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Old wine in new bottles: MOOCs, SPOCs, OCs

The rapid rise and fall of the popularity of the MOOC movement in education is unprecedented.  As evidence of the mainstream exposure of this educational trend, MOOCs even had their five minutes of fame on the Colbert Report when edX president Anant Agarwal was interviewed by Stephen Colbert.  The fact that the Colbert believed that his audience knew well enough what a MOOC was and that they found the interview hilarious, illustrated the rapid exposure, acceptance and ultimate decline in popularity that we see the MOOC movement experiencing now.

The overwhelming problem with MOOCs in the way in which they have been taken up by large corporation and private post-secondary institutions is that they tend to ignore sound instructional principles (Baggaley, 2013, p. 126).  Many researchers in the area of distance education (DE) such as Bates have asked why institutions are ignoring the evidence of two decades of experience and research into the best design and pedagogical principles for online learning? The problem is clear to Baggaley, when you reduce the importance of the role of teacher or teaching presence and increase the number of students by a massive amount, the instructors will not be able to provide a quality learning experience (p. 126). The anonymous reviewers of Baggaley’s paper agree that MOOCs have “over-promised and under delivered” because a “focus on technology without a focus on pedagogy” always fails the learner (p. 130).

The question remains, why would post-secondary intuitions choose to ignore 20 years of research and literature on eLearning?  The answer might be found in Kanaka and Brooks (2010) where they argue that “[D]istance education can achieve any two of the following: flexible access, quality learning experience and cost-effectiveness – but not all three at once” (p. 69).  If the balance of all three things is impossible, corporations and private post-secondary institutions set on making a profit will access any learning innovations that favor cost-effectiveness and access to students (who pay) over quality of learning experience.  The massive uptake of MOOCs and now their derivative SPOCs is in one part a way for post-secondary’s to finally accept online learning as a legitimate learning pathway that they historically fought against. MOOCs might be as Bates describes, “old wine in a new bottles” motivated more by profit than by a belief in the learning design.

The fall of the MOOC popularity due to learner negative experience and the new post-MOOC world of SPOC (small private online courses) are simply a return to “the kind of online courses that distance education (DE) institutions have been providing since the mid-90’s” (p. 127).  Although Baggaley cautions that SPOCs may not be better than their MOOC counterparts if the designers continue to ignore the research on DE and online learning that has been gathered over the past two decades (p. 129).  The true test will be to see if the designers of SPOCs and MOOCs can attend to “learner engagement, assessment and feedback” (Baggaley, p.126).  According to Baggaley, the new uptake of Connectivist ideas may have more to do with a backlash against asynchronous delivery and learning and a “timely reminder of the need for more synchronous online interaction” (p. 129). If we are to get to the heart of learner engagement the true test for the future of MOOCs, and their derivatives will be is the designers and instructors can scale to massive and open, quality design that focuses on learning first, technology second.


Baggaley, J. (2014). MOOC postscript. Distance Education, 35(1), 126- 132. doi:10.1080/01587919.2013.876142. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/l ogin.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=95609836&site=ehost-live

Bates, A.W. (2015). Chapter 5: Chapter 4.2: Old wine in new bottles: classroom-type online learning, in Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for Teaching and Learning (pp. 145-182), Contact North.

Kanuka, H. & Brooks, C. (2010). Distance education in a post-fordist time: Negotiating difference. In M. F. Cleveland-Innes & D. K. Garrison (Eds.), An introduction to distance education: Understanding teaching and learning in a new era. New York & London: Routledget of conventional conversation rapidly and massively.

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