MOOCs – Hype or an Essential Learning Tool?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a relatively new approach to increasing global access to higher education.  Largely free, they offer the opportunity for anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone and internet access to take courses on a wide range of subjects from universities around the globe.  Tens, even hundreds of thousands of students can sign up for a single course, providing a wide range of discourse in discussion groups.  The New York Times went so far as to declare 2012 as the Year of the MOOC.

MOOCs offer a number of advantages:

to students:

  • No cost or low cost
  • Reduced student debt
  • Accessible at any time (asynchronous), from anywhere
  • The opportunity to take classes from prominent professors at world class institutions

to professors:

  • Offer an opportunity to create an online course with support (support from host site, eg. Coursera, edX, Udacity, etc.
  • Provide an opportunity to improve exposure, even gain fame

to institutions:

  • Promotes brand recognition to the institution
  • Potential to reduce costs due to low infrastructure requirements (no bricks and mortar classroom required)

Initially, MOOCs were viewed in a positive light for these reasons.  But as experience with MOOCs has increased some of the shine has come off of this new addition to online education.  Universities have found that MOOCs aren’t as cheap as they thought, and have not attracted the volume of students they had hoped.  Low completion rates have been observed and student demographics have shown that, instead of low income students signing up for these courses, they are largely attended by students who are financially stable and have already completed some higher education studies.  Students not already familiar with online education are often too intimidated to sign up.

Perhaps one of the best descriptions of some of the challenges to offering a MOOC is offered by Dr. Karen Head (The Hidden Cost of MOOCs), who instructed a course on Coursera.  Head observed:

  • MOOCs may only appear to have low cost
    • Production costs for videography and course design
    • Significant staff time is required for development
  • Students expect 24/7 monitoring and quick responses to their questions/comments
  • Professional fame can result in loss of privacy
  • Concerns about security, include:
    • Professors must protect their personal email address, phone number
    • Unannounced visits to campus offices may occur
    • Insurance issues
    • Do a university’s privacy policies apply to MOOC students?
    • Control of digital signatures for course certificates
  • Intellectual property concerns – who owns the course material and your digital likeness?
  • Distance (interactional, not geographical) between teacher and student is very large
  • Difficult to make changes to the course mid-way based on student feedback
  • Automated grading of student writing style and logic is difficult

Clearly there are a number of challenges to the design, development and presentation of a MOOC.  The concerns of administrators, instructors, support staff (including technical support) and students all have to be addressed.  As experience is gained in MOOC development and delivery some of these issues may be resolved.  But what about the original idea of making access to higher education ubiquitous?  Let’s consider the situation of education for Africans.

UNICEF is currently projecting that forty percent of all births will be in Africa by 2050, doubling the current population to well over two billion people.  This will place intense stress on an already underfunded and inadequate higher education (HE) system.  At the same time Africans are looking to develop their economies, and increase their standard of living, reducing poverty and inequality.  This is reflected in Rwanda’s Vision 2020, Nigeria’s Vision 2020, Kenya’s Vision 2030 and Uganda’s Vision 2040. For Africa, MOOCs might present a way to provide post-secondary education to many new learners.  But MOOCs in their current form won’t work.

One of the requirements for MOOCs is high speed internet, something that is not widely available in Africa and is not expected to be any time soon. Currently internet access, when available, is generally of low band-width and poor reliability.  Oyo and Kalema have suggested a Made in Africa approach to MOOCs and HE.  This would involve the creation of a government funded MOOC secretariat to coordinate the HE Institutions, accreditation agencies and industry in the development of MOOC programmes producing employable graduates.  Students will access MOOCs through a number of methods which will evolve with time.  Radio and access to secondary school computer labs with network access may be an initial starting point.  Networked Hubs will store local copies of the course material where Internet connectivity is not reliable.  The tremendous growth in smartphone use will also provide a platform for MOOC delivery in time.   Adjustments to secondary school curriculum will be needed to ensure graduates have the skills, organizational and technical, to be successful learners in a MOOC environment.

