Critical skills the cMOOCs can teach us

For the past week, when we have been studying MOOCs, I have been away, so my studying has been limited. However, I have looked at the activities, done some reading and reflection and so will set down some overall responses, rather than work through the activities required. This seems to me in any case to be in the true spirit of MOOCs.

For me, the most interesting piece of reading was the report by McAuley et al (2010). The authors are basically the people who invented MOOCs, and it is a thorough review, although it already feels somewhat dated. It talks of the MOOCs being a limited experimental phenomenon, The term now used for what the authors describe is “cMOOC”, to distinguish from the mass-market “xMOOCS”, such as Coursera and Udacity (Daniel, 2012) and it is the cMOOCs that will be the focus of this blog post. What is striking early on in the report is how radically different the early MOOCs, at least, were from anything that we really understand as formal education. Phrases like “self-organise” and “anything goes” are used, as well as,

“…the facilitator will not have to commit to the impossible task of responding individually to each student’s needs.”

In that case, aren’t we losing something really quite important? As my fellow-student Niall Beag has already pointed out, this type of MOOC has much more in common with an online conference than a course. Which is not to say it isn’t useful, just different. But conferences, in general, are for people who already know quite a lot and want to hear and discuss new ideas. They are by no means suitable at all levels of education. In fact, one of the report’s authors, Bonnie Stewart, goes on to make a similar point:

“The MOOC model represents a different engagement that reflects the norms of digital interactions and social media culture far more than traditional education. This ends up offering an extraordinary meta-learning opportunity for participants, but is also somewhat challenging even for people accustomed to and adept in the relational negotiations of digital culture.” (my emphasis)

Numerous blog posts from our current MOOC support this, documenting the struggles of students to make sense of everything. But it is an important statement. Even those skilled in digital culture will be challenged by this, let alone the rest of us. In other words, this sort of MOOC really isn’t for everyone. In terms of the MOOC we were asked to compare, the Change MOOC definitely fits into this category – low-budget, unstructured, some big-name presenters, very much like an extended online conference.

Like many others, I have my doubts about how far all this can completely replace traditional education. To be fair, Cormier, Siemens and the others never intended it to. In my own field of business education, there are key concepts that need to be mastered such as environmental analysis, book-keeping and supply & demand curves. These need to be learned and will not emerge spontaneously from a “community is the curriculum” approach.

All that said, I am beginning to see the value of the cMOOCs for honing advanced skills in education. A phrase in the report particularly brought this home to me:

“Digital and creative economies operate on change and destabilisation, which forces participants within those economies to become, in effect, lifelong learners. This creates both opportunities and stresses for individuals, and a distinct chasm between the literacies emphasized in public discourse about our increasingly retro-industrial school system and the participatory practices of digital knowing and being.”

In other words, the modern economy is going to be increasingly working like a MOOC. We had better get used to it. This also got me thinking about how I would define these “literacies”. It seems to me the key skills required to successfully navigate a MOOC, which are interrelated are:

  1. Filtering information and opinions. We are swamped with them and will drown if we don’t come up with strategies to dip into these resources selectively, and work out how to access the more useful stuff. Perhaps we look at things flagged up by our network on Twitter or Google+? And how do we distinguish the material we can trust from that which we can’t?
  2. Searching for information we need. We can simply type something into Google but that is often not a particularly helpful approach. We need to get adept at using Google’s settings and different search terms for a start, but also need to be able to use library databases and academic search tools, along with knowing where to look for recommendations.
  3. Networking with those who can help us develop our ideas. This, of course, has been      transformed by the rise of digital networking, which has its own norms and practices that are still being worked out. So which tools do we choose? How do we get these best out of Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook? How do we integrate this with face-to-face networking?

Actually, there is nothing new about these skills. I went to university in the largely pre-digital age, and spent time working out the best sources out of published material, tracking down journal articles in the library and meeting up with other students and faculty to talk through ideas. The skills themselves have not changed, but I believe two things have. Firstly, these skills are both easier and harder than ever to master. Easier because we have so many more tools to use. But harder because we have to consciously choose from the range of tools and master each one to be really effective. Secondly, the increasing level of “change and destabilisation” makes these skills more urgent to master for a wide group of professional and managerial workers, not just students and academics.

There are various ways to acquire these skills, but for those who like jumping in at the deep end, a MOOC or two may not be a bad place to start.

Of course, the new breed of xMOOCs have much bigger and more immediate ambitions, but that will have to wait for another blog post.


Daniel, J. (2012) ‘Making sense of MOOCs: musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education, no. 18 [online]. Available at jime/ article/ view/ 2012-18 (accessed 13 April 2013).

McAuley, A., Stewart, B., Siemens, G. and Cormier, D. (2010) The MOOC Model for Digital Practice, Charlottetown, University of Prince Edward Island, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Knowledge synthesis grants on the Digital Economy. Also available online at edblog/ wp-content/uploads/MOOC_Final.pdf (accessed 13 April 20103)



Filed under H817 Openness and innovation in elearning

5 responses to “Critical skills the cMOOCs can teach us

  1. Paige Cuffe

    “…the modern economy is going to be increasingly working like a MOOC. We had better get used to it. ” It was a similar realisation that got me back in after my first MOOC experience. If this is the way of the world, the future way of work, I’d better learn to work it. So we can debate where and how and in what form this style of learning will be applied, but getting to grips with it isn’t really an option anymore. Do you perhaps think that – ironically – in order to remain competitive, we have to learn to be co-operative?

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