Digital learning hubs: theoretical and practical ideas for innovating massive open online courses

Kucirkova, Natalia and Littleton, Karen (2017). Digital learning hubs: theoretical and practical ideas for innovating massive open online courses. Learning, Media and Technology, 42(3) pp. 324–330.



Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are online courses aimed at global unlimited participation, originally conceptualised to carry no fee and offer no formal accreditation to the students (McAuley et al. 2010). In their early stages, MOOCs were heralded as a disruptive innovation in the higher education system (Hyman 2012) and a transformative educational force in education overall (Cheng 2013). More recently, however, initial enthusiasm of MOOC providers has begun to wane (Winkler 2012), with the retention rates on most courses below 10% (Gütl et al. 2014) and the criticism that the current MOOC model is unlikely ‘to have a long and enduring impact’ (Gonick 2013, online) and reach students from disadvantaged backgrounds or developing countries (Kalman 2014).

Although their pedagogies vary, the most popular MOOC providers (e.g., Coursera, FutureLearn and EdX) are turning towards what Rodriguez (2012) described as Stanford-AI-like model, which is ‘essentially a digital facelift of traditional education’ (cited in Mudzamba and de la Rey 2013, 6). According to Rodriguez (2012), learners on these courses are assimilating knowledge provided by the institution, with the option to obtain an honorary certificate of participation, which is graded and carries a fee. As an antidote to the Stanford-AI model, the connectivist model of MOOCs positions learners as co-creators and co-consumers of contents which are available anywhere and anytime (Kop and Hill 2008; Rodriguez 2012). However, while this model is more aligned with the notion of a transformative paradigm, it is the one that is currently characterised by low retention rates and is often described as unsustainable (Clow 2013).

In this Viewpoint, we argue that a more refined distinction than the one proposed by the connectivist model is necessary to address the issue of student engagement and realise transformative educational visions. Over the past two years, we have participated in several courses as learners as well as MOOC educators. We have also been involved in the scoping of a community-oriented digital learning hub (DLH). The development of this Hub concept involved a desk-based analysis of effective digital learning communities online and a review of studies concerned with collaborative and distributed learning and socio-cultural approaches to learning (e.g., Fjuk and Sorensen 1997; Fjuk and Holmfeld 1997; Gouseti 2010; Littleton and Mercer 2013). This work led us to conjecture that there are some important differences between MOOCs and community-organised DLHs, the understanding of which could potentially alleviate some of the limitations currently faced by major MOOCs providers. While previous frameworks (e.g., Crook 2013) have provided useful and informative steps in characterising technology and education, recent technological innovations such as MOOCS suggest the need for a framework which would offer a more refined theoretical treatment of the connectivist model (cf Alario-Hoyos et al. 2014) and to identify key possibilities for intersection between MOOCs and DLHs. This is why we use the framework of learning approaches developed by Elmore (2007, 2014).

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