Three types of MOOC

Types of MOOC and what they mean.

Lisa over at Lisa History has a good post on MOOC types. There’s more than one taxonomy that could be used to describe them, and there’s considerable potential for crossover. These aren’t necessarily discrete types (though they may be), but they are distinct approaches, which may, or may not, be blended. But Lisa’s post is a good, succinct and clear introduction.

They are, Network based, Task based, and Content Based.

The media frenzy has largely been over Content Based. This is, roughly speaking, what EdX, Coursera and Udacity, amongst others, have been pushing, polishing and publicising.

I’m primarily interested in Network based, but a quick overview of all three will be useful, and show both the possibility for (and desirability of) crossover in course design.

Based on Lisa’s post, and some ideas of my own, here’s a quick summary.

Network Based/ Connectivist/cMOOCs.

These are also referred to as cMOOCs. Connectivist Moocs. Based on ideas, and practices put forward by Alec Couros, Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier.

The pedagogical theory is connectivism. Knowledge resides in, and as created as a function of the conversation, and connections that participants forge, and the Personal Learning Networks they create. Knowledge is shared, created by common goals, tasks, endeavours and conversations, and there tends to be a focus on making learning visible, and sharing – vie eportfolios, blogs, reflective posts, connectiong on twitter, posting to shared forums. The focus is less on what is known, and more on capacity to connect with learning.

Personal Learning Networks, courtesy of Alec Couros

Personal Learning Networks, courtesy of Alec Couros

Participants become nodes in knowledge networks, and these networks are formed over open ( eg social media) and not closed (VLE’s and LMS’s) networks. Large groups can pool and share small amounts of knowledge together to create larger ideas, more knowledge, and experiences. Skills acquisition may not be the focus, and defined Learning Outcomes tend not to be prescribed. Curriculum is a suggestion, as opposed to a necessity, and individuals are encouraged to navigate a personalised and individual path through connections, and the course materials, such as they are. Traditional assessment is difficult.

They tend to require a minimum critical mass of participants.

Pedagogy: Connectivist, Social Constructivist, Rhizomatic Learning, Personal Learning Networks.

Notes: Wenger’s Communities of Practice seems to seek to describe something similar (bit without the explicit reliance on networked technology of Connectivism).  Domain, Community and Practice all find mirrors in Connectivist MOOC’s.

Examples: CCK08#etmooc, there’s a good list here

Task Based MOOC’s

Typically a mix of Instructioniost and Constructivist Philosophies, and sometimes used in computing,(ds106 a Digital Storytelling MOOC is a fairly famous example) particiapnts may have guided instruction from an individual, or via recorded materials, and will be required to complete tasks to progress. Groupwork is often encouraged, or facilitated, though project work may also be solo.

The curriculum may be linear, with little choice, or the student may have choice in terms of the tasks they attempt. Community is often key, though not a primary aim, and tasks may be collaborative, or not.

Assessment is considered to be difficult, but, I think, does not need to be. For example, a task based MOOC that assigns tasks to teach, for example, programming in Javascript, could be designed quite easily to be, in theory, gradeable. I presume the difficulty here is in setting up structures to process the assignments – especially difficult in a for free environment, with large numbers of participants, and anything other than the simplest of tasks.

Pedagogy: Instructionist, Constructivist (also, potentially, task based learning, inquiry learning, problem based learning)

Notes: I need to be more familiar with this type (and will probably join ds106) – but there’s an interesting option, for a skills based focus, for community and peer grading. Difficult, possibly fraught, and with community respect and commitment at it’s core, but an interesting one, especially if assessment is desired. Consider, as suggested elsewhere, the art school critique example as a feedback form.

That said, given my EFL background, (scaffolded) task based learning comes quite naturally to me as a preferred pedagogy.

Examples: DS106

Content Based MOOCs / xMOOCs.

These are the big hitters, in terms of publicity, but also the new kids on the block – cMOOCs pre-date them.

Courtesy of Michael Surhan / Flickr User Extra Ketchup

Automated testing, Image courtesy of Michael Surhan / Flickr User Extra Ketchup

They tend to be characterised by automated instruction, and testing, linear curricula, and instructionist pedagogy. They may have a commercial basis, or be working towards that, and have been popularised by computing subjects – though they cover the gamut of subjects in the arts and sciences.

Course design can be basic – simply videos placed online, or more involved – course mateiral, automated testing, prescribed curricula, with forums for community engagement, and volunteer teaching assistants.

Outcomes may be testable. Coursera, Udacity and EdX specialise in this type. Completion rates tend to be low (less than 5%)- but it’s not really possible to draw too much of a conclusion here.

Pedagogy: Instructionist, possibly transmission teaching

Notes: The current revenue models look to be xMOOC based, and the large investment is going with MOOC types that have this slant. That Learning Outcomes can be assessed is a bonus for institutions, and they may carry certification. Quality is hugely varied.

Examples: anything in the EdX, Coursera or Udacity stables of courses.



Pedagogical Pragmatism. Flirting with everything in the room.


It strikes me fairly clearly that no MOOC needs to be exclusively one type or the other, and few probably are. There are benefits to automated instruction that benefit cMOOCs and Task MOOCs ( cog load, howto’s for new tech, resources that are reproducable, and not costly), benefits to network creation and facilitation that benefit xMOOC’s and Task MOOC’s ( creation of COPs, peer review, shared resources, motivation), and benefits of task based approaches to MOOC’s that provide benefits ( task based learning, self and peer assessment of created artefacts, collaborative possibilities, skills training).

A MOOc, like any other educational experience, is best suited to a particular context, and should best suit itself to the contexts it exists in. And, as such, needs to take advantage of the full toolbox where applicable.

And I guess that’s how I currently think of this taxonomy, as sections in a box of tools that have uses specific to the jobs they can be used for.


There’s no reason for these categories to not bleed in to one another, and, in many contexts, there are reasons why they should. A good designer has in mind who they are designing for, and selects platforms, experiences and tools that are shaped by them. And in this, they should reach for whatever shape of MOOC best fits the needs their participants have.

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