X Close

Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Benefits of MOOCS? Some sources to chew over

By Matt Jenner, on 11 August 2014

You can’t get away with poor academic practice for long, so before anyone picks me up on it – here’s the original (unpublished) excerpts I had planned to write a paper on. I appreciate it’s rough (and not ready) but this is a decaying document, so in the spirit of openness, please reuse and remix as much of this as you can:

Benefits of MOOCs?

The hypothesis is that an institution which develops (a small number of) Moocs using a vendor using an established platform, can acquire skills and knowledge through this process which can be beneficially applied to other areas.  For instance to improve blended learning for on-campus students and also distance learning CPD courses.  This would probably only happen where an institution has integrated its technical and support staff into the Mooc development process so they acquire knowledge and skills rather than just taking a turnkey package where the institution provides the Mooc platform provider with the current content which they then convert with little involvement from the institution


Pedagogy & teaching approach

“We can use MOOCs to create a successful flipped classroom. We can use our “previous classroom time” for meaningful conversations. As Mazur and Beicher have demonstrated, this can be done even in large lectures by having students work in small groups.” Martin, F.G. (2012)

“One of the choices made by Fox and Patterson in designing their campus course was to give students a quick introduction to their chosen software development process and tools at the start of the course. This enables students to start practicing software development after only a few hours of instruction” Pre-enrolment exercises for their on-campus students Ardis, M.A., & Henderson, P.B. (2012).

“The bitter truth, however, is that academic pedagogy has never been very good. It is well established that a professorial soliloquy is an ineffective way of teaching. We do know what works and what does not work when it comes to teaching. Much has been written in the last few years about “active learning,” “peer learning,” “flipping the lecture,” and the like, yet much of academic teaching still consists of professors monologuing to large classes. We could undoubtedly improve our teaching, but MOOCs are not the answer to our pedagogical shortcomings.” Vardi, M. Y. (2012).

“MITx, and all such similar initiatives, are still delivering a Learning 1.0 product in a Web 2.0 world” Butin, D.W. (2012).

“MITx has stumbled into is the opportunity to create a never-tiring, self-regulating, self-improving system that supports learning through formative on-demand feedback. Formative “just in time” feedback (rather than summative “end of course” testing) is the holy grail for learning theorists because it turns unidirectional teaching concerned mainly with delivering knowledge into a recursive guide and springboard for learning.” Butin, D.W. (2012).

“MITx will offer new opportunities to study how people learn best online – whether those learners are our on-campus students, university students elsewhere, or non-university learners – and how virtual communities of learners are built” Reif, L.R. (2012).

“President Reif, then Provost Reif, announced MITx on 19 December 2011. Many are getting on board, while others remain skeptical, but one happy consequence is unquestionable: we discuss how we teach more now than ever before.” King, J., Orlin J., Verghese, G., Winston P.H. (2013).

“Maybe the big benefit is a great chain of teaching. Instead of faculty and TAs, everyone is a TA, helping, at the low end, to teach a subject just learned, and at the high end, to provide the big picture and access to what is new and exciting.…Many say they learn a subject best when they teach it, so why not have everyone solidify their learning by teaching…Electronically facilitated, every MIT student could spend time teaching material just learned to those just learning, deepening understanding on both sides.” King, J., Orlin J., Verghese, G., Winston P.H. (2013).

“Maybe the big benefit is the inverted / flipped classroom” King, J., Orlin J., Verghese, G., Winston P.H. (2013).

  • “Asynchronicity is a defining feature of open online learning, with implications for how we study it. Open enrolment periods and unrestricted use of course resources raise important questions for analysis and design” Ho et. al. (2014)
  • “HSPH students, for the first time this fall, have the option to take blended versions of the biostatistics and epidemiology introductory courses that are taking advantage of the existing courseware available in HarvardX, making  more  time  available  in  class  for  more  interactive  learning.  This “flipped” approach represents one way that HarvardX is encouraging experiments in online learning on campus. Reich et al (2014b).
    •  “One new innovation to bring all three groups together is the Discussion Circle. In the residential setting  facilitated  by  Professor  Nagy,  a  group  of  students  are  invited  each  week  to hold  a “fishbowl discussion” in front of the rest of the class, a mechanism to invite a smaller group of students from a large class into a more focused dialogue. These discussants are then required to act  as  provocateurs  in  a  forum  discussion  thread,  where learners from  beyond  the  college  are invited to engage in a dialogue on the issues of the week. This is one example of the ways that HarvardX can connect students in Cambridge to learners in the wider world.“ Reich et al (2014b)
    • some  of  the edX  teaching  fellows  were  current  students  in  the  Harvard  Law  School course.    One  of  the  principal  hypotheses  underlying  the  course  was  that  this  would  generate pedagogic  benefits –  most  importantly,  that  the  quality  and  durability  of  the  HLS  students’ understanding of copyright law would be enhanced by teaching the material to others. Reich et al (2014c)
    • Creating A permanent community – Several  of  the  graduates  of  the  2013  version  of  the  course  expressed  interest  in  continuing  to participate in discussions about recent developments in copyright law.  Our tentative plan is to try to satisfy their interest in two related ways.  First, we plan to invite all alumni of CopyrightX 2013  to  engage  in  the  plenary  synchronous  discussion  forum  (“the  forest”)  associated  with CopyrightX 2014.   Second, if that forum proves vibrant, we plan to continue to host it after the conclusion of the 2014 version of the course. Reich et al (2014c)

“what happens when we take the learning elements that are created for online courses, using new technology, and bring them in to change the way teaching takes place in Harvard via the inverted or flipped classroom?” Bol, P. & Reich, J. (2014).