The challenge is to provide ordinary Africans with access to post-secondary content, at low cost, that will help them develop the skills they will need to not only find jobs, but to create them.  Creativity and innovation are key skills in the 21st Century and are essential to developing new industries and new opportunities.  MOOCs have the potential to assist Africans, if they are designed and delivered in a manner that is appropriate for their circumstances.

African MOOC Access

Figure of Proposed MOOC Access System for Africans – Courtesy of Oyo and Kalema, 2014

Despite the hype and the ongoing attempts to commercialize MOOCs, they do not provide an easy, comprehensive solution to the challenges of education in the 21st century.  However, they are part of the current conversation on how to provide content and promote collaboration in a time of tight government funding.  The current lack of participation and low completion rates will require raising student’s comfort levels in technology use and learning in a different environment, but as in the case of Africa, the potential for MOOCs needs to be explored further.

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Technology as a Social Good?

In the early 1990’s, the CTV Network produced a show that looked at the impact of technology in our lives.  As more and more technology was being introduced into our daily lives, “smart homes” were thought to be the future (perhaps becoming closer to reality today with the internet of things).  To discuss whether the introduction of smart homes was ultimately a positive or a negative the show had two guests: author and NYU professor of communications Dr. Neil Postman, and futurist Don Tapscott, author some fifteen books, including Wikinomics, and The Digital Economy.

What I remember most about this show, aside from being able to implement home security (locked doors) and privacy (opaque windows) with a voice command, was the opposing views of the two protagonists.  Don Tapscott argued (and still does) that technology can be very empowering, and when implemented in the home will promote independent living to an advanced age.  On the other hand, Neil Postman was much more critical.  He saw real problems in our communities that could only be solved by talking about them, within the community, but “now you can talk to the wall and the wall will talk back to you”.  He went further to say that he often heard people say “If only we had the technology, we could solve world hunger”.  I should mention that at this point the television was showing helicopter gunships flying in the background.  Dr. Postman stated simply, “We have the technology, we don’t have the social will”.

There were two threads in this debate that are worth discussion: the pros/cons of any given technology and the question of social will.

With regards to the pros and cons of a technology, let’s look at a current technology that has been in the Toronto news lately: Uber.  Uber is a ridesharing app that connects people needing a ride, with those who have vehicles and are willing to drive (for a fee).  All bookings and payments are made through the app.  Those who speak in favour of it, may describe it as “a hi-tech, decentralized, empowering, environmentally friendly transformative technology combining the best features of taxis, public transit and private cars.“.  As is often the case with the introduction of any new technology, however, there are those who see it as a threat, in this case taxi drivers (and municipal governments who get revenue from the granting of taxi licenses), who mount an argument against it (for instance, the lack of safety standards in Uber vehicles).

This is an example of a technology that is helpful to many (passengers can move more quickly in a city and Uber drivers can to make some extra money), but is also disruptive to some (Uber challenges the current status quo between taxis, limousine services and municipal governments).  It is up to the community as a whole to determine if it is ultimately worth it. Don Tapscott has discussed the challenge of finding a balance in this particular case (see here).

The idea of not having the social will to help one another, is one that should concern us all. This issue was echoed in the movie Hotel Rwanda.  When news of the 1993 massacres was finally broadcast to the world, some thought that the U.S. would immediately respond.  However, Joaquin Phoenix’s character said, “I think people will say ‘Oh, that’s too bad, somebody should do something’, and then go back to eating their dinner”.


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ICT and Education: An Opportunity (Draft)

When I was a ten year old, my family would go to the grocery store each week and buy a copy of Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia, hoping to someday have the whole set. That way when I had an assignment for school, I could look up “everything” I needed to know on the subject. For most of that year, when I went to look up a new word, I would find that I didn’t have the needed volume and I would have to wait until class or go to the public library to look it up.  It was very frustrating!

