« Back to Peeragogy.org

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online learning events that can take place synchronously and asynchronously for months. Participants assemble to hear, see, and participate in backchannel communication during live lectures. They read the same texts at the same time, according to a calendar. Learning takes place through self-organized networks of participants, and is almost completely decentralized: individuals and groups create blogs or wikis around their own interpretations of the texts and lectures, and comment on each other’s work; each individual and group publicises their RSS feed, which are automatically aggregated by a special (freely available) tool, gRSShopper. Every day, an email goes out to all participants, aggregating activity streams from all the blogs and wikis that engage that week’s material. MOOCs are a practical application of a learning theory known as “connectivism” that situates learning in the networks of connections made between individuals and between texts.

Not all MOOCs are Connectivist MOOCs (or cMOOCs).  Platforms such as Coursera, edX and Udacity offering MOOCs which follow a more traditional, centralized approach (these are sometimes called xMOOCs). In this type of MOOC, a professor is taking the lead and the learning-experience is organized top-down. However, some xMOOCs seem to adopt a more blended approach. For instance, the course E-learning and Digital Cultures makes use of online spaces beyond the Coursera environment, and the course organizers want some aspects of participation in this course to involve the wider social web.

In this chapter we’ll focus on cMOOCs.  One might wonder why a course would want to be ‘massive’ and what ‘massive’ means. cMOOC-pioneer Stephen Downes explains that his focus is on the development of a network structure, as opposed to a group structure, to manage the course. In a network structure there isn’t any central focus, for example, a central discussion. That’s also the reason why he considers the figure of 150 active participants – Dunbar’s Number – to be the lower cut-off in order to talk about ‘massive’:

Stephen Downes: Why Dunbar’s number? The reason is that it represents the maximum (theoretical) number of people a person can reasonably interact with. How many blogs can a person read, follow and respond to? Maybe around 150, if Dunbar is correct. Which means that if we have 170 blogs, then the blogs don’t constitute a ‘core’ - people begin to be selective about which blogs they’re reading, and different (and interacting) subcommunities can form.

A learning theory for the digital age

Traditionally, scholars distinguish between three main categories of learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. Stephen Downes and others would add a fourth one: connectivism, but this is disputed.  The central application of connectivism to date is as a theory of what happens in Massive Open Online Courses.

The connectivist theory describes learning as a process of creating connections and developing networks. It is based on the premise that knowledge exists out in the world, rather than inside an individual’s mind. Connectivism sees the network as a central metaphor for learning, with a node in the network being a concept (data, feelings, images, etc.) that can be meaningfully related to other nodes. Not all connections are of equal strength in this metaphor; in fact, many connections may be quite weak.

On a practical level, this approach recommends that learning should focus on where to find information (streams), and how to evaluate and mash up those streams, rather than trying to enter lots of (perishable) information into one’s skull. Knowing the pipes is more important than knowing what exactly each pipe contains at a given moment.  This is the theory.  The practice takes place in Connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs), like Change11.  Here, people are free to participate at will.  Each week a subject is discussed during synchronous sessions, which are recorded and uploaded for reference on the Change11 website. The site also includes an archive of daily newsletters and RSS-feeds of blog posts and tweets from participants.

cMOOCs tend to be learner-centered. People are encouraged to pursue their own interests and link up with others who might help them. But the distributed and free nature of the projects also leads to complaints; participants often find it confusing when they attempt to follow up on all the discussions (the facilitators say one should not try to follow up on all the content).

Stephen Downes: This implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity); and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner).

Anatomy of a cMOOC

One example of a MOOC that claims to embody the connectivist theory is change.mooc.ca. The “how it works” section of the site explains what connectivism means in practice.  The MOOC organizers developed a number of ways to combine the distributed nature of the discussions with the need for a constantly updated overview and for a federated structure. So, if your team wants to organize an open online course, these are five points to take into consideration:

There is no body of content the participants have to memorize, but the learning results from activities they undertake. The activities are different for each person. A course schedule with suggested reading, assignments for synchronous or asynchronous sessions is provided (e.g. using Google Docs spreadsheets internally, Google Calendar externally; one could also use a wiki), but participants are free to pick and choose what they work on. Normally there is a topic, activities, reading resources and often a guest speaker for each week. One should even reflect upon the question whether a start and end date are actually needed. It is crucial to explain the particular philosophy of this kind of MOOC, and this right from the outset, because chances are learners will come with expectations informed by their more traditional learning experiences.

  1. It is important to discuss the “internal” aspects, such as self-motivation: what do the participants want to achieve, what is their larger goal? And what are their intentions when they select certain activities (rather than other possibilities)? Everyone has her own intended outcome. Suggest that participants meditate on all this and jot down their objectives. And how can they avoid becoming stressed out and getting depressed because they feel they cannot “keep up with all this?” The facilitators should have a good look at these motivations, even if it’s impossible to assist every participant individually (for large-scale MOOCs).