  • “As course development teams get more confidence in what they are doing, or as courses come into their second or third run they can question what are the most important issues they are dealing with and how can we do design research that helps us try out new pedagogies that help us explore new ideas that help us develop new tools? Another challenge is thinking about how can we design these kinds of studies that are asking how can we do ChinaX better, how can we make the teaching of Chinese culture and history better, at Harvard, among historians, at Harvard, and across the world. Bol, P. & Reich, J. (2014).
  • “We improved on the classroom experience in several ways” Mitros et. al. (2013)
  • The massive scale of the classroom has participants on-line 24/7, allowing students to ask questions and receive peer answers in almost real-time. Mitros et. al. (2013).
  • “Our Edinburgh MOOCs  offered us a route to experimentation with online delivery methods at large scale, and gave us a chance to learn lessons that might be applied elsewhere in our educational portfolio” MOOCs@Edinburgh Group (2013).
  • “One spin-off from our early engagement with MOOCs has been a lively internal debate about pedagogy, online learning and costs/benefits of university education.  Designing online courses for tens of thousands of learners has been challenging but exciting, and we intend to encourage the discussions to continue.” MOOCs@Edinburgh Group (2013).
  •  “The key opportunity for institutions is to take the concepts developed by the MOOC experiment to date and use them to improve the quality of their face-to-face and online provision, and to open up access to higher education. “Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).
  • “MOOCs have stimulated widespread discussion around the pedagogical approaches of teaching and learning in institutions. The current dominant approach of MOOCs is very similar to established models of online distance learning and is generally based on the production of video lectures, written resources and staged e-assessments with automated feedback. However, the early MOOCs embraced the social nature of learning by valuing learners’ existing knowledge and experience in the course and using alternative pedagogical approaches and there are significant opportunities to explore this further” Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).
  • Pedagogical innovation and level of experimentation is determined by the context, for example individual lecturers may be at very different levels of experience and expertise. Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).
  • “notion of ‘flipped classroom’ where approaches like this can then be incorporated into existing programmes becomes an interesting possibility for innovative provision” Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).
  •  “edX presents new opportunities for MIT students to engage in meaningful international experiences while also providing invaluable access to MIT for MITx students in 860 local communities” MIT Task Force (2013)
  • “One potential new source of revenue is the use of digital learning technologies to leverage on-campus course instruction, coupled with some form of paid certification. “MIT Task Force (2013)
  •  “Integrating a micro Open Online Course within a formal university course in parallel with the free international OERu learners significantly increases interaction and reduces attrition measured by the analysis of page views of the course materials for the duration of the course.” Davis, N., Mackintosh, W. (2013)

“A variation on the MOOC is the “supersized” classroom. For example, John Boyer, a professor at Virginia Tech, taught an introductory course, ‘World Regions’, to 2,670 students. He allowed students to attend in-person or online, communicating via Facebook and Twitter, and he used Skype to bring in world figures to talk with the class” Mehaffy, G.L. (2012).


“During MOOCs, librarians can interact directly with participants in a facilitating or coaching capacity using our skills in reference, instruction, and emerging technologies to wayfind, aggregate, filter, model, amplify, and stay present” Mahraj, K. (2012).

“librarians can take on roles in wayfinding and filtering to support sense-making and critical thinking by commenting on participants’ blog posts that describe struggles to assess the validity of sources. Similarly, librarians can aggregate a set of posts to highlight patterns in participants’ struggles with and methods for source evaluation and synthesis” Mahraj, K. (2012).

“Librarians can teach appropriate behavior around intellectual property by modeling the use of attribution in scholarly and creative work. While providing support as coaches or navigators, librarians can also amplify discussions around topics such as critical appraisal, personal knowledge management, intellectual property, and many other topics.” Mahraj, K. (2012).

“MITx has the potential to “dramatically improve the productivity of education and the access to quality education worldwide, and will transform the nature of our residential learning environment.” Reif, L.R. (2012).

“MITx offers MIT the opportunity to shatter barriers to education. Only a tiny fraction of the world’s population who are capable and motivated to learn MIT content has the privilege of attending MIT” Reif, L.R. (2012).

6.002x is the first electronic circuits course to be taught online to tens of thousands of students. The goal of the 6.002x experiment was to explore ways to use computer assisted instruction to surpass the quality of traditional residential teaching. By providing superior on-line content delivery and assessment, we hope to both be able to educate people without access to education, and to improve residential education by allowing professors to focus on higher value tasks. Mitros et. al. (2013).

“While there is still much debate surrounding the pros and cons of MOOCs, the value of this new development requires some fundamental re-thinking in the context of developing a wider strategy for open online learning and open education. MOOCs have been useful in bringing new ideas for developing business models and pedagogic approaches to improve the quality and accessibility of online and campus teaching and learning in higher education. Coupled with the changing environment of higher education, the disruptive effect of MOOCs will be felt significantly. Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).

With the maturing of MOOCs and the particular maturing of online technologies in education, institutions will need a balanced provision of online and on campus solutions in order to respond strategically to the challenges and opportunities facing higher education that will emerge in the future.” Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).


Learning materials

  • “the courseware is also being used by  students from  Harvard  College  enrolled  in  the  General  Education  course  on  campus,  and students  both  in  Cambridge  and  online  who  are  enrolled  in  the  course  through  the  Harvard Extension School. All three groups of learners have embarked together on another experiment in learning, sharing the same course materials and discussion forums. ” Reich et al (2014b)

When asked to rate their overall experience of planning, preparing and running a MOOC as either ‘Poor’, ‘Fair’, ‘Good’, ‘Very good’ or ‘Excellent’, the majority of respondents (66%) rated their experience as ‘Good’, while the remaining 44% rated their experience as ‘Fair’ Grainger, B. (2013).

