What is a MOOC?

Compared with conventional courses that charge tuition, issue college credit, and have enrollments of 20 to 30 students, MOOCs are free and do not issue credits to participants (Pappano, 2012). Since anyone with an Internet connection can register, enrollments can be enormous, occasionally numbering into the thousands (Rodriguez, 2012). Due to the large number of students, faculty cannot respond to each student individually. Students work collaboratively in study groups organized into online forums. The primary instructional medium is the video lecture. Assignments, homework, tests, and final exams may also be included.

Rodriguez (2012) studied an artificial intelligence (AI) MOOC given at the University of Stanford that had an enrollment of 160,000 students. The MOOC was taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, two leading experts on AI (Rodriguez 2012). The MOOC was an experiment by the Stanford University computer science department to increase technology and innovation education worldwide. Norvig and Thrun issued a certificate of accomplishment to students who completed the course (Rodriguez, 2012). The Stanford University computer science department caused a controversy in higher education with their participation in a MOOC that drew an unexpectedly large number of students taught by two of the world’s leading experts on AI (Conole, 2013). Conole (2013) noted that the AI MOOC controversy caused higher education to investigate new methods of developing online courses that would not only make more effective use of technology but also would attract a more diverse student body due to technology. Jenkins (2009) cautioned that students participating in MOOCs needed to possess adequate technology and literacy skills to find and use information effectively as is often present in connectivist learning theory.

In many MOOCs, connectivism is the learning theory used; however, Rodriguez (2012) found the learning theories used in the AI MOOC were cognitive and constructive. Students were given a traditional distance learning curriculum with: (a) a centralized site hosting class assignments and YouTube videos, (b) a variety of assignments offered in different formats, and (c) a combination of homework, and tests that determined the student’s final score (Rodriguez, 2012). Even though the AI MOOC was widely viewed as a success, Siemens (2012) criticized the learning theory used, stating the MOOC transferred education online rather than transforming it online. Kop and Hill (2008) noted that the difference between cognitivism and constructivism and the modern theory of connectivism was that the student learning is activated when knowledge is shared with others on the network.

Connectivist Massive Open Online Course

What is a Connectivist Massive Open Online Course (cMOOC)? Based on the learning theory of connectivism, there are four activities central to a cMOOC: (a) aggregation, cultivated through an preliminary list of resources expanded on by participants; (b) remixing, recognizing connections through blogging, social bookmarking, or tweeting; (c) repurposing, where learners create connections; and (d) sharing connections with others.
Learning is largely accomplished through aggregation, where a participant aggregates online resources such as Google, Diigo, and Twitter (Mackness, Waite, Roberts, & Lovegrove, 2013). Participants share aggregated resources for open engagement and knowledge creation (Mackness et al., 2013). For the creation of knowledge to occur, students learn to obtain relevant information while filtering out irrelevant information (Kop & Hill, 2008). Kop, Fournier, and Mak (2011) noted that open engagement has disturbed the traditional view that educators and educational institutions control learning since information is now readily available online.

MOOCs and cMOOCs are a balance of technology and learning theory where education can thrive through student collaboration and communication (Kop & Carroll, 2011). The link between technology and pedagogy as it pertains to online learning has been extensively deliberated (Anderson & Dron, 2010). Anderson and Dron (2010) noted that technology has exerted an influence in deciding the potential learning theories that may be utilized in online learning. Castells (1996) described an eventual networked society where learning would occur between people, content, and technology. Siemens (2004) proposed connectivism as a new learning theory to make the connections between people, content, and technology within a network. As MOOCs and cMOOCs gained in popularity, pedagogues such as Siemens and Downes were troubled by the traditional learning theories used in these online course offerings.

A New Brand of cMOOC—Change 11

Concerned that MOOCs and cMOOCs were not transforming online learning, George Siemens and Stephen Downes created a new flavor of MOOC called Change 11 (Rodriguez, 2013). In 2011, in conjunction with the University of Manitoba, they offered Change 11 for a course in instructional technology. The 36-week course had a different instructor each week from 11 different countries (Rodriguez, 2013). Using connectivist learning theory, the instructors were free to use different software to deliver instruction, such as blogs, Second Life, RSS Readers, and UStream. The instructors were also free to change the organization of instructional delivery and curriculum. Each week, the participants were essentially in a new course (Rodriguez, 2013).

