MOOC Pedagogy: Theory & Practice

The MOOC has its share of optimists and pessimists. Some see it as the next best thing since sliced bread, others see it as a waste of time, a passing fad that everyone is talking about lately, but will soon fade away. No matter which camp you are in, the words of George Washington Carver, himself a great innovator, doing uncommon things with a common peanut, is well worth considering…

Photograph of George Washington Carver taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1906.

“When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” George Washington Carver

No one can argue that education is probably one of the most common experiences around the world today. The best performing education systems, doing this common thing, education, have indeed captured the attention of the world. The International Baccalaureate, for example, is now being used in England to restructure England’s education system. Another example is the education system in Finland, in Singapore, in Japan, in Korea, etc.

High-quality commands the world’s attention. It is with this thought in mind that we turn to the MOOC. After the fanfare fades away, the question remains: Does the MOOC deliver high-quality outcomes? At this moment, an honest answer demands that I answer it is much too early in the large-scale adoption of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC for short, to answer the question either affirmatively, or negatively.

What we can do, however, is look at the theory that supports the MOOC. We can also look at the evidence of actual practice, especially from the perspective of the learner. As this evidence begins to emerge, we can come to a reasonable conclusion, eventually, of whether or not the MOOC will do what it is predicted to do, namely, fundamentally alter the shape of higher education.

Not only higher education, but also, according to Tom Vander Ark, “MOOCs and other learning resources are reshaping how people prepare for employment. With clarity around job requirements, lots of learning options, assessments that let learners show what they know, and portfolio and recommendation systems we will see less consumption of traditional higher ed and more consumption of free or cheap just-in-time, highly relevant skills training.” – Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Open Education Solutions and a partner at Learn Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in educational technology.

That is enough of a preamble that we should now turn to the theory that is underpinning the MOOC. After we have taken a look at what a major player, Coursera (a social entrepreneurship company), is doing, we can turn to my account of what learning in a MOOC is like, from the learner perspective. My account is experiential, and is of some assistance in giving voice to the traditionally voiceless player in education, namely, the learner…


Source: Coursera

Pedagogical Foundations

“The design of our platform is based on sound pedagogical foundations that aim to help students learn the material quickly and effectively. This design is inspired by the work of many researchers who have helped shape our understanding of pedagogical techniques that contribute to student learning and engagement. While there are many papers that contributed to our understanding of key ideas in pedagogy, here are a few that were particularly influential.”

The efficacy of online learning

There is sometimes controversy regarding the extent to which online instruction is as effective as face-to-face instruction. In September 2010, the Department of Education issued a detailed report that conducts a meta-analysis of 45 published studies that compare online and face-to-face learning. This analysis demonstrates very convincingly that online learning methods are, on average, at least as effective as face-to-face learning. Further, hybrid methods, which involve both methods of instruction, and is being offered by our partner universities to many of their on-campus students using our platform, are considerably more effective than either method alone.

The importance of retrieval and testing for learning

Many people think that the primary purpose of homework is to assess or to evaluate students. We believe that a far more important purpose is that they drive learning, and ensure long-term retention. A key factor in the design of the Coursera system is the extensive use of interactive exercises, which we believe are critical for student engagement and learning. Even within our videos, there are multiple opportunities for interactions: the video frequently stops, and students are asked to answer a simple question to test whether they are tracking the material. This strategy has value not only in maintaining student focus and engagement. Research shows that even simple retrieval questions have significant pedagogical value. For example, in two papers in Science, (Karpicke and Roediger III, 2008; Karpicke and Blunt, 2011) show that activities that require students to retrieve or reconstruct knowledge produces significant gains in learning – much more so than many other learning strategies.

Mastery Learning

Many of our courses’ homework are designed to give students multiple opportunities to learn the content and demonstrate their knowledge. In many traditional classes, if a student attempts a homework and does not do well, he or she simply get a low score on the assignment, and instruction moves to the next topic, providing the student a poor basis for learning the next concept. The feedback is also often given weeks after the concept was taught, by which point the student barely remembers the material, and rarely goes back to review the concepts to understand them better. In the Coursera platform, we typically give immediate feedback on that concept the student did not understand. In many cases, we provide randomized versions of the same assignment, so that a student can re-study and re-attempt the homework. This process is called Mastery Learning, and was shown in a seminal paper by Bloom to increase student performance by about one standard deviation over more traditional forms of instruction. This means that if in a traditional class 50% of all students pass a certain (median) level of performance, with Mastery Learning, about 84% of students now achieve this level of performance.