When asked to estimate the amount of time spent preparing their MOOC before it began (excluding filming), 83% of respondents spent at least 10 hours a week in preparation, with the remainder working 5-10 hours each week on preparation Grainger, B. (2013).

The survey also invited free text responses in order to provide further context to the course teams’ answers. The key themes coming out of these responses were the sheer workload involved in planning and developing the content,  and the resources required for video production on top of the individuals’ ‘regular’ jobs. Creating effective strategies to manage the large number of participants in the MOOC forums was also reported as a challenge. Grainger, B. (2013).




  • “decided that partnership with an existing MOOC provider was preferable to developing an Edinburgh-own platform, it gave us greater speed to explore new educational techniques, and it provided a better opportunity for greater reach for our courses.  We also gained access to an expanding peer community of institutions which were developing these new courses” MOOCs@Edinburgh Group (2013).
  • “the greatest opportunities lay in developing online courses within a new educational environment (fully-online, open to all regardless of prior qualifications or geographical location, with no fee), and gaining outreach to new audiences” MOOCs@Edinburgh Group (2013).
  •  “reinforce our position as a leader in the use of educational technology in higher education” MOOCs@Edinburgh Group (2013).
  • MOOCs pose a set of challenges for the existing technology and the way that it is managed in that they require access to courses for large numbers of learners.
  • MOOC developments are causing institutions to re-visit online distance learning and consider how they can better use technology to reduce costs, create efficiency in their teaching operations, demonstrate value, and reach new markets Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).



MOOCs have provided the opportunities to learn more about what makes students more successful, then giving instructors (and the platforms themselves) the chance to nudge those students accordingly. These analytics provide information that help predict academic demand, tracking course success, preventing dropout, enabling social integration and reporting information for state, federal and accreditor purposes. For academics, analytics provide information about student success, areas of misunderstanding, levels of effort, persistence and other details about learning and online activity. Mehaffy, G.L. (2012).

  • New metrics, far beyond grades and course certification, are necessary to capture the diverse usage patterns in the data” Ho et. al. (2014)
  • Interpret findings from new enterprise Harvard convened the HarvardX Research Committee, MIT announced the Office of Digital Learning. These two bodies have been working to understand, organize, analyze, interpret, and disseminate the data that edX delivers to its founding institutions. Ho et. al. (2014)
  • Creating meaning from learning analytics “Registrants must click on the “courseware” to meet the definition of “viewed,” and they must click on half or more of the “chapters” (the primary tabs on the left, in this case, CB22X: Coming Soon, Hour 0, Hour 1…) to meet the definition of “explored.” Ho et. al. (2014)
  • Students can actively monitor their current levels of mastery and to self-pace in response. They can identify and break through misconceptions before moving on to more advanced material . Mitros et. al. (2013).
  • The platform allows for substantial data collection on testing, allowing us to incrementally and scientifically improve courses” Mitros et. al. (2013)


Assessment and evaluation

Student evaluations – how can teachers provide feedback/grades for students on a large scale without reducing quality (or resorting to fully automated or peer-graded work) Hyman, P. (2012).

Certification – what are the rewards for completing a course, and what will entice students towards completion? Hyman, P. (2012).

  • There are opportunities for experimentation in assessment in areas such as discussion contributions to courses (like HarvardX and Edinburgh postgraduate students being involved in MOOCs) e-portfolio, peer evaluation, dependency-based certificates, and ‘badges’, institutional credit. But there are some established issues with the assessment and accreditation too. Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).
  • Course certification rates are misleading and counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses.“ Ho et. al. (2014)
    • Open online registration is not equivalent to enrolment in conventional courses, where traditional enrollment generally entails monetary costs, opportunity costs, and accountability. Ho et. al. (2014)
    • focusing on certification rates alone penalizes desirable activities like browsing and exploring courses, which open online courses are generally designed to support.” Ho et. al. (2014)
    • considerable differences in average demographics across courses” Ho et. al. (2014)
    • “Course exploration and certification may benefit from synchronous course schedules and the cohorts that they build. Managing asynchronicity to maintain registrant involvement regardless of enrollment date is an ongoing challenge for instructors and a fertile area for future research.  “Ho et. al. (2014)
    • micro-credential should be considered for future offerings.” Davis, N., Mackintosh, W. (2013)


Business models and other areas

“Part of the excitement around MOOCs is about their potential to change education’s cost equation—put a great course online once, and run it unattended many times. But part of the fun of the fall AI course was that Thrun and Norvig were right there with us, and that we were a large cohort of students there with them.” Martin, F.G. (2012)

“one of the major barriers, for those who advocate the widespread use of OER and the provision of processes for obtaining formal qualifications from these studies, has been institutional concern over the challenge this presents for established business models in higher education.” Bull, D. (2012).

“Offer a low-cost and no-frills service’ for education” Anderson, T., & McGreal, R. (2012).

“public campuses and online systems do not adapt and move to exploit these network affordances, then it leaves a tremendous opportunity that can (and will) be filled by private, for profit entrepreneurs” Anderson, T., & McGreal, R. (2012).

Is it fair to say that benefits from MOOCs have yet to be realised? Hyman, P. (2012 0 or link to the other three and more).

Business models – how can this model of free education become self-sustaining? Hyman, P. (2012).

“It is important to keep in mind that our campus residential model not only provides the best education environment to MIT students, but it is also at the heart of knowledge creation and dissemination. Without MIT, there is no MITx. Similarly, MITx is not MIT. Each offers a different educational environment and experience.” Reif, L.R. (2012).

