Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The missing perspective(s) on MOOCs?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to Sir John Daniel give a presentation titled “Higher Education Futures: Keeping an open mind”. The text and slides from the presentation are available here. Following the presentation there was a panel session involving Sir John, Professor Jan Thomas (USQ’s Vice-Chancellor), Professor Ken Udas (USQ’s Deputy Vice Chancellor – Academic Services and CIO) and Professor James Taylor (a USQ emeritus professor and big name in distance/open learning including OERU)

Signs of a conducive knowledge work environment

Whilst there was some good points made during these sessions, I couldn’t help having a sense of disquiet during much of it. Walking to work this morning (the above image is what greeted me and I can hear the sounds of pre-construction destruction as I write) I was pondering the source of this disquiet and have identified “missing perspectives” as a significant contributor. Here are at least two of the perspectives that were missing.

My disquiet fear is that while these and other perspectives are missing from institutional considerations of how to respond to – what Sir John describes as

the new dynamics that are creating turbulent times for the sector in countries across the world

– then that response is likely to be incomplete.

nary a cMOOC to be seen

Sir John’s talk focused entirely on xMOOCs. There was no mention whatsoever of cMOOCs. It’s not as if Sir John is ignorant of cMOOCs. His “essay” “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility” includes the following

MOOCs have already bifurcated into two types of course, which are known as cMOOCs and xMOOCs. They are so distinct in pedagogy that it is confusing to designate them by the same term (Hill, 2012). Here we focus particularly on the more recent xMOOCs that dominated the news in 2012 and we note the diverging approaches already apparent within this group.

To some extent the failure to include cMOOCs in the USQ presentation felt a little like preparing a straw man. By failing to examine cMOOCs it would appear that the “open mind” from the title of the USQ talk is a little less than entirely open. An important perspective is missing.

The missing student perspective

I was especially troubled by some of the exclamations of agreement from members of the audience as certain points were made. For example, when Sir John made this point

First, since most of the universities offering MOOCs are well-known US institutions, a first myth is that university brand is a surrogate for teaching quality. It isn’t. The universities gained their reputations in research. Nothing suggests that they are particularly talented in teaching, especially teaching online. (Daniel and Uvalić-trumbić, 2013, n.p.)

a round of affirmation rippled through the audience of USQ academics and other staff.

One impression you could take from this affirmation is the idea that while USQ may not be MIT, Stanford etc., we do know how to teach online better than they do. In fact, Professor Thomas started proceedings with the affirmation that USQ was known as “a world leader in distance education” and that learning and teaching were our core business. The nature of this presentation also meant that most of the audience members were USQ staff who have an interest and aptitude for learning and teaching. So not that surprising.

But I wonder about the student perspective? I know a few people studying at USQ. These folk can tell the many of the same stories that you could find at most Australian universities. Questions posed on discussion forums that go unanswered. Courses based almost entirely on resources provided by an American publisher where the quality assurance and translation for the Australian context has been less than complete. Recorded lectures placed online with the academic reading the bullet points on the slide. This is not to suggest that there isn’t good teaching happening, but it’s to question what’s missing and to explore whether or not it might bring into question the abstraction accepted by management and others.

Some example of this include the perspective of pedagogy and its quality. Sir John’s talk included the following

Let’s look at pedagogy. A reporter who took a Coursera course found it had little pedagogical input. Professor Tony Bates stresses that MOOCs are not a new pedagogy. He notes that the teaching methods ‘are based on an old and out-dated behaviourist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer-marked assignments and peer assessment’.

A characterisation that I tend to agree with, but at the same time Cousin and Deepwell (2005, p. 61) identify a couple of problems

that learners may arrive at a pedagogic setting with congealed practices from another kind of setting, often a more didactic one. This alerts us to the danger of imposing new learning strategies, whatever their pedagogic merit, upon students. In particular, the dilemma for tutors of network learning is that, if the communitarian values underpinning it (collaboration, peer assessment, discussion-based learning, etc.) are forced upon students through a prescriptive curriculum design, the effect will be to undermine these values, because it is inherently contradictory to impose democratic pedagogies on learners.

The learners who have been successful in formal education have spent years developing expertise in – and perhaps preferences for – the didactic approach to learning. For some of these learners, the pedagogy of the xMOOC may be seen as significantly better than that of the cMOOCs or whatever pedagogically sound approach is imposed by a university. I recognise that there are very different cohorts of learners that will likely have different perspectives. But the argument here is that if Universities are trying to figure out how to respond, then they better have a reasonable idea of what their current students are experiencing.

Bhatt (2012) uses an ethnographic approach to explore how a learner undertakes a writing assignment, how her personal digital literacies interact with the expectations of classroom literacy. He concludes, amongst other things that (Bhatt, 2012, p. 298)

As it is classroom-based digital literacies by which learners are ultimately judged, a cruel imposition of its norms can marginalise and deny literacy practices of personal experience.


For practitioners seeking to develop pedagogies that capitalise on the affordances of new technologies, such research supports a greater consideration towards how learners experience digital literacy practices across different strata of their lives. Allowing learners’ personal digital literacy practices to be mobilised as resources, either explicitly by them or encouraged and guided by pedagogical approaches, can be supportive to learning.