Rodriguez (2013) found that in the last weeks of the course, Change 11 received offerings from less than 1% of students, and more than 90% of students had officially withdrew from the course. Rodriguez concluded that because a different instructor was assigned each week with a different system of organization on a weekly basis, it proved too rigorous for the course participants. Even in the spirit of learning new instructional technologies, 36 weeks of new course formats, new software, and new learning methodologies, as each new instructor made a concerted effort to revert the decline in participation, the decline continued (Rodriguez, 2013).

Several issues may have caused participants in Change 11 to withdraw from the course, such as changing instructional styles and differing instructors; however, other factors may have caused declining participation. Williams et al. (2011) observed that the sole use of connectivism in a cMOOC may compromise the learning principles of diversity, autonomy, openness, and emergent knowledge. How can a large-scale cMOOC succeed with connectivism as a learning theory as intended by Siemens and Downes?

Focusing on the skills necessary for students engaged in the connectivist learning theory, Kop (2011) focused on activities typical in a large-scale cMOOC environment. The necessary skills to engender student achievement were aggregation, relation, creation, and sharing. Shared resources, aggregation, and knowledge creation by participants are echoed in the research of Mackness et al. (2013). In addition, Kop (2011) noted that the cooperative nature of the online activities in Change 11, were similar to those of the 4Cs learning behaviors. The 4Cs, as recognized by Littlejohn, Milligan, and Margaryan (2011) were a student’s ability to consume, connect, create, and contribute. The 4Cs emphasize the importance, for students learning in a networked environment, to participate with online peers. Kop (2011) contended that to learn adequately in connectivist situations, learners must have the 4Cs to have the capacity to engage in learning and the capability to utilize the technology that enhanced the learning connections. Bouchard (2009) found that students needed skills such as open-mindedness, analysis skills, and the ability to work cooperatively. Kop and Hill (2008) stressed that the most important skills for students to be successful in the connectivist learning environment are to contribute to the knowledge of the group (network) and the ability to filter extraneous information.


Higher education is forging ahead into the new educational frontier of MOOCs and re-examining the way courses are offered in an online environment (Conole, 2013). Instructors are struggling to find a suitable learning theory for this new pedagogical approach. If one is to follow the teachings of Siemens and to employ connectivism exclusively, students may desire the cognitive teachings where the teacher presents information in an organized manner for students to achieve the most efficient learning (Stavredes, 2011). Conversely, Abik et al. (2012) urged instructors to release learners from cognitive practices as technology can become an extension of the brain. Researchers such as Mbati (2013) found value in the synchronous and asynchronous communication and the distribution of information between learners in an online environment and suggested instructors employ constructivist learning theory. Hancock et al. (2003) urged instructors to use constructivist learning theory in MOOCs or online learning where students can draw on prior knowledge and create new knowledge, while the instructor serves as a facilitator.

Finally, Downes (2006) proposed the use of connectivism as a part of the MOOC or online learning environment because it is the main learning theory that accommodates the supposition that information is shared across a network and learning comprises the ability to build and navigate the network. Instead of a teacher or facilitator, the network or group assists learners in creating their own learning (Bell, 2011). Siemens (2004) identified that through a network, learners will be able to current with changing information, and be able to identify credible resources. Siemens (2004) urged that connectivism is the only learning theory for MOOCs.


Learning theory and Internet technologies form the basis for what is considered an online educational experience. Although the teacher, student, and content remain the same, the transmutation of student–teacher–content pedagogical triangle of the cognitive and constructivist theories to the student–teacher–group–content tetrahedron of the connectivist learning theory implies that all three learning theories have a significant place in an online educational experience. Whether a student is learning alone, as a member of an online community, or a larger network, applying an awareness of how people can learn more efficiently can advance education; cognitive, constructivist, and connectivist learning theories each play an essential role.

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