THE Article - Full Interview

I was interviewed by Chris Parr for an article that appeared in the Times Higher Education supplement today (October 17). This is the full set of responses I sent for that interview. Typos on both sides are preserved for historical accuracy.

On 30/09/2013 6:44 PM, Parr, Chris wrote:
Great - thanks. That's you, George, Dave and Bryan on board. Perhaps I can do a second pie e with the other names you suggest.

I'm on the move at the mo so apologies for typos, but the questions I had in mind are below. Sorry to be demanding, but if you could send some responses by Friday, that'd be great. It really is appreciated.


You were part of the team that created the first Mooc to be known as a Mooc five years ago. Did you feel, at the time, that the concept with which you were experimenting would become so huge that 2012 would be christened the “year of the Mooc” by the New York Times?

I don't think anyone can ever expect their concept to be called 'the concept of the year' - it would take quite an ego to assume that! But it was evident early on that we had latched on to something when we got a hundred times more participants in our course than we expected. And what we were after - open online learning - was a concept we believed in and worked toward. If someone had said in 2008 that 2012 would be "the year of open courses" I would not have been surprised by that. Thousands of people have been working for many years toward free and open learning, and we've done so out of the conviction that ity makes sense not just from the perspective of social justice but also from the perspective of public economics.

What are your thoughts on how Moocs have developed since 2008?
There are lessons to be learned from the history of online learning. The concept of 'learning objects' as defined by people like Wayne Hodgins in 1994 envisioned a set of interoperable pieces of learning software, but over time came to resemble books and videos produced by publishers - learning objects were changed, in other words, from something interactive and dynamic to something static and passive. The same think is happening to MOOCs - as they were originally concieved they were the locus of learning activities and interaction, but as deployed by the commercial providers they resemble television shows or digital textbooks with - at best - an online quiz component.

But despite that I am nonetheless delighted that the concept of open online learning has become front and centre of the dislogue on education. I have long believed that this is a force for good in society. I would have rather the form stayed more true to the original model developed by George Siemens and myself, but I am less concerned about that than I might be because it is evident that the newcomers into the field from Stanford are beginning to learn many of the lessons we learned seven or eight years ago, and that even MOOCs offered by Coursera and Udacity will tend to be more community-oriented than the video-and-test model offered thus far. MOOCs developed outside the Stanford-Harvard-MIT nexus tend to be more interactive and community-based, and this is likely to be true of the offerings from the Open University.

What are your opinions on the Mooc platforms that have sprung up to act as a bridge between the public and the Moocs being offered by universities (Coursera, EdX, Udacity – and in the UK, Futurelearn)?

I think they are temporary and unimaginative, created by people who for the most part are not aware of the history of online learning, and which will not be successful in the long run against competition offered by much more established companies such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn. I think they are marvels of marketing (and of the naivity of venture capitalists) but looking at the platforms from a technological point opf view I see virtually nothing innovative. These courses, which featured 100K or more people, used video lectures and old-style threaded discussion lists! I hasten to add that I expect FutureLearn to be an exception to this, building as it does on the Open University's depth of experience.

I think the other think about these platforms that misses the point to some extent is the degree to which they are associated with universities. This almost by definition means that in some important respects they will not be innovative - they will be based around the idea of a university curriculum, for example, be grounded in assessment and credentials, and critically dependent on a centralized source of expertise. The connectivist courses we created starting in 2008 challenged all of these presumptions, with the result (I think) that the learning that resulted had much greater impact on the participants. The idea of MOOCs as an experiment in pedagogy and educational orghanization has been completely abandoned by the new platforms, to the detriment of MOOCs.

Some such platforms are funded by venture capitalists who, ultimately, will want to see profits. How do you feel about Moocs being used to line the pockets of private businessmen?

Everything lines the pockets of someone somewhere. So I am not in principle opposed to the idea of MOOC techn ology being commercialized. The same is true of all other eductaional technology, from student information systems such as Colleague and Banner, to learning management systems like Blackboard and Desire2Learn, to presentation software and word processing. Professors are paid, support staff are paid, authors write texts and are paid, publishers are paid. The people who build the university campus are paid, as are the groundskeepers, as well as thopse who supply water and power. So I think the ship has sailed on the idea of the commercial sector being involved in education.

Where I would express concern is with the ownership of the product and the equity with which it is applied. We have already seen that in cases where education is managed by commercial corporations, the bottom line often takes precedence over student needs - the whole history of Edison Schools in the U.S. is typical and illustrative. Of particular concern is that manner in which educational content may be adapted to serve corporate needs rather than student needs. It's a bit like a Disney movie - the purpose isn't so much to entertain and educate the child as it is to move Disney product off the store shelves. At the university level this can be ultimately much more sophisticated, but is nonetheless a concern. So I think there is a critical need for there to be a public hand on the tiller, so to speak - there must be a mechanism through which we ensure that education, from the earliest years through university - is designed and delivered to serve the interests of students and society at large. If commercial enterprise is to be the producer, it cannot at the same time be the customer.

