MOOC Reflections

As prompted by the IDEL course, I decided to tackle the MOOC titled ‘Religion and Conflict’ on the FutureLearn platform. MOOCs aren’t a particularly new experience for me, like most participants, I’ve started (and not completed) several.

I initially contemplated starting a MOOC related to the current IDEL studies (e.g. there’s a course currently on offer from the University of Leeds on Blended Learning), but felt a change of subject might do more good, and perhaps be able to detach the format from the subject with greater ease.

So how open is a ‘Massive Open Online Course’? Well as Bayne, Knox, Ross (2015) argues, in some respects it is very open, in others it’s less so. They argue that the premise of open in digital education is largely based on three factors – geography, hierarchy and financial.

The MOOC I’ve taken certainly ticks the box in terms of geography. The course is provided by the University of Groningen, who I would never normally get to study with. But it’s important to keep a critical eye on this, as there is little sense that I am studying with the University, or get a sense of Groningen. In weeks 6 and 7 of IDEL we looked at what it meant to study at the University of Edinburgh, and on reflection, using the UoE VLE as the backbone for the course was actually part of the identity in here. With the MOOC, the course is ‘provided’ by the University of Groningen, but I don’t feel like it is ‘delivered’ by them. The format is a fairly regimented experience, rolled out across many institutions (understandably this has to have commonalities to make it ‘FutureLearn’). So how open is this? From my perspective, it’s given me access to expertise from a university, but I’m not accessing the experience of the university.

Regarding institutional structures, this is certainly more ‘horizontal’ than through a traditional university experience. But at what cost? By delivering to the masses, and at scale, then it could be more ‘vanilla’ in terms of the curricula and content.

From a financial perspective, the MOOC is free to participate in, but in my opinion, this is as much a blessing as a curse. There’s no ‘skin in the game’, it’s as easy to leave the course as it is to join, and this lack of commitment does affect the overall course experience and ultimately value gained. IDEL works particularly well because of the social interaction between the students, and the role the tutors play within this dialogue. As much as the conversations are instigated by the tutors, the cost and time commitment required on IDEL do push the student to fully take part. Unlike a MOOC you are also aware the MSc is a long-term commitment, so the reward for building these connections is felt over many years (and beyond).

Given the removal of these barriers, how has this impacted the take-up of online educational opportunities? Not much by all accounts. Sandra Flynn posted a link to an insightful study (Emanuel, E.J., 2013) on the forums, demonstrating that those taking the opportunities presented by MOOCs are largely those already degree-qualified. It would suggest that there could be awareness, desirability, and curriculum issues around open educational opportunities at play. If the ambition of MOOCs is to increase educational opportunities for the masses, then perhaps it is failing in this respect.

On the flipside, many of the inadequacies highlighted in Bayne, Knox, Ross (2015) manifest itself in my experiences of the MOOC so far.

Self-direction and motivation is a key oversight picked out (and to reaffirm a previous blog post, I love the phrase “imagined autonomous subject”), and this is plain to see. Already the frequency of student-generated content (largely comments) has significantly dropped from week 1. As much as this is an issue of commitment, and perhaps value, it’s also (in my opinion) down to the very nature of the MOOC. Community aspects are a core activity of the MOOC (I’m sure the course designers are aware that this is a central part of a successful learning experience), but could also be viewed as quite peripheral. I think the latter is ultimately down to the open access, it’s simply very difficult to forge any deep interactions of real value with such large volumes. Ironically this scale puts people off continuing the course, and then the volume of participation drops to a level where the community could actually be of real value! I’m sure there are many factors in this lack of motivation after the initial sign-up, and one could be as simple as ‘life getting in the way’.

Another concern raised in the critique is the role of a teacher within the MOOC. My experience so far is that the role of the teacher is largely that of content provider, as there is little or no interaction in the communication channels. There also doesn’t seem to be an obvious route to contact them. This is understandable, given the sheer scale of enquiries. The explicit nature of an open course seems to be having a detrimental impact on the course itself.

Finally, there is a sense of isolation amongst students. This ties into this community feel and is driven by the quite limited opportunities to connect with each other On this course, the other participants are simply a list of names. There are no opportunities to connect outside of the FutureLearn platform or the prescribed activities.

There are early signs that students are simply there to ‘complete’ rather than interact. For example, it’s useful to note the lack of replies in the introductions. This could be for several reasons, but a suggested factor could be the sheer volume (there are currently 12 pages of introductions!). As a student myself, there is little incentive to reply if there’s no chance of fostering relationships or keeping track of people you’ve noted. Harking back to an earlier part of IDEL, it’s interesting to note that no rich media is used by students, it’s primarily the written word. As we know, the written word does not have the ‘thick’ descriptions (REF) that an image of video can provide. It would be natural to draw comparisons with IDEL, when our introductions were videos and images using external tools. This visualisation ‘embodied’ the student and humanised our peers, which I think plays a factor in driving relationships.

I thought it was interesting to observe that as a student it is possible to comment on specific elements, rather than discuss as a group. The videos and entries on specific pages could be considered the social objects, rather than the broader themes perhaps. This doesn’t particularly facilitate an ‘open conversation’.

Image: Many discussion posts have no replies.

Another aspect to consider in ‘openness’ is the overall course journey. In the MOOC some activities are locked, it’s very much a fixed pathway. Course outcomes are fixed and defined – it’s very prescriptive in terms of what you can gain. In comparison with IDEL, while there is a strong sense of direction, there is the opportunity to meander and align with your own personal goals. There is also the sense of flexibility, for example, the additional Minecraft session that was discussed. It’s perhaps not fair to compare the two courses, but I think it’s useful to highlight the contrasts.

In summary, I think it can be argued that MOOCs remove some of the barriers in place, as highlighted by Bayne, Knox, Ross (2015). However the very format of open impacts the course delivery, which in turn throttles the value that can be gained.

Access is open, but once part of it, the experience can be quite closed. Compare this with IDEL, where access is significantly more restricted, but once part of it, the experience is very open.

Overall, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that the MOOC can be a good thing. They do open up many doors and provide access to knowledge and expertise that could be seen as less accessible. I think if they were repositioned however as ‘tasters’ and a way of exploring interest in new topics, this may help generate more interest. Perhaps it would also drive changes in the format that does not seem to motivate the students.

In terms of taking these reflections into my professional life, I think it only reaffirms some of the thoughts I’ve had throughout this course. Mainly that a synchronous course, with a ‘social presence’ at the heart of it, and key involvement from a course leader leads to a much more fruitful experience for all involved. I think the MOOC observations add weight to the understanding that a commitment is key (this doesn’t necessarily have to be financial), and that less is perhaps more in terms of cohort size.


  • Bayne, S., Knox, J., Ross, J. (2015). Open Education: the need for a critical approach. Learning, Media and Technology Special Issue: Critical Approaches to Open Education. 40(3). pp. 247-250.
  • Emanuel, E.J., 2013. Online education: MOOCs taken by educated few. Nature, 503(7476), pp.342-342.