons of a series, we typically feel satisfied watching an episode at a time, and enjoy chatting about the episide with our friends. We do not - nor should we - feel we have somehow been deficient if we miss an episode; we can always go back to it or (eventually) pick it up on Netflix.

John Sener wrote a longish post saying, among other things, "Education requires societally-defined expectations (at worst, imposed one way; at best, negotiated between the learner and society through its proxy institutions), but if "you can dip into these events as much or as little as you want," then that's learning -- user-defined and driven. Non-user-defined learning outcomes mean a less open, less MOOC-like experience. 

"Calling MOOCs courses also fosters an expectation of moving through an entire "series of events structured around a topic" to an end which involves recognition (certification, grades, etc.) of completion based on satisfactory demonstrated performance of something gained (knowledge, skills, attitudes, etc.) related to that topic, and usually a comprehensive or broad rather than selective mastery of that topic."

John's post has two major objectives. First, it seeks to establish a certain definition of 'course' and 'education'. And then it uses those definitions to argue that MOOCs should not be called courses, and that people do not obtain an education from them.

The basis for these definitions of 'course' and 'education', according to John, is that the terms create certain expectations - the use of 'course' suggests they will be like what he calls 'traditional courses', and the term 'education', he writes, " requires societally-defined expectations."

I do not accept these definitions of 'course' and 'education', and John has not offered any compelling reason to accept them, except that he suggests people have these expectations. Perhaps some people have these expectations, but clearly not everybody does.

This is especially the case with the term 'education'. John suggests it entails " requires substantive interaction with designated knowledgeable facilitators (instructors, TAs, field experts, etc.)." But few, if any, define education in terms of the process; they define it in terms of the achievement. And this achievement need not involve tests and certificates. When Abraham Lincoln taught himself to read and write and to be a lawyer, we say he earned himself an education, not a learning.

And it is also the same for the term 'course'. I have already given an account of the traditional meaning of the word course, and this traditional meaning in no way entailed classes and lessons and tests and certificates. The formalized concept of the course is a recent invention, designed for a specific purpose, and today obsolete.

What MOOCs have demonstrated is twofold, and these speak directly to our understanding of how we may obtain an education, and how we may be recognized for it:

First, MOOCs taught us that rather than depend exclusively on "knowledgeable facilitators (instructors, TAs, field experts, etc.)," which are very expensive, a community working together can support itself. This is in fact how professionals further their own education, is common practice in existing instututions of higher learning, and now possible to the larger population via self-organized online communities (especially those formed around a series of learning events).

Second, MOOCs taught us that an education - properly so-called - may be obtained in this manner, and the learning thus obtained demonstrated and recognized via the production of artifacts and actions related to the subject of the learning; there is no prior set of learning objectives nor formal test (both of which can be, and routinely are, subverted) but rather a mechanism of recognition via participation.

These features satisfy quite well the meaning and usage of the terms 'course' and 'education', and they do so in a way which not only empowers students and enables them to design their own education, it does so in a way such that all members of society, and not merely those with wealthy and supportive parents, can engage and learn in the most challenging and professional environment possible,

Indeed, I would turn John's argument on its head. I challenge that the artificial forms we have come in recent decades to call 'courses' and an 'education' are outright fabrications, plasticized facsimiles of the real thing to be offered at the greatest fee the market will bear to an unwitting public, while those who can afford it continue to have their much less formal and much more rewarding education at elite institutions.

What you have when you assemble an education filled with structured courses, formalized exams, and high-priced credentials, is a potemkin village, a cargo cult experience in which people attending Your City High School or the University of Your State act out as though they were graduating Eton or Radcliffe and Harvard or Yale but merely go though the motions, obtain a piece of paper, and move on with their lives not realizing they have been cheated out of what could have been a worthwhile education.

Ask anyone. Ask them what they valued from school and university: was it the learning objectives, midterm tests, and the accumulation of course credits? Or was it working on the student newspaper, participating in drama society, organizing a rally, or setting up a student enterprise? Or even leaving it all on the sprts field or spending it all at the student pub!

No, I do not yield the ground regading the terms 'course' and 'education'. I take them back from the institution, and I return them to the people.


  1. While I don't disagree that the term "course" is a construct, I think we have to recognize that all such terms can be viewed as constructs and fabrications. What is the "real thing" except what members of certain communities of discourse agree to call it? John's argument from historical precedent does not entail artificiality in any unusual sense(indeed, what does that mean if we agree that language is a mechanism for humans to share constructs, all of which must be invented at some point?) I think your argument that we could extend the meaning of the word course to include experiences had in MOOCs, but the onus to define courses this ways might actually be on your proposed extension to this new form, which does not comply fully with previous word meaning. In other words, I could argue that a dog is a cat and that others who have called a cat a cat are engaged in artificial invention of the cat construct and have always been doing that. But I think it would be legitimate for user of the previous cat meaning to call me out on my new use. Again, I'm not here to say that the current system is the right system, that's for all to decide. But it doesn't help to say that the current system is "artificial" when compared to the newly invented system. In fact, if the authentic experience of traditional education is extra-curricular (as your post suggests) then MOOCs don't provide it (where is the MOOC pub, or MOOC school newspaper, or MOOC sports field?)

    1. I think the disagreement is in the significance of John's historical precedent. The appearance of these recent definitions don't preclude that a "course" and an "education" can be much bigger than the narrow definitions he tries to rope them into. Even in dealing with constructs, changing the denotation or meaning of the words in this context creates an expansion of what we can connotate or associate with the significance of getting an education.

      The new system is artificial, as are all systems, and choosing a system which provides the widest access to the experience of the "essence" of learning is the goal of expanding the definition. His last point about the extra-curriculars are just there to point out that the value of the "traditional" education system which John is defending is not necessarily in the "traditional" course, but in the connection that takes place on and around the campus, which dovetails nicely with the methodology of the cMOOC.

  2. MOOCs have been around for a few years as collaborative techie learning events, but this is the year everyone wants in. Elite universities are partnering with Coursera at a furious pace. It now offers courses from 33 of the biggest names in postsecondary education, including Princeton, Brown, Columbia and Duke.

  3. I wrote a response to this back in October, but it wasted away in my drafts folder until now:

    I started out writing a comment, but it quickly became clear that it was a little unwieldy for a comment.


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