Learning, Education and the Impact of MOOCs

This article describes the current e-learning landscape and considers the potential implications for traditional models of education. It discusses what is meant by learning and knowledge, and how the traditional role of education is being challenged by increasing technological innovation.

What is Learning?

Learning is a constant and lifelong process that changes our personal state in some way that results in increased knowledge and/or understanding and/or capability.

Types of Learning

Learning may be planned (eg from an enrolled college course) or incidental (eg a toddler putting their hand in a flame).

Learning may be planned by: i) the learner; ii) some external body, eg a compulsory school curriculum, the requirements of a profession.

Learning may deliver what the learner: i) needs to learn (ie the basic knowledge and skills required to survive in contemporary society, eg literacy, numeracy, and increasingly IT ability); ii) wants to learn (ie to contribute in some way towards fulfillment of the individual’s goals, eg career development, general life enhancement etc.)

What is Knowledge?

Human knowledge is the collected total of humankind’s discoveries about the nature of the reality we inhabit. By virtue of spoken and written language, and more recently information and communication technologies (ICTs), human knowledge may be recorded for posterity; this pool of accumulated knowledge is continually being expanded and refined.

Through learning, an individual increases their personal knowledge, ie that subset of human knowledge that they understand and are able to apply.

The diagram attempts to represent knowledge as individual but interlinked pieces. The shaded area represents a snapshot of the personal knowledge of an individual.

Free and Open Knowledge

The proliferation of the Internet over the past two decades has rapidly increased the knowledge accessible to a great many people. Rather than being locked in the libraries of elite institutions, a vast amount of knowledge is available to anyone with an Internet connection (estimated by Internet World Stats at 2.4 billion people, or 34% of global population as of June 2012) often from the comfort of their home, or anywhere else they choose using one of the numerous types of mobile device.

For example, as of May 2013 the free Wikipedia encyclopedia had over 4.2 million English articles. The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation (which operates Wikipedia) is “to empower a global volunteer community to collect and develop the world’s knowledge and to make it available to everyone for free, for any purpose.” Wikipedia content is generally published under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, meaning content may be widely re-used and re-purposed.

Also of May 2013 the number of Web pages indexed by search giant Google was estimated at 45 billion [WorldWideWebSize.com]. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” To this end it employs complex algorithms to rank search results in order of quality and relevance as determined by the “crowd”, ie global Internet users.

One significant impact of readily available knowledge on the learning process is a shift in emphasis from acquiring knowledge itself to acquiring knowledge about how to find knowledge on demand, ie learners no longer need to remember a multitude of facts, but rather to know how to efficiently navigate the vast knowledge pool retrieve required facts from their online device.

What is Education?

The traditional role of education, and the individual educator, has been to impart knowledge to the learner. The learned expert, acting as a source of knowledge, selects a subset of that knowledge according to some specific purpose and transmits the selected knowledge bit by bit to learners.

The Changing Role of Education

The era of free and open knowledge is challenging the role of education. It is said that the educator is being transformed from ”sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

From being restricted to a very limited supply of knowledge, the modern learner has access to a vast, and likely overwhelming, sea of knowledge that is greater, and accumulating at a faster rate, than any individual could possibly keep up with. From this stems the changing nature of education.

Modern education may be likened to handing a tourist a guide book of a new city. Everything is out there to be discovered, but the guide book explains how to use the subway, which are the best museums, galleries etc, and warns against any areas that are best avoided.

Learners have varying degrees of clarity about what they want/need to learn to reach a particular goal. In a kindergarten class, that clarity will be virtually zero, and the teacher will be expected to set the agenda. As learner maturity increases, so does the knowledge of what learning is called for, but what’s lacking is how to find that knowledge.

A learner’s self-determined journey through the Web on a particular topic will likely yield serendipitous learning, but it will not occur in the most efficient manner and the learner will (by definition) remain uncertain as to: i) the quality, and ii) the appropriateness of the material discovered.

Education adds value to the learning process by defining “courses” of study. From a particular subject and set of learning objectives, the educator is able to carve out (and sequence) a subset of knowledge that fulfills those objectives, ie:

The dotted oval represents a defined course. Links extending beyond the oval may represent pre-requisite knowledge or further or related topics.

