Massive Open Online Courses: a traditional or transformative approach to learning?

Vale, Katie and Littlejohn, Allison (2014). Massive Open Online Courses: a traditional or transformative approach to learning? In: Littlejohn, Allison and Pegler, Chris eds. Reusing Open Resources: Learning in Open Networks for Work, Life and Education. Routledge.


Massive Open Online Courses are viewed by some as a gamechanger, radically shifting expectations around the ways in which people can access education (Daniel, 2012). But there are questions around whether and how MOOCs radically shift learning. A MOOC is an online course, free of charge and open to anyone regardless of their pre-requisite knowledge or qualifications. As such they have the potential to transform – or even destabilise – societies, since learning and education play a central role in societal development (Brennan, King & Lebeau, 2004; Hardt & Negri, 2003).
Many analyses of MOOCs agree that open courses are potentially threatening to current models of Higher Education (OBHE, 2013, p. 5). MOOCs disrupt the traditional form of course delivery to residential campus-based students and open up opportunities for for-profit education providers to offer scaled-up courses (ibid p. 48). The response from universities has been attempts at agile innovation, testing business models and pursuing brand enhancement through open courses. There has been a marked escalation in the number of MOOCs offered by universities over the two-year period 2011-2013. MOOC learner experiences have been reported as (largely) positive, emphasising the expansion of learner access, learner empowerment, relationship building with individuals who may want to extend their studies through enrolment on formal educational programmes (ibid).

Despite the excitement, conflicting perspectives around MOOCs divide education communities. Not all learning professionals agree the value of MOOCs, voicing concerns around instructional design, quality and accreditation (ibid). Learning researchers have evidence of poor engagement in online learning by those learners who have relatively low levels of digital literacies (Kop & Fourier, 2011) and may have limited ability to self-regulate their learning (Milligan, Littlejohn, & Margaryan, 2013). Other researchers are critical that many MOOCs are based on the production and consumption of ‘formal educational content’, missing opportunities to empower learners to self-direct their own learning (see Fiedler, this volume). The ability of learners to direct their own learning could trigger a significant shift in the position of the academy in society, therefore it is not surprising that universities may want to influence the direction of MOOC development.
This chapter examines potential benefits and limitations of MOOCs, using a case example of a major MOOC initiative: edX. The chapter begins by examining conflicting perspectives around MOOCs from the literature. Then the HarvardX course design workflow model is outlined. HarvardX is the centre of a variety of activities at Harvard University associated with Open Educational Resources and open courses. The first five HarvardX MOOCs are described and learner behaviours in these MOOCs are analysed. Finally, the benefits and limitations of open courses are reported.

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  • Item ORO ID
  • 51332
  • Item Type
  • Book Section
  • ISBN
  • 0-415-83869-X, 978-0-415-83869-6
  • Keywords
  • online learning; open learning; massive open online courses; MOOCs
  • Academic Unit or School
  • Institute of Educational Technology (IET)
  • Depositing User
  • Allison Littlejohn