Google has made encyclopedias all but obsolete and most children no longer have to wait more than ten seconds to look up something. One comprehensive encyclopedia, Wikipedia, still remains today, but every child has the opportunity to add content to it, not just take from it. This ubiquitous access to information, through ICT, with the ability to contribute collaboratively for the benefit of all, rather than just be an observer, reveals a much different landscape for learning.

While this new landscape provides students, parents and teachers with unprecedented opportunities in education, it also creates an almost equal number of challenges: Are today’s schools still relevant? Should the focus in education be on reading, writing and arithmetic (the 3 R’s) or should it be on the needed skills of the 21st century: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity (the 4C’s) (NEA, 2014)? If creativity, is one of our needed skills, then why are we emphasizing standardization in curriculum and testing? How do we address inequality in access to and familiarity with ICT? This paper will consider how changing the pedagogical/andragogical relationship between learner, teacher and content through the use of ICT may address these challenges.

Calls for significant changes in education have been growing ever since the introduction of ICT. In fact, ICT provides a forum for this very discussion through social media. One of the most popular TED talks of all time was Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on “How schools kill creativity”. Sir Ken has pointed out that the predominant education model is a leftover from the industrial society, and that kids are batched through schools like an assembly line (Robinson, 2014). Schools are standardized, with the day broken into set periods, for specific subjects, with a bell ringing to signify it’s time to stop what we are doing and change to the next subject (Diamandis, 2012). Sir Ken makes the point that “Our education systems rarely give people permission to be themselves. But if you can’t be yourself, it’s hard to know yourself, and if you don’t know yourself, how can you ever tap into your true potential.” (Diamandis, 2012, p.182).

Schools provide an important role in creating the social framework needed to foster learning (Brown, 2002). As humans are social beings, learning cannot be optimized in isolation. Social presence is required for people to project themselves socially and emotionally into their learning (Garrison, 2011). Schools can assist students by enhancing their natural curiosity and promoting tolerance to allow students to learn from each other (Freire, 1997). The advantages of social presence in learning are highlighted in Mitra’s work with children in India (Diamandis, 2012). When children were given access to a computer they had never seen before, their learning improved significantly.  Their increase in understanding was a result of being able to work collaboratively in a small group, and also due to the presence of an older student, who similarly had no knowledge of computers or the subject matter being studied, but whose role was solely to provide encouragement (Diamandis, 2012).

This concept of social presence is essential when utilizing ICT in the learning environment (Garrison, 2011). Two of the 4Cs, communication and collaboration, can be extended by ICT through connecting students with each other. Whether students are in remote communities in the Arctic, or in rural villages in India, ICT offers the ability to connect students with each other, with teachers, and with information. However, in order for this to occur students have to have access to appropriate hardware and software, as well as internet connectivity. Some basic instruction on how to use these may also be required. Overcoming both this digital divide (Garrison, 2011) and digital inequality (Hsieh, 2012) is critical to maximizing the opportunities available to students from ICT and helping them reach their full potential.

Inequalities in access are well documented (Wood, 2011), (Hsieh, 2012), (Alphonso, 2014). To narrow these gaps a number of initiatives have been pursued, from international efforts like Negraponte’s One Laptop Per Child (One Lap Top Per Child, n.d.) and Mitra’s Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) (Diamandis, 2012), to local efforts including device sharing, and sharing the resources of one school with another (Alphonso, C. & Hammer, K., 2014). Many software resources for educational use, and multimedia in general, are widely available for free from sources like the OER Commons (OER, 2014) and The Conversation Prism (Solis, 2013).


Addressing this technical inequality is one factor in reducing inequality in society in general. Improving access to ICT may have additional benefits, as Hsieh points out that more experienced ICT users are likely to engage in beneficial activities beyond the classroom, such as seeking health related information (Hsieh, 2012). However, simply providing students with access to ICT tools is no guarentee that they will be used.

