Is There a Difference Between xMOOCs and cMOOCs?

Recently I have been reading a few different thoughts on the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. Or more specfically, how there is no real difference between the two and the classifications do more harm to the conversation than help. I would respectfully disagree – the differences are real, and they do matter. To ignore the differences would cause more damage in my opinion.

Of course, this has been explained in much better terms by others before – but this is just my attempt to try a different framing mechanism.

A lot of the discussion centers around how there are social activities in xMOOCs as well as guided content in cMOOCs. To me, that’s a non-issue. Social elements do not define cMOOCs, and lack of social elements does not make an xMOOC. Instructor-led content does not define an xMOOC, and lack of content does not define a cMOOC. That is like saying that pizzas and burgers are the same because they both have salt and can be ordered at a fast food restaurant. Sharing some similar characterisitcs does not mean that the ones that they don’t share are not important.

I’m working on a content analysis research project that is looking at what themes would emerge if you analyzed the content of the syllabuses of 30 MOOC courses. The differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs are quite noticeable. Everyone has sightly different terms for the concept of power, but whether it is “who holds the power” or “who has autonomy” or if “autonomy is a classification of power”, the seat of power is the real difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. Whether you look at is as active learning versus passive learning, or instructivism versus connectivism, or constructivism versus behaviourism, or student-centered versus instructor-centered, the basic question is “who is in the driver’s seat for the learning of each individual learner?”

If the content is laid out for the learner (or “curated” by the instructor) and the learner must go through a certain set of modules and take certain tests and discuss certain topics and so on, the instructor (via course design) is in control of the steering wheel for each learner. They may discuss and form groups and all kinds of social things. They may form PLNs and use Twitter. That does not make the course connectivist. I have been in some courses that had no content but the social groups were so controlled that we had no input on the whole class. If a course is designed on a passive, instructivist, behaviourist, instructor-centered manner, it is still an xMOOC no matter how much social stuff is tacked on.

On the flip side, if each learner is in the driver’s seat for their learning, and you are creating a course that is active, connectivist, contsructivist, student-centered, etc – that is the heart of a cMOOC. You can create weeks worth of content and put it in there, but as long as it is optional for students that want to use it as they see fit, it is still a cMOOC.

So what that means is that courses like EDCMOOC that claim to be neither xMOOC nor cMOOC are actually xMOOCs that just don’t know it. Nothing wrong with being an xMOOC. But why is it an xMOOC? Because the content is “teacher-curated and -annotated selection of resources on weekly themes, including short films, open-access academic papers, media reports, and video resources” that “were the foundation for weekly activities, including discussion in the Coursera forums, blogging, tweeting, an image competition, commenting on digital artifacts created by EDCMOOC teaching assistants, and two Google Hangouts” according to the paper on the course.

The instructors were still in the drivers seat. Sure, they let students form their own groups. They let the students form networks. But they were still in the seat of power.

And to be honest, I don’t have a problem with that happening. Many learners (for better or worse) still want the instructor to be in the driver’s seat. But what about the students that wanted one thing and got another? Confusions in power structure in courses can lead to frustration among learners. They may still end up happy with the course but be confused about what happened along the way. The EDCMOOC article authors pointed out that “For every person who hated the peer assessment, someone else loved it.” Why is that? Were they expecting one thing and got another? Were they confused as to why they read all this curated content and then had another student assess their work? Learners that have to find their own content tend to feel more comfortable with peers assessing their work, but those that have to read curated content (technically, all content added in any course ever was curated) as the foundation for the activities will usually want the instructor to assess their work, since it was the instructor that first told them to consume that content.

Of course, classifications in education are not about black & white, either/or boxes. Classifications like “xMOOC/cMOOC” are really more of generalized categories that kind of coalesce around certain characteristics. But most people know that they are not hard, fast lines. One problem that is emerging in education is misunderstanding what educational classifications are and what they aren’t. MOOC designs that mix elements of xMOOCs and cMOOCs are not a sign that the classifications are wrong. They are a sign that we need to understand the underlying differences even more or we could continue to confuse and polarize the issue even further. More and more learners are discovering the difference between instructivism and connectivism (even if they don’t know those words), and are wanting to learn in their preferred paradigm.

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