Massive Open Online Learning and the Connectivist Learning Theory

| Introduction | Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): An Emerging Online Learning Model | Background and Recent History | What is the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Learning Model? | Today's Massive Open Online Courses | What is Connectivist Learning Theory (CLT)? | Theoretical Background | The Configuration of Connectivism | Principles of Connectivism | Summary: MOOCs and CLT | References


Since 2000, the condition of United States higher education has been on an uphill swing. Enrollments were up, graduation rates increased, and attrition rates decreased, respectively. This noticeable, positive trend was believed to be the result of higher learning institutions investing heavily in online course offerings. However, recent research findings indicate that there has been a slowing trend in online enrollment numbers; across diverse demographic groups nationwide (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2012 a; 2012b; OECD, 2012).

One study conducted by the U. S. Department of Education, attributes the slack conditions of online higher education to static course designs and educator's inability to utilize current research data to advance instructional development and delivery (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Another study references adult learners' lack of readiness to leverage adequately, emerging technologies for learning, as well as, low technology literacy competencies for learning (NCES, 2012b; U. S. Department of Education, 2009). Other researchers assigns culpability to administrators, principals, and educators, who are education technophobics (aversion to technology) (Qasem & Gupta, 2012), and who are unable and unwilling to grasp the value and empowerment of technologies for improved higher learning opportunities (Mitchell & Geva-May, 2009). Moreover, various research studies fault the unending implications of the digital divide that has affected at risk learners for decades (Choy, Lee & Topper, 2012; U. S. Department of Education, 2010). However, truth be known, it is quite likely that all of these factors play a role, as the culminating culprit to the present down-turned condition of higher education. In light of these seemingly un-rectifiable issues, where will online higher education go from here?

"Technology is not an end in itself, but rather a means by which learning outcomes can be improved. Hence, educators must be able to understand technology and the usefulness/relevance of that technology. If either of these two do not happen, technology will be seen as an obstruction to, rather than a catalyst in the learning process" (Qasem & Gupta, 2012, para 23)

As recent as 2010, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology described the technology challenges in American education, in the National Education Technology Plan (NEPT):

“The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures. In contrast to traditional classroom instruction, this requires that we put students at the center and empower them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions…Technology should be leveraged to provide access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms and connections to a wider set of 'educators, including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom," in addition to "...enabling 24/7 and lifelong learning” (NEPT, 2010. p. ix).

The rationale for this study is to examine the emerging educational model known as, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) coupled with the surfacing of the Connectivist Learning Theory. For clarification, (CLT) will connote Connectivist Learning Theory throughout this study. There are ample implications that the linkage between MOOCs and CLT, may provide avenues for rectifying many, if not all, of the factors that ostensibly hinder the success of U. S. present-day, online higher education institutions and its adult learners. The study presented will provide a thought-provoking investigation of MOOCs and CLT, as well as, demonstrate the relationship and benefits available when combined to meet the needs and preferences of 21st Century adult learners.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): An Emerging Online Learning Model

Background and Recent History

Currently, one can scarcely search an education-based, digital newspaper, website, wiki, blog, or favored journal, without being directed to the most recent information regarding MOOCs. At first glance, it may appear as if MOOCs recently materialized from the terrestrial firmament for a time such as this in educational history. Today, MOOCs are setting a new precedence in relation to a revolutionary higher education online learning culture (Amundson, 2012). However, the proposal of open access online courses and learning has been the innovative work of various educators and entrepreneurs for several years. MOOCs were derived from the late 20th Century initiative of Open Educational Resources (OER) movement.

What is the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Learning Model?

The Chronicle of Higher Education (2013) describes MOOCs in this way:
"MOOC's are classes that are taught online to large numbers of students, with minimal involvement by professors. Typically, students watch short video lectures and complete assignments that are graded either by machines or by other students. That way a lone professor can support a class with hundreds of thousands of participants" (para 2).

Today's MOOCs Learning Model is quite different from the decade-old invention of OpenCourseWare initiated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This older model consisted of text-only lecture notes and did not incorporate exams or quizzes to test a learner's concept mastery. They were a basic topic-of-interest format, with very few opportunities to learn sophisticated or technical concepts. MOOCs are working to overcome these limitations by adding college-level video lectures, as well as, comprehension exams to provide evidence of learning. In this way, one professor has the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of learners, worldwide, with his or her unique curriculum and expertise in complex disciplines. Course offerings include science, engineering, nursing, literature, humanities, project management, finance and the list goes on and on (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2013).