In the early 1990’s, when computers were gaining widespread adoption in the workplace, a computer was installed in a regional government office in the state of Gujurat, India. However the computer was never used, because it was placed on the supervsor’s desk. Due to the prevailing culture, the workers would not go near the supervisor’s desk, and because the supervisor did not want to be seen as a clerk-typist the dust cover was never removed (S. Madon, personal communication, November, 1992). This example highlights the need to consider both personal and cultural norms as a possible source of resistance to change when introducing new ICTs.  As Rogers identified, “an important factor regarding the adoption rate of an innovation is its compatibility with the values, beliefs, and past experiences of individuals in the social system.” (Rogers, 2003, p.4).

Rogers’ Theory of Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 2003) describes the process by which any innovation is adopted by an individual or a community. Once an innovation is introduced, people form an attitude toward it, decide whether to adopt it or not, implement it (if adopted), and finally confirm the decision on its use (Rogers, 2003, p.20). Of course each phase is affected by a number of factors, for example an individual’s opinion of an innovation may be based on its perceived benefit to a current problem, but it will also likely be affected by the opinions of the individual’s peers.

Question: More to come, but am I on the right track or have I gone off the rails? Any feedback would be extremely helpful.



Alphonso, C. & Hammer, K. (2014, November 7). The fundraising gap at Toronto schools. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Banister, S. &. (2011). TPCK for impact: Classroom teching practices that promote social justice and narrow the digital divide in an urban middle school. Computers in the Schools, 28, 5-26.

Brown, J. (2002). Learning in the Digital Age. Forum Futures, 20-23.

Clark, J. (2010). The digital imperative: Making the case for a 21st Century pedagogy. Computers and Composition, 27, 27-35.

Diamandis, P. &. (2012). Abundance: The future is better than you think. New York: Free Press.

Freire, P. (1997). A Conversation with Paulo Freire. Retrieved November 10, 2014, from

Fullan, M. (2008). The six secrets of change: What the best leaders do to help their organizations survive and thrive . San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons .

Garrison, D. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice . New York: Routledge.

GNH Index. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2014, from

Hsieh, Y. (2012). Online Social Networking Skills: The social affordances approach to digital inequality. First Monday, 17(4).

Merchant, G. (2012). Mobile practices in everyday life: Popular digital technologies and schooling revisited. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(5), 770782.

National Education Association (n.d.). An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”. Retrieved November 10, 2014, from

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Popham, W. (1999). Why Standardized Test Don’t Measure Educational Quality. Educational Leadership, 56(6), 8-15.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants – Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.
Robinson, K. (2014, November 10). Sir Ken Robinson. Retrieved from Changing Paradigms:

Rogers, E. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Selwyn, N. G. (2001). Digital divide or digital opportunity? The role of technology in overcoming social exclusion in U.S. education. Educational Policy 15, 258.

Solis, B. (2013). The Conversation Prism. Retrieved November 10,2014, from

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012). Employment Projections for 2012-2022. Retrieved November 10, 2014, from

Warschaur, M. (2012). The digital divide and social inclusion. Americas Quarterly, 6(2), 130-135.

Watson, G. (1971). Resistance to Change. American Behavioral Scientist, 745-766.

Wilson, D. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York: Delta.

Wood, L., & Howley, A. (2011). Dividing at an early age: the hidden digital divide in Ohio elementary schools. Learning, Media and Technology, 37(1), 20-39. doi: 10.1080/17439884.2011.567991

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Problem Based Learning

Using a sample case, the class will analyze the problem from a number of perspectives.

  1. Read and analyze the problem scenario.
  2. List what is known.
  3. Develop a problem statement.
  4. List what is needed.
  5. List actions, solutions, or hypotheses.
  6. Analyze information.
  7. Present findings.

While working through this process a number of steps may need to be revisited.  For example the problem statement may go through a number of iterations.

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