Unless the course covers knowledge at the cutting edge of research it is likely that its content is already described in pre-existing sources. Unless a particular educator believes they can add value by re-presenting that knowledge in their own way it is more efficient for instructors to select (based on accuracy, clarity of presentation, and relevance to context) and reference existing sources.

As major content sources such as Wikipedia and video sharing service YouTube actively encourage re-use of their content so the very best presentations of knowledge, as judged by the “crowd”, will become the standard expositions on their particular topics.

This model of course building through selection and re-use relates to the concept of re-usable learning objects which became popular a decade ago or so. Rather than have a multitude of instructors develop their own unique presentations of generic courses such as Calculus 101, and then deliver that presentation year after year, it is more economic to direct students to one of a few, high quality (ie produce faster, deeper learning) presentations. Instructors may then focus their time on supporting the learning process.

Further roles of modern education (both face-to-face and online) include:

  • Reinforcing learning through the provision of appropriate activities. These can include (self) assessments to allow learners to measure their progress and identify weaknesses in their understanding, simulations that allow the application of knowledge and observation of results, and guided discussions.
  • Supporting learning by providing a forum (real or virtual) in which learner’s questions may be addressed.
  • Assessing and certifying successful completion of a course.

Distance Learning and the Internet

Distance learning is a well-established means of education, ranging from early correspondence courses, through use of radio and television, and expanding further in the Internet age.

One significant change offered by the Internet is the move from the broadcast method of education to the participative, made possible by the Internet’s many-to-many communication model compared to the one/few-to many model of earlier media.

Educational technology is the use of technology in education. These days the term “technology“ usually refers to computers, but in its broadest sense educational technology includes radio and television broadcast technologies, audio and video cassettes, telephone etc. It includes technologies used within the physical classroom, as well as those such as the Internet used to deliver education at a distance.

E-learning is the use of electronic/digital media to promote learning. Its origins lie in repetitive, Skinnerian, computer-based learning programs which guided users through numerous screens of text ending with the ubiquitous “click next to continue” message. As computer memory and processing power increased and became cheaper, and the Internet became increasingly pervasive, so e-learning became more engaging and these days routinely incorporates video, audio, images, animations, simulations, numerous forms of self assessment and opportunities to interact with instructors and fellow learners.

Although widely used it’s important to recognize that the term e-learning describes the means by which learning material is delivered; the learning process that takes place in the brain remains the same as for more traditional forms of learning.

Open Educational Resources

Mirroring the openness seen in software development (ie the open source movement) and knowledge in general (eg licensing schemes such as Creative Commons which covers Wikipedia), Open Educational Resources (OER) may be defined as: “freely accessible, usually openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, educational, assessment and research purposes.”  [Wikipedia]

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was one of the earliest major institutions to make OER widely available with its MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative. OCW “makes the materials used in the teaching of almost all of MIT’s subjects available on the Web, free of charge.” OCW materials are made available under the Creative Commons License.

The OER aggregation site OER Commons lists 44,955 OER as of June 2013.

The Increasing Complexity of Society

Recent years have seen exponential increases in the complexity of society fuelled by ever-increasing technological innovation.

Increasing complexity increases the demand for learning and changes the way in which learning is obtained.

Traditionally, a fortunate few would obtain a college degree following 3 or 4 years intensive study at institutions of varying status before beginning their working lives. Now, the majority of workers need a high level of current knowledge. Much college-acquired learning dates quickly and needs to be updated throughout life.

The Rise of the MOOC

The acronym MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and is most likely the inevitable consequence of exponential growth in ICT capacity and information age society’s insatiable thirst for knowledge.

2012 was dubbed “The Year of the MOOC” by the New York Times. The same (MOOC) phenomenon prompted Time Magazine to proclaim “College Is Dead. Long Live College!”

The term MOOC originated in 2008 to describe the course “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” which ran alongside an on-campus course at the University of Manitoba organized by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council (Canada). Connectivism and Connective Knowledge used connectivism to teach connectivism, ie creating the conditions from which knowledge would emerge from the network of participants.

According to Downes: “At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.” [http://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html]

More recent MOOCs such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX rely on a more traditional model of presentation and testing, albeit on a much larger scale than that possible within an institution.

In response to this distinction between MOOC types Downes proposed the terms cMOOC and xMOOC, where cMOOCs are those that emphasize connectivism and xMOOCs the more traditional approach. Rather than describing a dichotomy, every MOOC actually sits somewhere on a spectrum between the two extremes.