Perhaps this is what worried me most about the discussions yesterday. Senior management taking it upon themselves to analyse and determine how best the institution can navigate these “turbulent times” informed mostly by their experiences and the abstractions of interest to those operating at a strategic or institutional level. The absence of other perspectives suggest they are more likely to miss the boat, than successful navigate to another port.

What next?

As someone who is about to impose new learning strategies on a group of learners it would seem incumbent upon me to explore their reactions and especially discover if there are perspectives and practices they have which can help us develop something even better.

For now I had best get back to preparing the imposition.


Bhatt, I. (2012). Digital literacy practices and their layered multiplicity. Educational Media International, 49(4), 289–301.

Cousin, G., & Deepwell, F. (2005). Designs for network learning: a communities of practice perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 30(1), 57–66. doi:10.1080/0307507052000307795

Daniel, J., & Uvalić-trumbić, S. (2013). Higher Education Futures: Keeping an open mind. Presentation at the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Qld.


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  1. You make valid points all throughout, but I particularly like your concluding statement. I have serious reservations about the state of current MOOCs as the majority of the ones I have looked at are mostly rehashed content packaged in a slightly upgraded LMS. That said I also have hope that, with time, appropriate learning activities will be developed that make better use of what’s available. That time will come, no doubt, but we have years of work ahead of us all.

    • Thanks for the comment Maurice. I think there’s some interesting to do (and being done) around developing those learning activities and tend to agree with you that there will be years of work developing, analysing and evaluating these.

      But I also find it slightly ironic that there was an inkling of a feeling yesterday (and more broadly in the sector) that we may not have years of work to do this work. That the xMOOC folk are going to win and there won’t be a place for Universities. i.e we need to respond fast. It’s ironic because Sir John made a warmly accepted point about the herd like mentality – the faddish adoption of the latest fashion – happening around MOOCs.

      If xMOOCs “win” and Universities “lose”, will the xMOOC providers continue researching new and better pedagogies? I wonder how much the learners would care?

  2. Another excellent and thoughtful post David. What I think worries me the most is that MOOCs or their offspring should be seen as probes/experiments in doing HE differently. The problem the managerial class in HE have is that they have to reassure the folk in the trenches that they know what is going on and that all will be well. It is embarrassing to hear folk who should know better make such stupid remarks. I repeat. MOOCs are probes, experiments. We see next to zero of the data the folk who run them gather. All we see are press releases. So the only way to find out is probably to run your own experiment. What concerns me are the offspring of MOOCs. No idea what they will look like but you can be sure universities will keep staring into the headlights of MOOCs claiming that they know what is going on for a long time yet.

    For my part, I am interested in the practices that Dave Weinberger recently gave a name to, “public learning”, i.e. the learner making public what they actually do. I’m forgetting all the clutter that goes with higher ed at this point (clutter = assessment, accreditation etc.) I am interested in how folk make their way into new/different, less-well mapped territories and how folk support one another in these endeavours. If the Weinberger notion of networked knowledge is closer to the mark than the current A4 mindset then not just little bits of how folk learn is up for grabs, all of it is. 🙂

  3. David – echoing other comments, thank you for this opportunity to be a bit reflective. Being new to the USQ community, I am guessing that there are lines to read between of which I am not even aware. I want to though make brief comment on two items.

    First, the “The missing student perspective,” which serves as your posting premise is a good reminder that we need to consider and continuously revisit the rationale behind which voices we tend to recognise and in which forums. In many ways what we seem to be experiencing and reacting to in higher education is principally a result of student perspective. In the United States, for example, starting in 2011 we experienced the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. The protest movement generally spoke to larger issues of corporate greed and corruption, social injustice, and alienation, but perhaps the most lucid and well developed agenda articulated by protesters was student debt and dissatisfaction with the results of higher education. Millions of students in thousands of protests expressed their perspective in ways that could not be mistaken. Similarly millions of students are engaging in hundreds of alternative education activities (including MOOCs), once again, expressing their perspectives. Personally, I do think that having a student and teaching faculty presence on the panel mentioned in your post would have provided a wider variety of voices, but I am not sure if we would have been any closer to having achieved the “student perspective,” which you legitimately desire.

    Second, the point you drove toward when stating,

    “Perhaps this is what worried me most about the discussions yesterday. Senior management taking it upon themselves to analyse and determine how best the institution can navigate these “turbulent times” informed mostly by their experiences and the abstractions of interest to those operating at a strategic or institutional level. The absence of other perspectives suggest they are more likely to miss the boat, than successful navigate to another port.”

    resonates well, and is reflected in some of the comments to your post including those of Chris Bigum (@cj13). I think that many managerial types in higher education are simply grappling with the issues that MOOCs have raised. Sometimes it is hard to say “I don’t know,” and sometimes it is hard to resist providing an opinion (even one that is uninformed). The advent, growth, interest, investment, and obsession with MOOCs points to some underlying and perhaps fundamental dissatisfaction with higher education that we cannot ignore. In response, we need to test our own ideas, which means that we need to propose ideas for open scrutiny, not unlike the “probes and experiments” that MOOCs themselves represent. At the very least though, the call for universities to “navigate turbulent times” is healthy as it is also a call for each of us (student, faculty, managers, and others who are impacted by our performance) to question the nature and purpose of the University and how we (each of us) contribute to its purpose. Following along with your nautical simile, I am not so sure that the most critical issues are about navigation, but rather are about destination.

    Thanks again!

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