MOOCs and the Student Experience

Tom Worthington

The Higher Education Whisperer

Notes also available.
The role of MOOCs within the concept of blended learning and their impact on the student experience, for the Inaugural Student Experience Conference, 4 December 2013, Sydney, Australia.

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Tom Worthington FACS CP

Tom Worthington

Tom Worthington is an IT consultant and course designer for vocational and postgraduate university courses. In 2010 he was awarded Canberra ICT Educator of the Year by the Australian Computer Society, for his work on sustainable e-learning. Tom is an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University. In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy and previously worked for the Australian Government. He is a Past President, Honorary Life Member, Certified Professional and a Certified Computer Professional of the society as well as a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Tom blogs as the


A quiet revolution is taking place in Australia's schools, TAFEs and universities, with education moving on-line. Most student's first experience of higher education will be through some form of free on-line course. E-learning will therefore shape the student's expectations of their formal university program. Students will expect their on-campus experience to follow the shape and standard of that delivered on-line. Institutions and educators need to "flip" the entire student experience, to ensure that they can create an on-campus experience as flexible and high quality as that offered on-line.

The Student Experience

To understand the student experience: be a student

Involves technology, student services and methods of course delivery.

Inaugural Student Experience Conference, Informa, 2013

To enhance the experience:

  1. Social engagement
  2. Career readiness
  3. Student support services
  4. Orientation programs

From: Enhancing the International Student Experience, Australian Education International, 2012

The conference announcement defines the "Student Experience" as: "Involves technology, student services and methods of course delivery.". It is suggested a good student experience can be a competitive advantage for an institution to attract students. It should be noted that the term "methods of course delivery" is more commonly known as "teaching methods".

I suggest the best way for academics and administrators to truly understand the student experience is to be a student. It is likely many years, or decades, since those making decisions at university were students themselves. Much has changed in the interim and time will have softened the memory of the student experience. It is necessary to do more than just sit in on a class, the enrollment and assessment processes are important to the student experience.

The Australian Education International (AEI) report "Enhancing the International Student Experience" provides the results of seven demonstration projects, focusing on four areas:

  1. Social engagement - effective strategies for improving the level and quality of interaction between domestic and international students both on and off campus;
  2. Career readiness – models for ensuring that the employability skills of international students are developed and improved on an ongoing basis through continuous learning and integration into the total study experience;
  3. Student support services – exploring how international students access information that affects health and lifestyle, and the relationship between self-perceived identity and social networks; and
  4. Orientation programs – innovative ways to use new technologies (such as social media) to more effectively disseminate information on the nature and availability of support services for international students.

From: Enhancing the International Student Experience, Australian Education International, 2012

While aimed at international students, I suggest these areas are also of issue for domestic students, particularly those from a different background to the traditional university student.


Massive Open Online Courses ( MOOCs):

  1. Massive: 100,000 students, or more.
  2. Open: No scholastic or financial barrier to enrollment.
  3. On-line: Materials delivered asynchronously via the Internet.
  4. Course: One semester, one quarter full time student load (a US "course").

Massive Open Online Courses ( MOOCs) have recently been widely discussed in education forums and this is now spreading to the business and general media. These large scale courses use asynchronous e-learning and a highly structured approach which can be used as an easy introduction to e-learning.

Some characteristics of an MOOC are:

  1. Massive: 100,000 students or more. Australia's large university has less than 50,000 students.
  2. Open: No scholastic or financial barrier to enrollment. Materials may also be open educational resources.
  3. On-line: Materials delivered and students interact via the Internet.
  4. Course: Similar in size to an Australian university subject of about a 12 week semester one quarter full time student load (a US course). But does not provide a credential on completion.

Because of the large scale a relatively small teaching staff available, MOOC design emphasizes carefully prepared and tested material, active involvement by students in their learning (including helping each other, peer assessment). Current MOOCs have a linear structure of course delivery and some use conventional textbooks.

Some MOOC Courses

Introduction to Computation and Programming Using Python by John V. Guttag
  1. Harvard edX CS50x: Introduction to Computer Science
  2. MIT edX 6.00x: Introduction to Computer Science and Programming (uses an optional textbook)

It should be noted that the MIT edX course 6.00x: Introduction to Computer Science and Programming uses a conventional textbook. The textbook (Introduction to Computation and Programming Using Python, by John V. Guttag) is optional and is purchased separately from a bookstore, not from MIT.