The professors are experts in his or her respective field or discipline. Each develops video lectures, curriculum, exercises, assignments, and exams to cover the foremost components of the subject matter. Therefore, while some courses may be six-weeks in length, others can be 12-weeks. The assignments and exams are scored by two methods: Digital scoring or peer grading.

One of the most attractive advantages of a MOOCs Learning Model, according the learners, who have experienced the innovative environment, is the price. MOOCs are free of charge for anyone with an Internet connection across the globe. This free-of-charge learning environment gives MOOCs a competitive edge over colleges and universities that charge as much as $2,500.00 for an undergraduate course. College- and university-level courses are part of a degree program, with very few choices regarding what a learner will take and when it might be scheduled. Besides the zero-cost advantage, learners' sign up for the course they want to take, and choose a time frame convenient for him- or herself. These advantages are ideal for the millions of working adults, who have family and professional responsibilities that prohibit enrollment in a traditional online university. Moreover, there is minimal interaction between a MOOCs professor and his or her learners, which typically range in the thousands for a single course (Gose, 2012).

Over the past year, existing MOOCs with high signup rosters have endeavored to reward learners with certificates of completion to provide evidence of learning and subject matter mastery. Major established MOOCs are currently working with universities around the world to receive accreditation for respective courses, which will provide learners with diplomas and credits for specified courses. Only recently, have conventional and online universities given assessment credits to newly enrolled learners. Assessment credits are credits granted by the prospective university in lieu of prior personal (life) or professional experience. In other words, college credits are granted for previous knowledge and experience external to a college education. Specific to adult online learners, chief universities in the U.S. have rigid perimeters for granting assessment credits, such as a learner's prior learning portfolio, corporate or military training, college-based reviews and exams to provide evidence of learning comprehension, such as College Level Examination Program (CLEP) (Fain, 2012). Unfortunately, most universities do not publicize assessment credit-granting efforts or benefits, therefore, learners are subjected to expensive, unnecessary remedial courses. A MOOC however, allows a learner to choose which level of a particular course offering or discipline, he or she needs to participate in, whether it is an introductory course or a complex, advanced course. The learner reads the course description and chooses an option that matches his or her existing knowledge level, permitting appropriately designed and challenging information and knowledge acquisition from the beginning of the learning experience.

Today's Massive Open Online Courses

Although, there is new start-up MOOCs attempting to make a mark within the online learning enterprise, currently four key MOOCs are gaining attention and appreciation among online learners, educators, and other educational stakeholders around the world: edX, Coursera, Udacity, and Udemy. While these forerunner-MOOCs are similar in the ways learning and content mastery is acquired, each has its relevant distinctions regarding the look, feel, and complexities of courses offered. For instance, edX is a nonprofit enterprise developed and supported by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Today, edX is also collaborating with the University of California at Berkley. MIT has demonstrated its strong thrust toward open online learning for many years (see OpenCourseWare). Now, combined with its current partners, the edX programs afford diverse, domestic and international learners, course options that extend to other multifaceted disciplines, such as, The Challenges of World Poverty and Quantum Mechanics and Computation. Recently, The University of Texas System, Wellesley and Georgetown Universities, have joined the edX University, in an effort to offer learners diversified course options and scholarship (edX, 2013).

Coursera, on the other hand, is a for-profit, entrepreneurship developed by two computer-scientists from Stanford University. Coursera's stated mission is to:

"... give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in" (Coursera, 2013a, para 2).

Moreover, Coursera's goal is to contract with other universities that agree to offer Coursera courses to university learners, and divide any monetary proceeds. Other universities are responding optimistically to Coursera's learning model. Presently, more than thirty influential universities have joined Coursera in providing innovative online learning to adult learners, including Princeton University, the University of West Virginia, Duke University, John Hopkins University, and Vanderbilt University (Coursera, 2013b). This hefty investment of universities has prompted Coursera to seek accreditation for its free course platforms. This successful MOOC will provide learners with examinations in which Pearson will perform as a proctor-assessor to ensure exam integrity. The American Council on Accreditation (ACE) granted an appraisal of a select collection of Coursera's free courses, to determine accreditation potentials. Once the certification is in place, Coursera will charge a minimal free, between thirty- and one-dollars to learners, who desire the certificate. Coursera is leading the way to satisfy the needs and demands of its learners, while setting a valuable precedence for other MOOCs to follow in the coming years (Young, 2012).