“MIT has the opportunity – and we feel that it has an obligation – to help preserve U.S. higher education as a public good by offering a not-for-profit option in online education. In the United States, we have dedicated public and private assets in enormous amounts to the public good of higher education” Reif, L.R. (2012).

“maybe we are not being bold enough, if we are only discussion development around our current experiences and not thinking about the whole experience, the wider picture. What about doubling the size of UG intake, enabled by a more efficient MOOC-based teaching or creating more intensified UROP experiences.” King, J., Orlin J., Verghese, G., Winston P.H. (2013).

  • “describing MOOCs as though they are a monolithic collection of courses misses the differential usefulness and impact MOOCs may have from sector to sector.” Ho et. al. (2014)
  •  “The  substantial  enrollments  and  participation  in  these  two  courses,  which  might  be considered more of a niche subject compared to other offerings like an introduction to computer science,  suggest  that  online  courses  may  have  a  promising  role  to  play  in fulfilling  HSPH’s mission of improving health outcomes and increasing quality of life around the world.” Reich et al (2014b)

Harvard and MIT need to learn to compete in this space.” Bol, P. & Reich, J. (2014).

2 – “70% of people taking HarvardX courses are non-US. They have an obligation towards our civilisation and the world” Bol, P. & Reich, J. (2014).

3 – “to improve the way we learn, and we teach” (at Harvard, and beyond) – hence the research community attached to HarvardX Bol, P. & Reich, J. (2014).

  • The research itself is of a benefit to the university, and they are in the right position to make it. Bol, P. & Reich, J. (2014).

“the amount of effort that can be invested into a course is much greater when it can be amortized across tens of thousands”. Mitros et. al. (2013)

students completing a MOOC have begun to enrol on University of London International Programmes’ flexible and distance learning degree pathways” Grainger, B. (2013).

Most importantly, the understanding gained should be used to inform diversification strategies including the development of new business models and pedagogic approaches that take full advantage of digital technologies.” Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).

Service Disaggregation: Unbundling and Re-bundling:  If is pursued, institutions will need to identify new ways of packaging, planning and organising their courses, services and learning support activities. They can then focus on their unique disciplinary, reputational and/or geographical strengths.” Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).

opportunity as those institutions which re-bundle effectively may find a way to take advantage of MOOCs by incorporating them into revenue-producing degree programmes” Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).

“Possible strategic choices based on the purpose behind the development of a MOOC might include being defensive, Offensive, for Marketing, Enhance existing provision, Change existing provision or Financial. Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014)..

“It is important to recognise that new and innovative products and services will require organisational changes and the development of new capabilities across the organisation’s processes, technology and people”. Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).

MOOCs themselves in the development of new forms of provision go beyond HEI’s existing markets. This has the potential to lead to greater choice for learners about how, when and what they study, but not necessarily to the detriment of existing providers. Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014).

Idea Bank – a space online for members of the MIT community to share their views on the Future of MIT’s Education- https://future.mit.edu/ideabank MIT Task Force (2013)

“The unbundling of courses, introducing modularity and adding flexibility into courses is all very interesting development. Adding a top-down approach to decompose courses into modules and a bottom-up approach to engineer a curriculum into core concepts.” MIT Task Force (2013)

“We will need to balance our desire to not limit access with the need to create a sustainable financial model”.” MIT Task Force (2013)

Student inclusion by encouraging spaces which are ‘open to all’ and under no auspicious banner of an elite university  Waard et al. (2014).



Anderson, T., & McGreal, R. (2012). Disruptive pedagogies and technologies in universities. Education, Technology and Society, 15(4), 380-389. Retrieved from http://www.ifets.info/journals/15_4/32.pdf.

Ardis, M.A., & Henderson, P.B. (2012). Software engineering education (SEEd): Is software engineering ready for MOOCs? ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes, 37(5), 14-14.

Bol, P. & Reich, J. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses. MITx Working Paper #1. Last accessed 17/02/14 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8Bic69fS_Q

Bull, D. (2012). From ripple to tsunami: The possible impact of MOOCs on higher education. DE Quarterly, 2012 Spring, 10-11.

Butin, D.W. (2012). What MIT should have done. eLearn Magazine, June 2012. Retrieved fromhttp://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=2263018

Clarke, D. (2014). EdX’s MOOCman Anant Agarwal loves hype! Blog post. Last accessed 04/02/14 from http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/edxs-moocman-anant-agarwal-loves-hype.html

Daniel, J. (2014). MOOC’s: What Will Be Their Legacy? Global Trends of Online Teaching and Learning. International Symposium, Open University of Japan. Last accessed 18/02/14 from http://sirjohn.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/140207-Japan-OUTX.pdf

Davis, N., Mackintosh, W. (2013). A MOOC Prepared to Make a Difference. DEANZ Magazine.  November 2013. University of Canterbury e-Learning Lab. Last accessed 17/02/14 from http://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/bitstream/10092/8767/1/12647056_DEANZ%20Magazine%20nov13%202.pdf

Downs, S. (2013). MOOC – Diversity and Community in Online Learning. Keynote presentation delivered to 26e Entretiens Jacques Cartier, Lyon, France. Last accessed 02/02/14 from http://www.downes.ca/presentation/331

Grainger, B. (2013). University of London International Programmes Massive Open Online Course  (MOOC) Report 2013. Last accessed 17/02/14 from http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/mooc_report-2013.pdf

Ho, A.D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D.T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX Working Paper No. 1). http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2381263

Hyman, P. (2012). In the year of disruptive education. Communications of the ACM, 55(12), 20-22.

