Making Sense of MOOCs -- A Reading List

This page in:
reading about MOOCs
reading about MOOCs

A few years ago I participated in a fascinating online course. I had earlier read a thought-provoking article called Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by a Canadian academic named George Siemens, and was intrigued to stumble across references to a related online discussion that was taking place, led by Professor Siemens and another Canadian researcher named Stephen Downes. OK, to be honest, I am not sure that I actually participated in the course (and I wasn't actually sure if it was a course in the traditional sense ... although it was certainly a community), given that my 'participation' consisted of a haphazard scanning of emails and RSS feeds being generated by people whose were much more engaged in the effort than I was. That said, both the content and approach piqued my curiosity, and I spent enough time browsing through related materials that I was able to tell my boss with a straight face that I was doing some 'online learning'.

I saw Siemens speak at eLearning Africa, was suitably impressed, and later tried to figure out a way to bring him to the World Bank to talk about his work as part a new series we were trying to put together on 'eduradicals'. I was particularly interested in learning more about, and exposing colleagues to, the concept of a 'massive open online course', which (it turns out) was the label that was being applied to what Siemens and Downes (and a few thousand other people) had been engaged in. In this I rather spectacularly failed, as most people with whom I spoke thought that the whole enterprise I was trying to describe, while conceptually quite interesting, was unlikely to be of practical interest or relevance in the near term to the policymakers with whom we were engaged in developing countries. My failure in this instance was, I believe, more a consequence of my inability to articulate to my colleagues in a convincing way just what exactly the possibilities were of this 'connectivist' learning theory and of one a 'model' by which this theory might be explored and put into practice -- which was one of the first (and possibly the very first) MOOCs.

(It is perhaps for reasons such as this that I am regularly asked to be involved in activities trying to understand 'failures' of various sorts.)

MOOCs, as most everyone (including I) now knows, are the new new thing in higher education, an approach being hyped in certain quarters (like the MIT Technology Review) as 'The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years'.

Inquiries related to MOOCs are the number one topic of unsolicited emails and phone calls I receive from consultants these days. Last year I received not one internal request from World Bank staff for information or comments on MOOCs -- now they come every week. As an institution, we are, if not exactly jumping in with both feet, at least dipping our toes into these new waters, through things like support for a pilot initiative in Africa and, one expects, soon to offer some of our traditional World Bank training courses for policymakers via one or more of the big MOOC platforms.

Keeping up with announcements related to new activities, partnerships and tools being explored by MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity and edX is very difficult. Did you know about the Futurelearn, the MOOC alliance out of the UK? Have you heard the latest MOOC news out of Germany? You may know about ALISON online training platform, like I did, but not know that some actually consider it a contender for the 'first MOOC' crown (I didn't). According to some (quite elastic) definitions, even things like the Khan Academy qualify as a sort-of-MOOC (while I like the Khan Academy, I find labeling it a MOOC is stretching the definition just a bit too far). Did you know that some of the tools behind one of the leading MOOC platforms are now freely available for use by others? Did you see that one way that MOOC providers are attempting to be able to provide feedback to thousands of students at once is to automate the grading process?

While most of my work at the World Bank related to the use of information and communication technologies in the education sector is focused at the primary and secondary level, I know enough about higher education to know that it changes very sloooowly. In contrast, this whole MOOC thing seems to be happening at lightspeed. Looking for a 'cheat sheet' on how to get up to speed, and stay current with, news, opinions and insights related to this promising phenomenon called 'MOOCs'?  The following resources might help.


A Ten Point Reading List
to Help You Make Sense of MOOCs

1. The Wikipedia entry on MOOCs is quite useful and, as in many other instances, a good place to start. It contains lots of information and links -- but not too much or too many. As Wikipedia explains,

A massive open online course (MOOC) is an online course aiming at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for the students, professors, and TAs. MOOCs are a recent development in distance education and often use open educational resources. Typically they do not offer academic credit or charge tuition fees. Only about 10% of the tens of thousands of students who may sign up complete the course.
MOOCs originated about 2008 within the open educational resources (or OER) movement. Many of the original courses were based on connectivist theory, emphasizing that learning and knowledge emerge from a network of connections. 2012 became "the year of the MOOC" as several well-financed providers, associated with top universities, emerged, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX.

2. The EDUCAUSE library entry on MOOC is another good starting point, and a great source of a limited number of informative, curated links about MOOCs. 7 Things You Should Know About MOOCs [pdf] is a very useful primer. Not surprisingly, the Chronicle of Higher Education also maintains an excellent curated set of resources outlining What You Need to Know About MOOCs.

