From cMOOCs to xMOOCs and why the difference matters

My last blog post provided some reflections on what we can learn from what are now known as cMOOCs. These represent a continuation of approach of the first MOOCs. They are largely free-form, uncommercial, and their key goals are to provide something interesting, fun and useful for the participants.

They need to be clearly distinguished from what are now known as xMOOCs, of whom the most prominent are Coursera, Udacity and edX. These have been the subject of countless articles and blog posts over the last eighteen months or so, including from me, where I highlighted what I see as some of their limitations, but at this stage in my studies, I think it is worthwhile to highlight and comment on some of the key differences the xMOOCs show compared to their predecessors:

Firstly, whereas the cMOOCs were fairly low-key and informal, the xMOOCs have launched in a blaze of hype. Exhibit number one has to be the announcement of edX’s launch, described with a disarming lack of modesty as “a revolution in education”. If a Martian were to watch the video of the press conference, I think they would come away with the impression that MIT and Harvard have just invented something called online education which they are now going to bring to a world that has never heard of it before. Such an approach can be effective in getting attention, but will also be risky to those involved if the ventures don’t go as well as planned.

Secondly, and related to this, the xMOOCs are in search of a revenue model. This is not an issue for the cMOOCs – technologies used are cheap and instructors generally contribute their time for free. However, the slick experience and scale of the xMOOCs do not come cheap and both Udacity and Coursera are backed by VCs who will presumably want a return at some point. Coursera describes itself as a “social entrepreneurship company”. This seems to mean that they have educational as well as financial goals, but does not change this point. A recent New York Times article, among others, has discussed possible business models but all of them are unproven at this stage. This has provoked some sarcastic comparisons. When TechCrunch named Coursera “Best Overall Startup of the Year, 2012”, a commenter posting as “chaord” noted:

“Best new start up….yet no clear way to monetize…are we stuck in 1999 or is this just the set up to a joke?”

It is a fair point. The example of Facebook shows that scale can translate into revenues under some circumstances, but the commercial risks and balancing acts required should not be underestimated.

Thirdly, and presumably due to the commercial imperatives, the xMOOCs are only “open” up to a point. The early MOOCs operated under Creative Common licence, with content available for re-use. Even a cursory read of Coursera’s terms makes it clear we are in a very different world. To pick one provision:

“You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material.”

As blogger Mike Caulfield observed, this is something of a backward step in terms of OER. It seems to open the possibility that Coursera will gather material from their partner universities and sell it back to the sector. This might, of course, cause partner universities to think twice before signing up.

Finally, the pedagogical approach is very different. The cMOOCs are closely linked to the connectivist approach (McAuley et al, 2010), which emphasises “learning to learn” rather than content. It has been widely observed that xMOOCs use a more behaviourist approach and the shortcomings in pedagogy have been seen as a key weakness by bloggers such as Lloyd Armstrong and Crispin Weston. Coursera is sensitive on this point, describing their pedagogical approach and reasons for it in some detail, but scale will necessarily require heavy use of recordings, multiple choice quizzes and the like, which will strike many as dated and ineffective.

In an interesting video conversation about MOOCs, two of the “cMOOC godfathers”, Dave Cormier and George Siemens, are asked what they think of the xMOOCs that have moved so far from their vision. Perhaps surprisingly, they agree that these developments are very positive. They make the reasonable point that Coursera and the others are making educational material and opportunities to the world for free. In other words, those who previously had no access to education now have some access, even if it isn’t perfect. This is a good point, and should be bourne in mind alongside the very reasonable criticisms that are being made.

And finally, the big question, where do we go from here? Are the xMOOCs destined to vanish like all those failed dotcoms of 1999? Or, as Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun was famously quoted, will there only be 10 higher education providers in the world in 50 years’ time? Of course, it is too early to say, but I would make observe three lessons that should already be noted:

1)      As MOOCs become part of the public consciousness, universities will be under increasing pressure to use them as marketing and brand-building tools. Indeed, they may well turn out to be effective as such. In his recent comments on OpenLearn, the Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be assuming that this is the primary purpose of MOOCs.

2)      As has been widely observed, Coursera has grown faster than Facebook and the speed with which interest has grown has been startling. If nothing else, this indicates the scale of desire for learning which is unmet at present. If MOOCs are not “the answer” to this, we all need to think about what is.

3)      As the newspapers have found over the last ten years, once something is given away for free, it becomes steadily harder to charge for it. The xMOOCs in their current form are not at all like a full-blown university course, but I strongly suspect they will reduce the willingness to pay for higher education unless the value gained by students (defined broadly) is made very clear.



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

3 responses to “From cMOOCs to xMOOCs and why the difference matters

  1. Isn’t there a danger that we’re making a false dichotomy between “learning content” and “learning to learn”?

    Most psychological models of learning these days seem to accept the existence of schemata as a sort of “OER of the brain” — once a schema exists, it can be redeployed to learn any analagous set of information.

    As such, the goal of “education” should be to provide the learner with the broadest, most complete coverage of schemata possible, and that requires putting the learner in a situation where they are forced to learn the appropriate schema for the task at hand.

    Open-choice in education empowers students…
    …to avoid the tasks that they don’t immediately have appropriate schemata to deal with;
    …to apply suboptimal or inappropriate strategies with impunity (as happens all the time in the world of work);
    …and to kid themselves on that they’ve achieved the task and learnt something (no answer schemes means never having to admit you were wrong!).

  2. Pingback: Graduate and Professional Student Involvement in the MOOC Experience | Techniques in Learning & Teaching

  3. Pingback: Graduate and Professional Student Involvement in the MOOC Experience | Education Remixed

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