King, J., Orlin J., Verghese, G., Winston P.H. (2013). Editorial: What’s next with MITx. MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol XXV, No. 4, March / April 2013.Last accessed 17/02/14 from http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/254/editorial.html

Martin, F.G. (2012). Will massive open online courses change how we teach? Communications of the ACM, 55(8), 26-28. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2240246

Mahraj, K. (2012). Using information expertise to enhance massive open online courses. Public Services Quarterly, 8(4), 359-368.

Mehaffy, G.L. (2012). Challenge and change. EDUCAUSE Review, September/October 2012, 25-41. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM1252.pdf

MIT Task Force (2013). Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education: Preliminary Report. Future of MIT Education. Last accessed 17/02/14 from https://future.mit.edu/preliminary-report

Mitros, P.F., Afridi, K.K., Sussman, G.J., Terman, C.J., White J.K., Fischer, L. and Agarwal A. (2013). Teaching Electronic Circuits Online: Lessons from MITx’s 6.002x on edX. IEEE 19 May 2013

MOOCs@Edinburgh Group (2013). MOOCs @ Edinburgh 2013: Report #1. Last accessed 17/02/14 from http://hdl.handle.net/1842/6683

Price, E. (2013). Quality Assurance for Massive Online Open Courses. Last accessed 20/02/14 from http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/sites/default/files/governance/qasl24/qasl24_3-mooc-qa.pdf

Reif, L.R. (2012). MITx: MIT’s Vision for Online Learning. MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Jan/Feb 2012. Last accessed 17/02/2014 from http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/243/reif.html

Reich, J., Emanuel, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D.T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., Chuang, I., & Ho, A.D. (2014a). HeroesX: The Ancient Greek Hero: Spring 2013 course report (HarvardX Working Paper No. 3).

Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D.T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., Chuang, I., & Ho, A.D. (2014b). Health in Numbers and Human Health and Global Environmental Change: 2012-2013 Harvard School of Public Health course reports (HarvardX Working Paper Series No. 2).

Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D.T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., Chuang, I., & Ho, A.D. (2014c). JusticeX: Spring 2013 course report (HarvardX Working Paper Series No. 4).

Vardi, M. Y. (2012). Will MOOCs destroy academia? Communications of the ACM, 55(11). Retrieved from http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/11/156587-will-moocs-destroy-academia/fulltext

Waard, I., Gallagher, M.S., Zelezny-Green, R., Czerniewicz, L., Downs, S., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Willems, J. (2014). Challenges for conceptualising EU MOOC for vulnerable learner groups. Proceedings of the European MOOCs Stakeholders Summit 2014. Last accessed 18/02/14 from http://www.emoocs2014.eu/sites/default/files/Proceedings-Moocs-Summit-2014.pdf

Yuan, L., Powell, S., Oliver, B. (2014). Beyond MOOCs: Sustainable Online Learning in Institutions. CETIS Publications. Last accessed 17/02/14 from http://publications.cetis.ac.uk/2014/898

Benefits of MOOCS? More science needed!

By Matt Jenner, on 11 August 2014

Nearly six months ago I blogged about the benefits of MOOCs. I broadly categorised them into six main themes, each with six sub-themes. I’ve yet to see any contrasting work in this area so I’ll be flagrantly rude enough to say this is the most comprehensive list in the existence of all human knowledge. If that’s not enough to provoke a response, don’t worry, I’ve got more wild claims to come.


What? The Association of Learning Technology, Massive Open Online Course, Special Interest Group, met at UCL for their second session in June 20114, around 80-100 people turned up to discuss the latest and most important areas in the field of ‘MOOCs’. During this day many talkers relieved me from concerns my list of 36 was going to be torn apart. Firstly, the talks mentioned some key areas that I felt were already ‘covered’ in the themes, the most cited were:

  • engagement;
  • enriched resources (like rich media);
  • public engagement / widening participation;
  • OER / open educational resources.

Secondly, I was foolish enough to let people physically tear my list apart – it was printed, put up on boards and with pens dangled from strings a welcome invitation was left to add/edit/destroy whatever was missing/incorrect/hideous. We had some of the most provocative and innovative thinkers in this space in the world. So, without making a second grandiose claim, I felt like it was ratified, a bit. Or they were suitably distracted with good networking and yummy sandwiches, as I set this part as a lunchtime task!

Benefits of MOOCs? Add yours!

And then we did some science.

I was graced with the last session of the day, which means everyone is awake, the technology is working and nothing can fail. *sigh*.

  1. The technology let me down (blame the user; I made multiple mistakes)
  2. We had halved; with a head-count down to 41 people.

The original data (six themes, 36 sub-themes) was derived from researching 27 papers on the topic of MOOCs from the experiences of people who’s been active in this area. References for benefits of MOOCS – some academic nuggests and references.

The design of my session was simple, in theory:

  1. Present each theme
  2. Ask audience for some demographic data
  3. Audience votes for a single ‘top runner’ sub-theme per theme
  4. Six sub-themes, one for each theme, end up as the collective ‘best benefits of running MOOCs’
  5. Profit (somehow).

This didn’t go quite to plan, and if you feel like some light relief, here’s a somewhat comedic approach to science, where the presenter (hi!) makes a fool of himself for 25 minutes while trying to interact with the audience.

But the results are amazing. In spit of the pain; here’s some data to chew on:

Benefits of MOOCs?


Reputation – Outreach takes the lead as Encouraging engagement and Marketing gains seem like close runners. No-one does this for Alumni or Media coverage?