The third major player in the MOOC's movement is another not-for-profit MOOC developed and run by three founders, all of which are educators and research scientists, who named the MOOC, Udacity. Udacity has a few distinguishing factors, such as, certificates of completion for all learners, who complete Coursera courses. Its founders support strongly, the idea of granting recognition for learning, and therefore, began the certificate program from day one. Second, Udacity's course catalog is filled with a variety of computer science-, mathematics-, and electronics-related courses, from statistics and algorithms, to artificial intelligence and introduction to physics. Udacity is only a year-old, so it offers fewer courses than other MOOCs; however, those that are currently available are the work of accomplished Stanford educators, researchers, and scholars (Udacity, 2013b). Third, Udacity's philosophy is a, learn by doing, model. That is to say, online learners encounter engaging faculty via short-video presentations, along with virtual field trips, and interactive peer-to-peer opportunities. Finally, the founders and supporters of Udacity have developed, in addition to a mission statement; a document that is the driving force behind the plans, purposes, and commitments of the company's participating body: (Udacity, 2013a).

The following is an excerpt from Udacity's Preamble:

"We believe that online learning represents a powerful and potentially awe-inspiring opportunity to make new forms of learning available to all students worldwide, whether young or old, learning for credit, self-improvement, employment, or just pleasure. We believe that online courses can create 'meaningful,' as well as 'massive' learning opportunities" (Udacity, 2013a, para 3).

Udemy (2013), a for-profit learning and marketing company, takes a dissimilar approach to formulating and managing a MOOC, in comparison to those discussed earlier. First, of course, is its for-profit-marketplace business-path. While Udemy does some recruiting for experts, other experts, signup to create videos and content information, as well as, set individual prices for his or her particular course(s). The price for an individual course is not held hostage on a hidden page within the site, but easily viewable to learners on the course icon. Courses illustrated on the homepage, have price tags ranging from $9.00 to $199.00, which are set by the course developer/instructor. Udemy claims to have a repertory of 4,500 courses currently, with additional courses being added monthly. Diversity of course offering appears to be a supplementary ploy for learners at Udemy. The homepage illustrates course icons for its most popular course lineup, offering a $9.00 lesson for Photoshop Beginners, in addition to, Complete Web Developer class for $199.00.

Moreover, in an effort to attract learners from around the world, Udemy trains instructors in the fine art of its remodeled creation and management software for instructors (Udemy, 2011a), as well as, training instructors in the basics of advertising and appropriate pricing for respective classes. Supplementary lessons are provided for learners' taking his or her first online course, to encourage successful knowledge acquisition and learning experience (Udemy, 2012a); Udemy, 2011b)

Udemy's business and learning model is operated by thirty-six team members, under the leadership of co-founder and CEO, Eren Ball, and co-founder and CFO, Oklay Caglar. This MOOC went into business in 2010 and is headquartered in San Francisco, California (Udemy, n.d.). This MOOC is funded by a number of investors and investment firms, and has recently begun a partnership with the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University, Virginia, in order to provide learners across the globe with high-quality , contemporary management training (Udemy, 2012b).

This overview of the MOOCs movement is by no means an exhaustive representation of the refreshing partnerships of MOOCs and higher education. It simply represents a sample of currently popular and successful MOOCs enterprises. A staggering number of top-notch universities are joining MOOCs companies, particularly for undergraduate and remedial courses. The newspapers and blogs are packed daily with new stories of U.S. universities that are unifying with the MOOC's movement. For example, one Johns Hopkins University professor, who teaches mathematical biostatistics, has never had more than seventy students enroll in his course at the university location. However, when his course became available to the world online via a joint effort between the university and Coursera, 15,000 learners enrolled (Anderson, 2012).