A typical xMOOC includes:

  • a series of short (10-20 minute) video lectures presented by a leading academic
  • discussion forums (monitored by the professor and teaching assistants but, due to participant numbers, much support given by peers)
  • computer-scored multiple-choice quizzes
  • peer assessment (written work is assessed by fellow students according to some official rubric)

In practice xMOOC discussions often stray from the pre-stated syllabus of the course with students forming special interest threads and bringing their own knowledge to the debate – much like the connectivist ideals of the cMOOCs.

Why Build MOOCs and OERs?

After many years of charging high fees to teach knowledge, why would institutions and educators embrace the philosophy of openness and start making their product (knowledge) freely available?

There is currently no clear answer to this question, but the following may offer some clues:

  • The altruistic concept that knowledge should be free
  • Personal (institutional) kudos from reaching large numbers with the possibility of creating the “best of breed” presentation
  • Belief in long-term monetization (eg selling paid-for courses, offering individual learning support, certification, licensing materials for use by other institutions etc)

Education: Traditional and Modern Compared

Traditional MOOC / other e-learning
Educator as main source of knowledge. Educator as guide through mass of freely available knowledge.
Syllabus largely controlled by educator. Greater learner autonomy
Educator creates content. Educator curates content.
Similar experience for all class members. Learning is more individualized.
Expensive. Limited supply. Restricted to the relative few. Freely available to all, anyone can participate at no cost to learner.
Generally lower fixed costs, but higher per-student cost. Generally higher fixed costs (eg hardware, software, production) but lower per-student cost.
Greater opportunity to physically interact with instructor and fellow students. Contact is virtual. Less interaction with experts (depending on staff:student ratio), but opportunity to interact with many more peers, often mature learners bringing valuable and diverse contributions to the discussion.
Certification from prestigious institution carries high status. Certification not (yet) widely recognized. Issues over authenticating examinee identity.
Knowledge primarily delivered at one time in one place (but many institutions now video lectures). Knowledge may be consumed at time and place of learner’s choice, and repeated as necessary.

One response to the rise of e-learning is the increasing adoption of so-called “flip teaching” by traditional institutions. In this model lectures (one way transmissions of information) are pre-recorded and made available for learners to view ahead of class time. Thus teacher-student contact time becomes is used for greater interaction, eg responding to questions, expanding areas of interest etc.

School in the Age of the MOOC

Most developed countries require children and young people to undergo compulsory education between certain ages, eg 5 to 16, with the intention of preparing students to become useful citizens in adulthood.

In many cases the schools that deliver compulsory education within a country are very similar, not only in the curriculum taught but also in the manner of teaching and general institutional atmosphere.

Whereas the similarity of education received by all may have been an economic necessity it is also likely to deliver a sub-optimal experience to a significant number of students who don’t precisely fit the system-determined mould.

Homeschooling is another alternative to the public school system, although only adopted by a relative few, possibly due to parents feeling they don’t have the time or academic expertise for the responsibility.

Some Possible Implications for Traditional Education in the Internet Age

  • Online education and MOOCs are here to stay, those institutions that embrace reality and adapt to the new paradigm will thrive. Those that ignore or resist change face an uncertain future.
  • Fewer people will take full-time degrees at institutions.
  • Institutions will focus more on learner support and assessment, less on knowledge presentation.
  • Institutions will provide facilities (labs) for practical work.
  • Institutions will offer more short, focused, courses for lifelong learners.
  • Individual learners will have greater choice and flexibility in how they study. Rather than fixed enrolment with a single institution they will be able to mix courses between online study and physical institutions to best suit their individual needs.
  • There will be an increasing role for meta-knowledge about learning opportunities, ie resources that learners use to best plan how they will acquire the knowledge to fulfill their goals.


One thought on “Learning, Education and the Impact of MOOCs

  1. studying online

    For those who have had the recent disappointing news of redundancy, online learning
    gives them an opportunity to broaden their skills and qualifications
    whilst searching for jobs, giving them that added edge when it comes
    to competing for jobs. Furthermore degree holders bring in more cash, they also are less likely to be unemployed.
    With distance learning programs, though, the teacher and students may not be together at the same time, meaning that an instructor cannot give a student immediate
    feedback and must communicate differently.


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