Innovation – Creating new capabilities knocks the socks off the others. But we had the most technological failure on this part. Needs more science.


Delivery – Widening participation and going Beyond traditional markets are clearly the front runners here, but the others are not too far behind. Translation, however, is not a benefit of MOOCS? That might change.

Service improvement

Service improvement – Pedagogical experimentation and Encouraging open education lead the way here, but perhaps in the future this might change? Or our term of ‘Service Improvement’ is too Blue Chip for you all! (Sorry)

Student outcomes

Student outcomes – hurrah, an even mix. This says a lot about the initial benefits of MOOCs, or at least we’re hoping that students are gaining something.


Others – anything we missed on the boards was included here, so the numbers are higher, but they can be incorporated along the way.

Conclusion (so far)

It would seem, at this stage, that the top six benefits of running a MOOC are:

  • Gain further outreach into demographics, cultures or locations. 
  • Creating new capabilities for teaching and learning.
  • Widen participation with a larger cohort than traditionally reached
  • Improve services, of offerings, via the opportunities of pedagogical experimentation 
  • Raise digital literacy up the agenda, or pave some way to making some kind of improvement(?)
  • For the offering of taster courses, perhaps with a view to sampling university life or what it means to study at a particular institution.

But this isn’t enough – we need to get more people answering, increase the number of contributions and ascertain what are the true benefits of MOOCs.

Take part – become a statistic!

It’s not every day you get to be a statistically relevant being, make your mark and contribute to our poll. This will increase out small data set and ensure we’re working with the best data possible.

Leaving note:

I have original paper with many citations etc which started all this work – I’ll publish it separately.

Data junkies:

What’s the benefit of MOOCs?

By Matt Jenner, on 25 March 2014

Many institutions, and countries, the world over have subscribed to MOOC-mania. There are now millions of registered users, thousands of past and upcoming courses all available from hundreds of partners/providers. But why are they all active in this area? An initial motivator for early adopters was to gain momentum from the MOOC-train, it was a way of actively responding to a new ‘game-changer’ in education. The raising of institutional profiles and reputation might have been enough for some to get involved. As the MOOC landscape has become more crowded, pure marketing benefits may be diminishing. There still remains the fact that running a MOOC transpired to be more than a marketing device, instead a range of additional or ‘collateral’ benefits arose for institutions. Luckily this isn’t just for those who were actively creating courses, observers also gained benefits from the presence of MOOCs.

As the very large numbers of learners reported by early US MOOCs are unlikely to be repeated there also seems to be a trend towards more targeting of courses to e.g. specific professional or demographic groups. It’s also possible the traditional delivery format of courses has been undermined with MOOCs, as lurkers are in the majority, perhaps this is a sign of disengagement, or the classic early-warning signal that MOOC providers can read data left by lurkers to create new patterns for access to learning?

Either way, we’ve been keeping up with MOOCs and their associated benefits for institutions who provide them. The table below presents a summary of these benefits from being an active MOOC institution. Data was obtained from top-tier US and European HEIs and we are confident it is not the full picture.

We’ve also broken it into chunks for this blog post:

  1. Reputation
  2. Innovation
  3. Delivery
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Student outcomes

And each are provided with a one-liner to give some background or justification for how/why they made it into this selection.


The reputational benefits for an institution who is involved in running a MOOC

The reputational benefits for an institution who is involved in running a MOOC

1.1 Encouraging engagement

MOOCs don’t just put institution’s names into people’s heads, they actively encourage the staff and students of that institution to interact with the wider public, and visa-versa. Now you could argue the philosophy of a course, and the lack/quality of teacher-learner interaction in some courses but generally speaking, they provide a chance for a learner to engage with that institution/academic/subject/other learners. This is generally considered a good-thing in educational terms, engagement leads to interaction which can lead to some good learning.

1.2 Targeting alumni

Alumni can get involved with MOOCs, be it teaching in a course and leading a group with their experience, or simply remaining in touch with the institution by taking some free courses after they graduate. You could argue it’s a unique hook for some institutions as they may find Alumni contact more enriching if they can offer further opportunities to connect with their prior university via the medium of a MOOC. Those who have completed a MOOC, or ‘MOOC Alum’ may themselves return in the next occurrence to facilitate the course or migrate from Lurker to active learner (or the other way around).

1.3 Outreach

MOOCs provide a chance for institutions to reach out to a wider audience, potentially a group who may never have the chance to link with it in any other form. Disadvantaged groups, or those located half-way around the world are offered a chance, even if thinly veiled, to connect with otherwise unavailable institutions.

1.4 Marketing gains

Obviously this is still an attractive and possible benefit – that hundreds or thousands of people will see your brands and identity. Once registered learners arrive, there’s opportunities to turn them ‘into business’. Not necessarily direct cash, however, which has so far proven to not really materialise from MOOCs.

1.5 Media coverage

The hyped-up tsunami! Oh, the humanity! But really, the media seem to be fixated on MOOCs and have somewhat not really presented a great image of what was happening. Either way, if you’re in MOOC-world you’re likely to get some kind of coverage, ideally international media. There’s a downside; if you mess up, people hear about it. Luckily tomorrow’s hype will override this quite quickly. Call me a cynic if you like but this benefit is low down the list.

1.6 Modern approach

Not every institution in the world has adapted to online learning and many may be slightly behind the technological benchmarks set by others. Many argue that online learning environments such as Moodle are behind the times, or non-intuitive in how they work. Luckily, to some extent, these new platforms and approaches are offering a new lens in which to support education. They come with some teething issues, but these modern approaches are filtering into traditional approaches and hopefully are creating new in-roads in some new areas.