3. The news aggregator is provided by Stephen Downes  and George Siemens -- the two guys behind what is popularly considered to be the first MOOC by most people, and who have remained as in-the-know as anyone about what is happening in the MOOC space.

4. For a very quick overview of What is a MOOC?, watch this short YouTube video from Dave Cormier. At this point, you'll be perhaps ready to absorb an historical perspective of the sort to be found in this podcast from Steve Hargadon which features some of the leading practitioners and observers. George Siemens (again!) provides some very useful historical perspective as well. It was the Wired Magazine article on the efforts of Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford  (which later led to the formation of Udacity) that probably did more to thrust MOOCs onto the radar screen of many people (and many journalists). And if that article didn't do it, the very popular TED Talk from Coursera founder Daphne Koller did.

5. No primer on MOOCs would be complete without dipping into some of the hype. The New York Times declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC. Three opinion pieces by that newspaper's star columnist Thomas Friedman -- Come the Revolution, Revolution Hits the Universities and The Professors' Big Stage -- are good (and influential) examples of the excitement that MOOCs engender among certain folks. (I've already mentioned the MIT Technology Review article at the top of this post.)

6. For a more sober, dispassionate assessment, read Sir John Daniel's Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility [pdf]. Most of the leading sources of information on MOOCs are, in one way or another, practitioners as well. Sir John looks at the phenomenon from the vantage point of someone who has led open and distance learning efforts using new technologies for decades (he used to be in charge of the Commonwealth of Learning, and before that, UNESCO's education work -- and lots of other things) and so may be seen by some as a more neutral observer.

7. One of the most insightful analyses of MOOCs can be found in a report from Moody's Invester's Service, Shifting Ground: Technology Begins to Alter Centuries-Old Business Model for Universities [pdf]. Universities raise a lot of money in bond markets, and as one of the leading rating agencies, Moody's is well placed to provide interesting insights into the potential impact of MOOCs on the financial situations of North American universities as a result. If you can get your hands on a copy (it is floating around the Internet), a recent report from Austrade, the Australian Trade Commission, More than MOOCs: Opportunities arising from disruptive technologies in education might make for very interesting reading as well. (If not, here's a related blog post from The Australian.)

8. From the perspective of a university considering partnering with one of the large MOOC providers, have a look at an analysis by InsideHigherEd of a leaked Coursera contract. InsideHigherEd's coverage of MOOC-related news is in general very good, and following the MOOC-related news and opinions available on InsideHigherEd will still keep you quite well informed.

9. Some of proposals crossing my desk with the 'MOOC' tag attached are really just existing distance learning initiatives wrapped up in new clothes. Background on lessons from technology use in education more generally, especially as relate to online learning and virtual education, might be worth investigating. This short article by the head of Penn State's World Campus, MOOCs Are No Education Panacea, but Here's What Can Make Them Work, points to some of them (as would regular reading of the World Bank EduTech blog, I might immodestly suggest.)

10. One important challenge for MOOCs relates to accreditation. (Recent news that the American Council on Education have started to endorse MOOCs for credit points to some progress in this regard.) While you're reading about such things, it might be worthwhile to read up on digital badges, which will probably receive increasing attention as MOOCs develop over time. Another, at some point presumably existential, challenge will relate to sustainable business models. Simply put: What are they? The Wall Street Journal looked at this topic recently; one suspects many additional potential business models will be discussed and explored in the coming months and years as MOOC providers 'pivot' in the way that young technology firms and initiatives often do.


OK, I'll stop there. Familiarize yourself with these resources and you may quickly become, for better or for worse, the 'go-to person on MOOCs' in your organization. (With things changing so quickly in this area, I do note that, in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.) You'll still only be seeing part of the emerging picture, however. You may have noticed that almost all of these resources noted above are from North America. Interspersed among these articles and reports will be references to the potentially transformative power of MOOCs on education in middle and low income countries (and a few compelling anecdotes about experiences of individual learners in such places who have participated in a MOOC). What is glaringly absent from the above list are perspectives from developing countries. This will be subject of the next EduTech post.


This is the second of three EduTech blog posts that will be published in quick succession on the topic of MOOCs. MOOCs in Africa was the first, Missing Perspectives on MOOCs will follow.

You might also be interested in a related online discussion that has been happening over at the EduTech Debate site.


Note: The public domain image of a "book-lover cow" from the CowParade used at the top of this blog post ("reading about MOOCs") comes via Wikimedia Commons from user Miaow Miaow.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000