Some MOOC Suppliers

Implications of MOOCs

  1. Massive: Systems need to scale.
  2. Open: Wider range of students.
  3. On-line: Limited by Internet access.
  4. Course: Are semester courses too long on-line?


ANU Joined EdX in 2013

Two MOOCs in development: Astrophysic and Engaging India.

Intended to:

  1. Strengthen ANU's reputation alongside Harvard, MIT and Berkeley,
  2. Allow students to try an ANU course,
  3. Learn to develop e-learning courses for degrees.

The ANU joined EDx in early 2013, with two MOOCs planned: Astrophysics and Engaging India. The ANU Vice Chancellor has made clear that there is no intention for the university to abandon conventional university courses in favor of MOOCs. The MOOCs will be used to strengthen ANU's reputation alongside Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, allow students to try an ANU course. They will also allow ANU staff to gain experience with e-learning for use in ANU degree programs.

xMOOCs: Distance Education for Today

This weekend 25,000 Britons will tune their television sets to a university degree. They are the inaugural class in Open University ...

Britons Tune In On Degrees, Owosso Argus-Press, 2 January 1971

xMOOC: knowledge duplication

"MOOCs are really a platform", Stephen Downes, July 25, 2012.

The idea of using technology for massive open learning is not new. Whitelock points out, that 1891 there were 45,000 university extension students in England, with Sydney University setting up extension program as early as 1886.

The UK Open University (OU), set out to provide a low cost education, with no academic limit on entry, using the information technology of its day (broadcast TV) in 1969. The debates at the time over the quality of such education are essentially the same as those now about MOOCs and e-Learning.

The ACS Computer Professional Education Program, uses a Constructivist e-Learning approach, derived from that of the UK Open University. Other e-learning courses, now being promoted as revolutionary developments, are based on this same forty years of work on distance education, but with many of the promoters do not acknowledge that heritage.

MOOCs as currently delivered have many similarities to 20th Century distance education, with paper and video lessons replaced with electronic documents and digital video over the Internet. The UK Open University (OU) commenced TV broadcast of lessons in 1971 (Britons Tune In On Degrees, Owosso Argus-Press, 2 January 1971). OU also mailed out paper based course notes, as had distance education institutions for 100 years. Most MOOCs follow this same format, with static course content, created by teams of educational designers and then delivered to the students. Stephen Downes proposed the term "xMOOC" for this form of knowledge duplication ("MOOCs are really a platform", Stephen Downes, July 25, 2012).

cMOOCs: Knowledge Creation

Connectivity MOOC: will it Scale?

"MOOCs are really a platform", Stephen Downes, July 25, 2012.

While most MOOCs, like most conventional higher education courses, emphasize the delivery of information prepackaged by the teacher, there is also scope for a constructivist approach, students collectively build their understanding of the material. Stephen Downes proposed the term "xMOOC" for this form of knowledge duplication ("MOOCs are really a platform", Stephen Downes, July 25, 2012).

Having students explore material individually, or in groups, face-to-face or on-line, is not a new educational technique. The problem is if this approach will scale. That is, is it possible to guide hundreds of thousands of students through their own journey of a topic, without having, tens of thousands of tutors (as conventional distance education institutions do).

Open Content and Blended Learning

Australian Computer Society (ACS) commissioned a course in 2008 on how to measure and reduce ICT CO2:

  1. First run by ACS, February 2009: Green ICT Strategies
  2. Graduate program of Australian National University (ANU) from July 2009 as Green Information Technology Strategies (COMP7310)
  3. Adapted by Athabasca University, Canada in 2011: Green ICT Strategies
  4. How Green is My Computer?, used in ANU "Systems Engineering for Software Engineers" (COMP3530/COMP6353).

The availability of educational materials free on-line, offers the opportunity of supplementation of conventional face-to-face courses and e-learning courses. Materials designed for on-line delivery can be used in the classroom, or on-line units can be interspersed with classroom work, for a blended course. This does not require the cooperation of the original course designer. Already students are approaching their teachers at university asking to substitute MOOCs for part of the set syllabus.

