Week 3 – Forget the learners, how do I measure a MOOC quality experience for ME! By Dave Cormier

Dave Cormier is an educational activist, researcher, online community advocate and the Manager of Web Communications and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island. He has published on open education, Rhizomatic Learning, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Digital Identity, and practical classroom uses of virtual worlds.

His educational journey started in 1998 teaching little children to speak English. The pivotal moment of his career happened when he was teaching at Hannam University in South Korea in 2003 surrounded by the papers of 275 writing students and wondering if he had them all. That winter he started using discussion forums to bring all of his students together in a writing community (and to digitally keep track of their work) and he hasn’t looked back. He’s since helped organize online communities of teachers, spoken at events around the world and worked to understand how internet changes what it means to know. His educational exploration partners have included faculty and researchers from well-known universities, and lone teachers in small town classrooms. Some of them are even still talking to him.

Dave’s keynotes in the last couple of years have centred around how coming to know is a messy, imprecise process at once intensely individual and necessarily embedded in a community – Rhizomatic Learning. You can follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/davecormier or follow his thoughts at http://davecormier.com

Given the excellent review of the design of MOOCs presented by Stephen Downes in week 2, I’d like to take a look at quality from the other side. In an attempt at starting a discussion on the motives of different vested interests and their relationship to MOOCs I’ve tried to outline from my own experience, what different interest groups are at play. These should not be seen in anyway as reflective of the ‘content’ or ‘delivery model’ of those MOOCs but rather how each different group might see success. I believe that one of the true innovations of MOOCs is that it changes the reason you might start a course in the first place.

My role at the University of Prince Edward Island is a hybrid one reflective, perhaps, the changing influences of technology on education. I am at once responsible for communications and marketing on the web for my university, for web innovation and, as a shared responsibility, e-learning. I am a sessional faculty member and teach for the faculty of education. I sit on diverse committees, concerned with all kinds of projects where ‘innovation’ and ‘technology’ might be mentioned. I come to the question of MOOCs from an administrative perspective, with an eye recruitment, as a geek, a researcher and as an educator.  From those many perspectives I find the question of ‘why’ someone would want to go ahead and start a MOOC a very interesting one. More specifically, I think it is critical that we understand the ways in which different interest groups will judge the ‘quality’ of that experience for the convenor (and their sponsors). What are we all in it for? What is the difference between a pat on the back and a failure for each of the different groups convening MOOCs?I offer you four groups. In most cases different members of each group might participate in a single MOOC, and you could see one group looking at a MOOC and seeing it as particularly successful while another might see the same course as a total disaster. Others might be imagined, or subsets identified, but I think the major players are represented here

  • Researcher/Activist/Community Organizer
  • Higher Education Institutions
  • Governments
  • Venture Capitalists

Researcher/Activist/Community Organizer

This group is all over the place in their approach to success. Some of them are researchers in the field of education exploring the affordances of the new technologies. Others have seen MOOCs as a way to encourage discussion in their area of interest. It can be an excellent way of kickstarting community, and we’ve seen connections from our early MOOCs still very much in place years later.

In the summer of 2008 I had a number of discussions about CCK08 with Stephen Downes and George Siemens about what became the ‘first MOOC’. According to Downes in a recent Inside Higher Ed ‘MOOCs were “not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities….” but rather “designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.”’ I facilitated a Friday discussion for CCK08 and had no specific intention towards undermining anything. I was rather more fascinated exploring the possibilities of having 2300 people working on the same topic at the same time. One of the central premises of MOOC doctrine is that students need to apply their own measurements of quality and success. The same could be said for the convenors.

 Higher Education Institutions

MOOCs found their birth, at least partially, through their connection to higher education. Both our own early experimentation and the transitional xMOOC at Stanford were very much creatures that would not have existed without the support of higher ed. (Stephen Downes was working for the National Research Council of Canada and not a University) I find the popular opinion of MOOCs as an opposition to higher ed, particularly in their more popular watch a movie do a quiz incarnation,  difficult to understand. Those MOOCs are simply an extension of the profit focused private teaching institutes and publishers slow move into the middle of the business of learning. Media buzz only.

When we use the MOOC as a lense to examine Higher Education, some interesting things come to light. The question of the ‘reason’ for education comes into focus. The idea of a MOOC stretches the university conception of a course from many sides, be it assessment, accreditation or teaching. I am currently running my second MOOC hosted at my institution and it seems to fall into a different category than ‘class instruction’. Our ExperienceU http://xpu.ca project is more community outreach than it is about the business of learning. The project is designed to engage pre-university students in a discussion about the basic concepts of a university. While we would, of course, be more than happy if this lead to increased recruitment of students, the success markers are far more complex. They are at once about delivering on our promise of caring for our students, about having students better prepared to succeed and to fulfill our commitment to reaching out to our communities and being a positive influence. Universities are complex places with complicated missions, MOOCs are a wonderful vantage point from which to observe them.

