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How could MOOCs help us to think differently about learning and teaching in the 21st century?

Natalia Kucirkova

Many are sceptical about the impact of MOOCs on the higher education landscape while others argue that we need to wait before we evaluate the experiment. Regardless of which side of the debate you favour, it is clear that MOOCs provided us with a new tool to interrogate the nature of learning and higher education overall.

Currently, there are many examples of the so-called “xMOOCs” which follow traditional delivery model and often simply broadcast content en mass. There are less examples of more ambitiously designed “c-MOOCs”, which harness the power of collective and deliver knowledge in a more participatory way. What are the hurdles that need to be addressed to make the MOOC experiment a success for everyone involved, including the academics, course providers and learners? Here is my starter for 10:

Effective partnerships

Increasingly, MOOC providers build partnerships with other organisations to increase the reach of their courses, the most recent example is the partnership between FutureLearn and the British Council, attracting more than 401,000 learners from over 150 counties to the Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests course.

Such an unprecedented reach of free education raises questions about the extent to which MOOCs are conceptualised as universal offers, which can be meaningful to learners with diverse learning profiles and abilities. It highlights that MOOC educators need to be able to translate a comprehensive academic account into the everyday language of potentially hundreds of thousands of students from anywhere in the world. This is not just about academic journalism, but also about the ability to present long-standing research arguments in readily-understandable, practice-oriented language.

However, mass production does not always allow for pedagogical creativity.

Pedagogical creativity

Many academics are thrown into the MOOC design without any theorised understanding[1] of distributed collective learning. We often find examples of MOOCs where a lot of learning happens with static pieces to camera by established professors rather than using the platform to accumulate and collectively develop knowledge. More ambitious c-MOOCs let experts emerge within the community, they share the process as well as products of their practice which other community members can build upon and share themselves. Instead of pre-defining the product of learning from the outset by the course team, more innovative MOOCs let it be crowdsourced. In such MOOCs, the course leader is not the master and authority but part of the community who makes their work available for peer feedback. Indeed, collaborative feedback happens at scale and is key for the MOOC to serve a transformative educational purpose.

However, for this to work well, there need to be more technologically-robust solutions for MOOCs’ delivery.

Technological innovation

Unlike in other online community platforms (eg Ravelry, CAMPUS), MOOCs often operate on less technologically sophisticated websites. MOOC students can typically personalise their profiles only with a profile picture and short biographical statement. However, to increase the engagement and sense of community, several identification markers could be used, including information about other users they follow , their favourites, history of engagement on the platform (posted comments, follow ups etc).

MOOC academics often have limited technological possibilities for innovation-the actual design of the course is not the educator’s choice but that of the MOOC provider (eg Coursera, FutureLearn). It is an experiment for all involved and as we collect more intelligence and develop our teaching strategies, more sophisticated multimedia options for blended learning become available, along with the possibilities for collecting complex and multidimensional data at scale, in real time.


If we want to turn innovative thinking into successful design of MOOCs, the MOOC platforms need to employ more robust technological solutions, including more powerful personalisation algorithms. For the actual content, MOOC educators need to act as part of the community to ensure that MOOCs attract students from all walks of life, not only independent, self-directed learners. In the last two years, there was some innovation in how MOOCs are distributed and sold, with examples[2] of MOOCs providing a cheaper path to accredited higher education or certified specialist courses. Now it’s time to think about practical ways of turning MOOCs into a technology-mediated experiment which can transform education in the 21st century.


[1] Kucirkova, N., & Littleton, K. (2015). Digital learning hubs: theoretical and practical ideas for innovating massive open online courses. Learning, Media and Technology, (ahead-of-print), 1-7.

[2] Master of Science in Computer Science delivered by Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing, –

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