Innovation within higher education allows experiments to reverberate back into traditional learning and teaching approaches

Innovation within higher education allows experiments to reverberate back into traditional learning and teaching approaches

2.1 Inform diversification strategies

What? This is all about discovering new ways to do old things. One example is media creation: MOOCs can require a new way to think about an old problem; capture the academic (tip: use a net). Another example is student recruitment, where MOOCs provide a whole new platform for capturing the hearts and minds for potential students. Lastly, they can provide a space to experiment with teaching approaches, for example flipped lectures or the use of OERs. These might all sound normal to you, or implausible – but the general idea is ‘space to play’ and then opportunities to learn, for the institution.

2.2 Create new capabilities

How can you facilitate a discussion forum about learning with tens of thousands of people? We’re slowly working this out now, thanks to MOOCs. Or, how can we create high-quality media while retaining academic autonomy? There are some difficult questions for those who have run MOOCs, but thanks to their experiments, new models are emerging which others can learn from.

2.3 Educational research

This is one of the primary motivators for MOOC-ing for some universities, to create original research into how people learn. Linked to 4.3 – Creating meaning from analytics, this research is uncovering aspects about online learners that might have been harder to measure in smaller numbers.

2.4 Enriched online resources

Making high-quality content for a MOOC means it can be reused for other purposes. Most likely internally, for example raising the offering for blended learning, but also as OERs – where institutions can chose to give all their MOOC content away for free, forever. Creative Commons is playing well here, but some platforms are less friendly about OER. Hopefully time will change on this…

2.5 Interdisciplinary courses

Courses can always break beyond the traditional boundaries, but the level of interdisciplinary MOOCs is quite varied. Firstly students in one institution could use a MOOC as an alternative source of learning (or materials/community engagement). Or, courses themselves can quite openly mix up two subjects without the restrictions of how they may fit into a credit-bearing system of an institution. Lastly a course in one subject, but being open to anyone, may attract others who wish to audit or take part in the course, this mix of people can be a catalyst for some interesting experiments, mixing groups up, or asking for their views from within their own specific contexts.

2.6 Student recruitment

Perhaps not directly, although some have seen direct conversion from MOOC > paid courses they are in the minority. Learners could start using MOOCs as a place to see how that institution really works but we are uncertain they offer a true reflection of learning and teaching from that institution. Can they be used to tempt/lure potential enrolments? Maybe is the closest answer we have right now, but it’s a possible looming benefit.


The delivery of a MOOC required a well constructed course and that's not necessarily an easy task.

The delivery of a MOOC required a well constructed course and that’s not necessarily an easy task.

3.1 International collaboration

Being online, MOOCs are available to a [mostly] global community. Some have been locked out of a few select countries due to export laws and related issues – but generally speaking MOOCs are international. Moving also into other languages, and not all being English in the first place, means the chances for international collaboration soon come into play. While currently limiting to discussion-heavy courses and some basic wiki’s it’s likely that this area may mature, and take advantage of linking up a large[ish] group of interested learners all in the same environment.

3.2 Widening participation

Not everyone can get into university, many don’t want to and some have too many other pressures (or barriers) to even start the application process. These reasons, among others, can be soothed with MOOCs. By enabling a ‘slide of life’ via the MOOC, they are opening up pockets of institutions to wider audiences. Still a space for growth and a possibility that monetization will be a blockers, but here’s hoping the majority remains open, free and available to the widest group possible. Vocational courses are another bug growth area for some.

3.3 Beyond traditional markets

UCL is a London university with global ambition, but we’re not going to build a campus in every country (probably). We can, however, consider how online environments enable us to expand digitally into new markets. And this isn’t a land grab either, it’s just a phrase that for us means we can connect to people otherwise physically inaccessible. In some areas, this is a huge development and opens doors that could never previously could be unlocked.

3.4 Pioneering platforms

Much like 1.6 Modern Approach – there are providers out there (you know their names) which are adding to the expanding selection of technological platforms for online learning. They all bring innovation to the table and have been built with large capital investments. This is generally a good thing, as their disruption may echo similar innovation in other areas too, i.e. Moodle. They are also looking to solve big issues, such as how do learning environments scale for big numbers of registered users. These technological stand-offs hold back some other platforms, as some are open source, the wider [tech] community may learn a thing or two.

3.5 New sources of revenue

Perhaps not directly as student enrolments, but MOOCs can generate money. The issue now is they tend to cost more to make than they’ll earn back, so it’s not a sustainable financial model right now. Paying a small fee to pass a course may increase in desirability for some, as it offers a chance to do professional or personal development at an otherwise unobtainable/unavailable institution. Many of the big providers recognise that CPD-esk MOOCs (or Small Private Online Courses – SPOCs) are another way to make some moulah. Luckily there are some other benefits to consider as otherwise MOOCs may not be a ‘thing’ already.

3.6 Translation of resource

International reach comes in-hand with multilingual support. One easy way forward for a course which is heavily based on media and peer-led activities is they translate well into other languages. The lack of Professor Famous doing anything hands-on with the learners, means his captures can be converted to another language with only minimal load. However, inter-cultural adaption of translated courses may not be so simple, and there’s a few more things to learn here before all courses are just translated into other languages and assumed they’ll work ‘out of the box’. But progress is being made, and these things shouldn’t just be for English speakers.


If we build it - they will come. Unlikely.

If we build it – they will come. Unlikely.

4.1 Encouraging open education

The best, and most terrifying component – should it all be free and open? Perhaps one day we’ll look back and laugh when institutions were holding their cards close to their chest while others were running ‘Wikipedia-a-thons’ to release as much content as quickly as possible. In the end, it’ll all be out there. But it’s OK because content isn’t king! If it was, institutions would not exist. Education is slowly opening up, one piece of content here, one open course there, a digital learning object somewhere else. Opening up is a strength, it shows character and quality like no other.