There are many other interesting examples of reasons from institutions that are perhaps more straightforward. Cornell announced in January that it would be offering a MOOC as an ‘entry’ course for a then ‘paid for’ certificate to follow. The Edinburgh approach, where they are looking to increase their online enrolment by a multiple of five and are hoping that some of the 300K students will stay on in their institution and take paying courses is another example of the loss-leader. So yes, certainly HE institutions are entering in the MOOC game to encourage more students to enrol, but the university mission is also about widening participation, about community engagement and about participation in the broader public discourse. I think these MOOCs will come in time.


A great part of the funding that goes to universities comes from government. The potential cost savings implicit in some MOOC projects must hold real appeal to cash strapped governments’ bean counters. The monetary success driver is probably the most prevalent and least interesting reason for governments to engage in this kind of educational change, so lets not spend time talking about it. If MOOCs save them money, government will need to pay attention to them. I’d like to point to two that I think are more interesting.

In the 60’s and 70’s when the government in the UK decided it wanted new people to come to higher education, they started the Open University with an interest in widening participation in post secondary learning. There is huge potential for government sponsored MOOCs dealing with any number of social, economic and cultural issues.

In October of last year I had the privilege of meeting with Per Falk http://about.me/perfalk and his colleagues and we spoke about the potential of a Swedish National MOOC. The internet is littered with resources, yes, but most of them are in English. National MOOCs can centered on a variety of relevant local topics and regional cultures can be supported and strengthened and the creation of contextual resources integrated into the MOOC process. A fine example of this was run in France last year http://www.itypa.mooc.fr/ called ITYPA MOOC.

Venture Capitalists

There’s no problem here. Venture capital companies measure success by return on investment. Their interest in the field of education is as a venue to make profit. Now, this does not necessarily entail a situation where their product is actually of greater or lesser quality than the other groups presented here. There are certainly many instances in which the lessons brought to education from the ‘measure by money’ world have been of tremendous value. The point is that the ‘success’ of a MOOC is measured by whether it actually will make or will lead to the making of money.

The danger of the influx of neoliberal (profit as quality) values lie mostly in their simplicity. When you come from a world where one measures success by trying to make the debit pile bigger than the credit pile one can start to believe that all situations are so easily measured. When compared to the other three, this perspective certainly has the advantage of elegance, but it does deviate from what most of us would see as the quality goals of education.


We all measure quality from a different framework of understanding. The four groups presented here each have their own sets of priorities and their own ways of measuring success. Each of these groups is part of the landscape of education, and I believe they each play their own important role in the overall ecosystem. The quality that I’m interested in, the of the impact of our learning on our culture, is not measured in dollars, or votes or students. The question that I’d like to leave you all with is: how are you going to support the quality you believe in?

8 thoughts on “Week 3 – Forget the learners, how do I measure a MOOC quality experience for ME! By Dave Cormier

  1. I’m pretty sure i covered that in the title 🙂

    I think we’re all ‘learners’ to a degree, but if you start a MOOC as a learner you are going to at least be a community organizer. What would the distinction look like?

  2. The distinction between a community organizer and a learner might be that the latter may not have a clue on how to be a community organizer and may or may not pick this up in the process. This may also be the case to the point that ‘students need to apply their own measurements of quality and success’, as not all students would be in the position to do that. While MOOCs may work well for continuing professional development and for advanced learners who have learned how to learn, it remains to be seen if they will work as well for those who are lacking these qualities. Perhaps a MOOC on ‘how to do a MOOC’ is needed? Just a thought,


  3. Hi Timos,

    This article was written specifically WITHOUT any consideration of the pedagogical thoughts about MOOCs. If the learner is not a community organizer they have next to no chance of starting a MOOC in the first place. I’ve written endlessly about how I think MOOCs should be run, what the process of quality evaluation for students might be etc… see (http://youtu.be/r8avYQ5ZqM0 ) but I think that in those discussions we miss the broader implications of the business of education… MOOCs are being run by different groups for very different reasons… but they all have a reason. We need to think about what those are and consider their impact on our field.

  4. Again a post on MOOCs without taking into concideration the student. Shouldn’t the student be the main person to listen to when we want to measure the ‘quality experience’ of MOOCs?

  5. Not sure how this would be done but MOOCs as an adaptable / malleable and not yet cemented in place educational stage could prove as a testing ground without ever being known for anything in particular. For instance, what is the relationship between things we call “student” and “teacher”? Which way does responsibility run in this relationship? Having worked in the trades, the presumed identities and power flows between master and apprentice often exist in a between-world (sorry don’t a better word) of cooperation without barriers. Thing that are human made are products of changeable agreements and neither student nor teacher is a fixed forever understanding. How about “Never Mind Reality MOOC”?

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