We see this most clearly of all when we examine the beneficiaries of open online education. For my own part, I have always been more interested in ensuring the widest and most equitable access possible to education, as opposed to serving every better quality education to a smaller and smaller niche market that can afford it. In commercial education, there is a tendency toward 'cherry-picking' - that is, focusing on the wealthy market, while ignoring the rest. We can see this phenomenon in everything from phone service to grocery stores - it is in many cases actually more expensive to purchase goods and services if you're poor, because nobody is marketing to you. or in private health care, we see valuable resources diverted toward cosmetic surgery and vanity medicine, while basic social health needs, such as the prevention of epidemics, remain under -funded. A public hand is necessary to ensure equitable access to education resources, which indicates a key role for government.

Has the word Mooc been corrupted? Do today’s Moocs adhere to the principles of the Moocs you envisaged? Why / why not?

'Corrupted' is too strong a word. 'Co-opted' would be more appropriate.

At a conference on MOOCs I covered recently the opening speaker laid out an argument to the effect that MOOCs need not be massive, open, online, nor even courses. To be clear, I believe educators are perfectly within their rights of offer courses that are not massive, open or online. But we call those 'traditional courses', not MOOCs.

The original design of the MOOC was intended to support massive participation through disaggregation and distribution; the courses are based on interaction among self-organizing communities in a distributed network. Diversity in both content and approach is encouraged. This is quite different from schieving massive scale by using video and broadcasting the same message to thousands of people.

In order to be effectively open, it was also necessary for courses to be offered online. This does not mean that no in-person events could be held, but rather, that these events were organized by participants for their own community, rather than organized centrally by authorities around some 'elite' or local base of participants.

Any other thoughts on Moocs that you wish to go in the article? I will include as much as I can.

MOOCs are the first step in something much more interesting. Once we take seriously the idea that learning - even higher learning - ought to be open to all, we are led to rethink much of the traditional mechanisms of education, and begin tro think of means of extending it from the traditional classroom to all aspects of life. Learning becomes in the future something much like the written language is today, a powerful means of personal advancement and individual fulfillment.

Could you also let me know your 2008 job title and your current one as you would like it to appear in the piece (along with any other positions of which I should be aware)? And are you Mr, Dr or Prof? That's all for now.

In 2008, as it is now:  Senior Research Officer, National Research Council Canada, based in  Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

It's 'Mr' (not 'Dr or Prof' - full story here: ) but my preference is to not use titles at all.

-- Stephen


This is the email with the set of names I suggested for the interview. My deepest apologies in advance to anyone who really felt I should have mentioned them - the oversight was neural, not intentional.

Hiya Chris,

I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Here’s the full set of names associated with MOOCs, pre-2011 (there’s probably more but this is the cast I can think of off the top of my head).

Pre-MOOC Innovations & Inspirations
Leigh Blackall (NZ/Australia) – Networked World tour 2006 – see
Scott Wilson & Wilbert Kraan – CETIS (UK) – Personal Learning Environment – see
Gardner Campbell (along with Jim Groom and myself) – Edupunk -
David Wiley – Bingham Young University – the ‘Wiley Wiki’ open online course
Alec Couros - University of Regina, Canada – Open online courses
Nancy White (USA) and Diego Leal (Colombia) - Educamp

1st MOOC – 2008 – CCK08
Stephen Downes – that’s me – National Research Council Canada (NRC)
George Siemens – Athabasca University (he was with University of Manitoba at the time)

Naming of the MOOC
Dave Cormier – was helping out with CCK08
Bryan Alexander – was in a conversation with Dave

Ds106 – creativity MOOC - 2010ff- see
Jim Groom – Mary Washington University
Bryan Alexander – NITLE
Grant Potter (ds106 radio)

cMOOC alumni and researchers
Sui Fai John Mak
Rita Kop (NRC) – hosted and research MOOCs – currently at Yorkville University, Fredericton
Helene Fournier – NRC – MOOC research
Frances Bell (UK, I think)
Jenny Mackness (UK)
Roy Williams
Heli Nurmi (Finland)
Giulia Forsythe

Other relevant names
Alan Levine (formerly of New Media Consortium, ds106 person)
Brian Lamb (Thompson Rivers University)
D’Arcy Norman (University of Calgary)
Scott Leslie (not sure…)
Viplav Baxi (India)


Both the photos are from my Flickr account - I don't think they ever asked whether they could use them (I could be wrong) but it doesn't really bother me. The first was from a really nice set taken by a a public relations official from ANTEL - he was trying out my camera and we took advantage of the great light and background of the top floor of their building in Montevideo. The photo here - - is also from that set. I have no idea why the editors chose the photo they did - presumably it expressed the creativity they were trying to capture in the headline. I really liked Montevideo, and I think the photos reflect how much I was enjoying the visit.

The other photo is much more interesting, because they probably didn't know what they were getting. George and I first discussed the MOOC plan at a D2L conference in Memphis in 2008. As the article correctly relates, he emailed me asking whether I was interested in a course. That conference is where we designed it. That that photo is from that conference. It was a great trip overall - we saw Graceland, and Sun Studios, and I went to three minor league baseball games (go Redbirds!).


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