The Australian Computer Society (ACS) commissioned me to design an e-learning course in Green ICT Strategies, first run as part of a postgraduate masters level professional program in February 2009. The course was released under an open access license and modified slightly for the Australian National University (ANU) from July 2009 (ICT Sustainability). A North American version of the course was developed by Brian Stewart for Athabasca University (Canada) in 2011 as "Green ICT Strategies".

A short version of the course (How Green is My Computer?) was prepared as a training exercise, but then run live in the classroom for ANU "Systems Engineering for Software Engineers" (COMP3530/COMP6353).

MOOCs Challenging the Student Experience

MOOCs create unrealistic expectations:

MOOCs can create unrealistic expectations for students as to what to expect from higher education. The first challenge for universities is if they give away MOOCs, will students expect all education to be free, or at least inexpensive. Today most MOOCs are being provided as a form of marketing, to attract fee paying students to conventional small scale, closed, on-campus courses. However, the market for such MOOCs is quickly becoming saturated.

The option of charging for accreditation, via examination, is one option being explored. Pearson VUE will offer edX Proctored Examinations. It is likely that personal tuition, for a fee, will also be offered. However, this may not offer the same richness as a conventional campus experience.

MOOCs require reliable and fast servers. The same may not be possible for conventional courses, especially where more student interaction is required.

Students can simply register for a MOOC instantly on-line. Even where higher education institutions have well designed on-line systems, they cannot match this speed, due to the need to comply with educational, legal and accreditation requirements

MOOCs are, at least at present, pure on-line courses. This will create an expectation that any university course can be on-line. Some courses require attendance, to use equipment or interact with people, or because that provides a better student experience.

Institutions which make a large investment in very high quality, carefully prepared, materials for a small number of MOOCs may be creating an unsustainable expectation in the students. Not every course can be lead by a Nobel Laureate. Also students used to xMOOC with fixed content may find courses which require them to explore the topic themselves too challenging.

Role for MOOCs: Pathway to Higher Education

OUA 27.7% completion rate for "Open2Study" short courses (Open2Study Research Report, OUA, November 2013)

Ian Young, Go8 Chair/ANU VC, suggests TAFE/sub-degree programs pathways needed. (Ian Young issues call to strengthen pathways, The Australian, 27 November 2013

I suggest low cost, open on-line courses, could provide these pathways.

Given the problems previously described, is there a role for MOOCs? I suggest that MOOCs do not have a future as full semester length replacements for conventional university courses. In the next year we are likely to see the "MOOC Bubble" burst, with most such courses being abandoned. This is likely to result in the collapse of some MOOC consortia and embarrassment for the higher education institutions which invested heavily in them.

Short free open on-line courses, which resemble those provided by the vocational education sector, have a future.

Open Universities Australia have been running free open source courses under the "Open2Study" brand for several months. They have released a series of reports on how the students went. The latest is "Research Report October 2013" (actually released in November 2013). This 128 report is well worth reading for any educator or university administrator considering running a "MOOC".

From March to October 2013, Open2Study had 100,000 students in 32 courses, with a 24% completion rate (much higher than MOOC's 5 to 10%). While these are free open and on-line, they are much smaller and more personal than the average "MOOC". These courses have more of the flavor of a vocational education program, than university, which is not a bad thing.

The Group of Eight Chair, and ANU VC, Ian Young has suggested that more use of pathways from TAFE and sub-degree programs are needed (Ian Young issues call to strengthen pathways, The Australian, 27 November 2013.

I suggest that free, or low cost, open on-line courses, of the type provided by Open2Study are a useful way to provide pathways to higher education. However, providers need to make a business decision as to if they will receive sufficient enrollments in fee-paying courses, as a result of offering free or low cost courses.

More Information

  1. The presentation notes are at:
  2. Slides for these notes are also available
  3. Synchronizing Asynchronous Learning: Combining Synchronous and Asynchronous Techniques
  4. A Green Computing Professional Education Course Online
  5. Tom Worthington

Version 1.0, 29 November 2013, Tom Worthington

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