4.2 Effective service disaggregation

One of those titles that sounds great, then you forget what it means. In short; the opportunities to unbundle some of the work. Presume you can’t make a MOOC platform, instead of worrying about it, you lean on an existing one. You get benefits too, an established community struggled with ‘that thing’ before you, the registered users flock to see a new upcoming course and the brand can help push you into new domains.

4.3 Creating meaning from analytics

Learning analytics is broadly described as using data collected from learners and using it to better inform their learning experience and/or to improve systems. So far it’s been a nice term, but with a muddy output. Some MOOC platforms have made a conscious effect to integrate the capturing and reporting of data as a priority. This means learner engagement, or activity, can be recorded and used to build models. Linking it to assessments starts to show links between activity and ‘results’. It’s a developing area, and each MOOC learner is a bit of a Guinea Pig running the wheel for a short time.

4.4 Pedagogical experimentation

MOOCs offer a low-ish arena to experiment in. Institutions who have run a few courses have learned a lot about approaches to teaching that can directly inform the next massive course, or bring it back into their traditional teaching. One example is the flipped lecture, which in some institutions is becoming quite normal, but for others it’s a real pedagogical innovation that’s stemmed from MOOCs. My view is these institutions make less use of online learning, and therefore they are leaping forward when going to flipped lectures. Blended learning has been a big offshoot for some US institutions, using their MOOC materials and approaches, back in their credit-bearing teaching.

4.5 Expanded media capacity

Few teaching staff are immediately comfortable with being captured on video, but they are a large component of many MOOCs. Institutions have had a chance to practice creating and presenting media to convey their subject to a wide and diverse group. Additional functionality such as interactive transcripts or playback speed have added further benefits to media delivery on these courses.

4.6 Copyright skills/knowledge

Can you image the shock when that 5 year old PowerPoint with many noncredited  images from ‘not sure, Google?’ was not allowed to go online? Open, publicly accessible content is reducing the perhaps flagrant use of other people’s work as masquerading it as one’s own. Another positive tick.

Student outcomes

What's in it for the learners? Quite a lot, I hope

What’s in it for the learners? Quite a lot, I hope

5.1 Digital literacies

A hot topic on UCL’s agenda, among others, is that of digital literacies – and it’s not just for our learners. The notion that someone, perhaps a young person, is digitally equipped by default is a dangerous and alienating assumption to hold. MOOCs offer a chance for individuals to learn more about the digital form for learning and teaching, it may be becoming more comfortable posting in a discussion forum – or being on live video to a group of thousands of people. Either way, MOOCs may provide some additional benefits for some in this area.

5.2 International experience and globalisation

How does a learner get to understand what the true make-up of the world beholds? Perhaps one answer is to encourage them to interact via a massive online open course. Just open discussion forums alone, wrapped around a particular topic such as Health or Law, could open up new international perspectives for an individual they may have never had before. Potential inter-cultural exchanges could bring real value to such courses, and it’s possible that this remains a growth area for many.

5.3 International communities

Certainly related to 5.2 is the idea of linking up communities from across the globe in the context of a MOOC. There are many types of communities than can spawn from, or join into, a MOOC. Communities of Practice include a collection of people who share a niche interest or professional domain, one that to bring them together physically would be a real challenge. By gathering online, they can share their views on a particular topic and potentially expand their understanding by sharing all they know with others. It could also be more of a social community, where those who share a similar interest can simply join in and be a part of something. Once again, this may be an area of real promise – one to not overlook.

5.4 Mixing internal and external cohorts

How could you get your students to understand the wider issues without bringing it directly to the classroom? One way might be to subscribe them into a MOOC. Previous courses have had their enrolled (credit-bearing) students leading discussions, moderating content, creating learning materials and overseeing MOOCs with thousands of registered learners. This kind of interaction could lead to some progressive pedagogical models of learners teaching learners, creating unique opportunities and developing personal qualities along the way.

5.5 Accreditation and [micro] credentialing

Certificates and badges spring to life in MOOCs. Badges can be awarded for participation and provide a catalyst for further exploration of a theme or learning tool, for example Bronze, Silver and Gold badges for contributions to discussion forums, or marking assignments. They can even be used to ‘gamify’ the learning, used as markers or rewards as the learner’s progress. Certificates are a little more boring, but sometimes people want to have evidence for their learning, and these can do that – they may also make a little money.

5.6 Cross/co-curricular opportunities

Much like 2.5 Interdisciplinary courses – MOOCs provide opportunities for a more casual or flexible approach to learning. One could sign up for a series of MOOCs, pick the bits they like the most and ditch the rest – no-one will question your approach. If anything, platforms will arrive to support it and develop personalised learning journeys for you. This is one example, and as we’re near the end, I presume you get the idea.


MOOCS are not about making money, getting thousands of learners gawping through your wrought iron gates or dreaming of Professor Famous giving them a high grade. Instead we’ve began to uncover the raft of added value, bonus material or ‘known unknowns’ as some might say. The collective weighing of these should cast a huge shadow of ‘money in = money out’ and instead show that they’re another tool in an expanding and richer toolkit for learning and teaching. It remains a good idea to run a MOOC, or ten, and if you can design your approach to try and benefit from some other bits along the way, then I hope you’ll get a richer and more valued experience from it.

I am also confident we missed a load more out, so if you have some more – or want to argue a point, please go ahead in the comments or on #moocbenefits