A Johns Hopkins University spokesperson expressed its new ventures with MOOCs this way:

"MOOC students, for the most part, aren’t earning credit toward degrees. Educators say that before credits can be awarded, they must be assured that there are adequate systems to prevent cheating and verify student identities. But at the very least, these students can claim to have been educated by some of the world’s most prestigious universities" (Anderson, 2012, para 11).

Additionally, some prominent universities, such as Capella, are developing its own MOOCs system to accommodate free online learning opportunities. In April 2012, Capella University launched over 25,000 educational tutorials via SOPHIA, its MOOC-type learning platform, named SOPHIA Learning (2012). The MOOC was born from a cooperative higher education project between Capella University, the Mayo Clinic, and NewClassrooms. SOPHIA Learning is a subsidiary of Capella Education Corporation, and therefore, educational tutorials are designed and developed by Capella educators and experts in respective fields of higher education. Moreover, Capella has, of late, created five, low-cost, degree granting programs on a new Website named, SOPHIA Pathways for College Credit (2013). Here learners are permitted to request a free trial and pricing information. In this way, learners may test-drive his or her preferred general education course prior to committing to the program. Presently, five general education courses are available from College Algebra to Introduction to Psychology. Other course icons represented on the Homepage, indicate Coming Soon courses. A Capella spokesperson said, "Sophia would be a 'sandbox' for experiments on open course content, as well as, a resource for Capella students and professors" (Inside Higher Ed, 2012).

What is Connectivist Learning Theory (CLT)?

Theoretical Background

The Connectivist Learning Theory (CLT) or Connectivism, is known as the brainchild of researcher, writer, and educator, George Siemens, who in 2004, recommended, "...connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age, a successor to behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism" (Bell, 2011, p. 101), which had been the predominate learning theories of the American educational landscape. Soon after Siemens' CLT recommendation for learning in the digital age (Siemens, 2005a); he joined with Stephen Downes, an accomplished writer, researcher, and educator in his own right. Downes too was studying CLT and its influences in context with open online learning environments. Since those early years, this team has greatly influenced the online learning environments and open knowledge construction and understanding, through research, books, articles, and the creation of a MOOC Website. Their latest twelve-week MOOC in the repository, CCK11, focuses on potential and successful transfers and acquisitions of connective knowledge within a MOOC learning experience (Cormier, 2010). Additionally, Downes maintains an audience of interested parties with ongoing information related to CLT via his Internet blog, Half an Hour, much of which surrounds evolving comprehension and applications regarding connectivism in knowledge and learning (Downes, 2013).

The Configuration of Connectivism

Siemens (2010) explains that connectivism is learning that is relevant to learners' interests, and shapes sense-making abilities for meaningful learning. Further, Siemens stresses that meaningful learning promotes active participation within an open learning environment, which encourage networking and socializing. Networking is the outcome of experiences in consecutiveness. Therefore, Siemens' asserts that education should promote opportunities that utilize connections as the bases for learning and making sense of information.
Karen Stephenson, network management professor at Harvard University, emphasizes, "Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people's experiences...become the surrogate for knowledge" (n.d., para 3).

Principles of Connectivism

"Principles of Connectivism:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist-learning activities.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of
incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision" (Siemens, 2005b, pp. 5-6)

Summary: MOOCs and CLT

After tracking online education for the past decade, Allen & Seaman (2013) dissect the past, present, and future of online learning, and conclude that the course of online education is shifting rapidly and will continue for decades to come. Therefore, the rapid shift in online learning warrants innovative theories, models and practices to serve the needs and preferences of contemporary digital learners. This study provides evidence that when MOOCs and CLT exist in the same learning landscape, learners' benefit in a number of ways. First, MOOCs provide learners with opportunities to access information via an Internet connection, and alleviate time-consuming and expensive traditional learning situations. Second, MOOCs and CLT offer valuable prospects for learners to connect with information and the experiences of other learners across the globe, in an open-learning platform, usually free of charge. Third, combining MOOCs with CLT, configures learning through networking connections, facilitating important constituents that support learning relevance and learner interests, as well as, contributing to socialization and sense-making. All of these components afford digital learners the capacity to actively engage and interact with learning through prior knowledge and the experiences of others, in a fast-changing world.


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