  2. Ideally, participants should prepare for this course by acquiring the necessary digital skills.  Which skills are “necessary” can be decided by the group itself in advance. It’s all about selecting, choosing, remixing - also called “curating”. There are lots of tools which you can use for this: blogs, social bookmarks, wikis, mindmaps, forums, social dashboards, networks such as Twitter with their possibilities such as hashtags and lists. Maybe these tools are self-evident for some, but not necessarily for all the participants.

  3. The course is not located in one place but is distributed across the web: on various blogs and blogging platforms, on various groups and online networks, on photo- and video-sharing platforms, on mindmaps and other visualization platforms, on various tools for synchronous sessions. This wide variety is in itself an important learning element.

  4. There are weekly synchronous sessions (using Blackboard collaborate, or similar group chatting tool). During these sessions, experts and participants give presentations and enter into discussions. Groups of participants also have synchronous meetings at other venues (such as Second Life). Try to plan this well in advance!

  5. Many participants highly appreciate efforts to give an overview of the proceedings. Specifically, the Daily Newsletter is a kind of hub, a community newspaper. In that Daily there is also a list of the blog posts mentioning the course-specific tag (e.g. “Change11”), also the tweets with hashtag #change11 are listed in the Daily. Of course, the MOOC has a site where sessions, newsletters and other resources are archived and discussion threads can be read.

From the very beginning of the course, it’s necessary to explain the importance of tagging the various contributions, to suggest a hashtag.

For harvesting all this distributed content, Stephen Downes advocates the use of gRSShopper, which is a personal web environment that combines resource aggregation, a personal dataspace, and personal publishing (Downes developed it and would like to build a hosted version - eventually financed via Kickstarter). The gRSShopper can be found on the registration page, which is useful primarily for sending the newsletter. It allows you to organize your online content any way you want, to import content - your own or others’ - from remote sites, to remix and repurpose it, and to distribute it as RSS, web pages, JSON data, or RSS feeds.

Stephen Downes: For example, the gRSShopper harvester will harvest a link from a given feed. A person, if he or she has admin privileges, can transform this link into a post, adding his or her own comments. The post will contain information about the original link’s author and journal. Content in gRSShopper is created and manipulated through the use of system code that allows administrators to harvest, map, and display data, as well as to link to and create their own content. gRSShopper is also intended to act as a fully-fledged publishing tool.

Alternatives for registrations: Google Groups for instance. But specific rules about privacy should be dealt with: what will be the status of the contributions? In this MOOC the status is public and open by default, for Downes this is an important element of the course.


Some MOOCs use Moodle, but Downes dislikes the centralization aspect and it’s not as open as it could be, saying “people feel better writing in their own space.” Other possibilities: Google Groups, Wordpress, Diigo, Twitter, Facebook page, Second Life; but each course uses different mixtures of the many tools out there. People choose their environment - whether it is WoW or Minecraft. Students use Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Posterous as blogging tools.

RSS harvesting is a key element

Give participants a means to contribute their blogfeed. In “Add a New Feed,” Downes explains how to get this structure and additional explanations (via videos) in order to contribute their blog feed. The administrator in this case uses gRSShopper to process the content and put it in a database, process it and send it to other people. Alternatively one can use Google Reader (the list of feeds is available as an OPML file - which can be imported to other platforms). There is also a plug-in for Wordpress that lets you use a Google Doc spreadsheet for the feeds, then  Wordpress for the aggregation). Many other content management systems have RSS harvesting features.

Each individual could run her own aggregator, but Downes offers it as a service. But aggregators are needed, whether individual, centralized or both.

Specialized harvesting

Using Twitter, Diigo, Delicious, Google Groups, If This Then That (IFTTT) and Feed43 (take ordinary web page and turn it into an RSS feed).

Synchronous environments

Synchronous platforms include Blackboard Collaborate (used now for Change11); Adobe Connect; Big Blue Button; WizIQ; Fuze; WebX; webcasting; web radio; videoconferencing with Skype or Google Hangout in conjunction with Livestream or ustream.tv. Or take the Skype/Hangout audiostream and broadcast is as webradio. Set up and test ahead of time, but don’t hesitate to experiment.  Note also, there is a more extensive discussion of real-time tools in another section of the handbook.

Newsletter or Feeds

Feeds are very important (see earlier remarks about the Daily newsletter). You can use Twitter or a Facebook page, Downes uses email, he also creates an RSS version through gRSShopper and sends it through Ifttt.com back to Facebook and Twitter. For the rest of us there is Wordpress, which you can use to create an email news letter.  Downs also suggests a handy guide on how to design and build an email newsletter without loosing your mind!

Consider using a content management system and databases to put out specialized pages and the newsletter in an elegant way, but this requires a steep learning curve. Otherwise, use blogs / wikis.

the Use of Comments

Participants are strongly encouraged to comment on each others’ blogs and to launch discussion threads. By doing so they practice a fundamental social media skill - developing networks by commenting on various places and engaging in conversations. It is important to have activities and get people involved rather than to just sit back and watch. For an in-depth presentation, have a look at Facilitating a Massive Open Online Course by Stephen Downes, in which he focuses on research and survey issues, preparing events, and other essentials.