Peer assessments

In many courses, the most meaningful assignments do not lend themselves easily to automated grading by a computer. For example, in a poetry course, we would want the students to practice critical thinking and interpretive skills by answering essay-style questions, which do not have clear right or wrong answers. Similar issues arise when we are evaluating business plans, engineering designs, medical chart reviews, or many others. This is particularly an issue in courses in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Business, and other disciplines where a relatively small fraction of the content lends itself well to an auto-graded format. Given our commitment to offer courses from a broad range of disciplines, we have invested substantial effort in developing the technology of peer assessments, where students can evaluate and provide feedback on each other’s work. This technology draws on two bodies of literature: First, the education literature on peer assessments. Following the literature on student peer reviews, we have developed a process in which students are first trained using a grading rubric to grade other assessments. This has been shown to result in accurate feedback to other students, and also provide a valuable learning experience for the students doing the grading. Second, we draw on ideas from the literature on crowd-sourcing, which studies how one can take many ratings (of varying degrees of reliability) and combine them to obtain a highly accurate score. Using such algorithms, we expect that by having multiple students grade each homework, we will be able to obtain grading accuracy comparable or even superior to that provided by a single teaching assistant.

Active learning in the classroom

Many of our partner institutions are planning to use the capabilities of our platform to provide their on-campus students with a significantly improved learning experience. Many studies have demonstrated that standard lecturing is not the most effective mode of instruction. Considerably more effective are the teaching methods that use active learning and interactive engagement between faculty and students, and between students and their peers. For example, Deslauriers, Schelew and Wieman (Science 2011) describe an experiment in an introductory physics class that compares a traditional lecture setting to one that uses active learning. In the active learning group, student engagement nearly doubled, attendance increased by 20%, and average scores on the same test increased from 41% to 74% (where random guessing would give a score of 23%). Similar results, by Wieman, Mazur, and others, were obtained across multiple disciplines and diverse institutions. Our platform offers universities the opportunity to move much of the traditional lecturing – required for conveying the necessary material – from inside to outside the classroom, in an online learning format that is, in many ways, more interactive and more engaging. By doing so, they open up space in the curriculum for the active learning strategies that are considerably more effective in increasing engagement, attendance, and learning.


Currently, there are two ways to find out what learning in a massive, open, online course is like: One, you can participate in such a course, provided you have the time necessary to invest in such a learning experience. When your time is the limited and precious commodity that we all know it to be, you may not be able to participate, however.

Don’t feel bad about that. That’s life, and for the majority of us mortals, we work for a living in a world that will not let us simply employ our time in any pursuit. We have to be selective, to be balanced with the way in which we invest our time. Families, friends, hobbies, rest & relaxation demand an equal share of the 24 hour clock. So, if we can’t participate in a MOOC, that leaves option two available.

Option Two? You can read this book…

My #CCK11 Experience
by Thomas Jerome Baker

Stephen: “On Jan. 17 George Siemens and I will launch the third offering of our online course called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’ – or CCK11. We use the term ‘connectivism’ to describe a network-based pedagogy. The course itself uses connectivist principles and is therefore an instantiation of the philosophy of teaching and learning we both espouse.” This book is the result of my participation in the #CCK11 course

My #CCK11 Experience


The International Baccalaureate [Kindle Edition]

The International Baccalaureate [Paperback]

The global search for high-quality education, embedded in high-performing education systems, has taken on mythical proportions, almost resembling the alchemists’ quest to turn common metals into gold.

It is my hope that the present day search for global education, equitable and providing equality of opportunity for all, shall not cease until the “gold” we seek, has been found.

I therefore dedicate this book to all the educators, researchers, parents and students the world over, who strive to achieve this elusive goal,high-quality education for all the citizens of the world.

In this endeavour, it is my belief that the International Baccalaureate merits a closer look, based on their more than 40 year history of delivering consistently excellent results.

I add that all of the reflections and views in this book are mine alone, unless otherwise noted, and can not be attributed to my employer or any other organization I am affiliated with, past or present. For any errors or oversights, I bear the complete responsibility.


Amazon Author Page: Thomas Jerome Baker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He is the Head of the English Department at Colegio Internacional SEK in Santiago, Chile.

He is the Co-Founder and Co-Organiser of EdCamp Santiago, free, participant-driven, democratic, conversation based professional development for teachers, by teachers. EdCamp Santiago 2012 was held at Universidad Mayor in Santiago.

Thomas is also a past member (2011-2012) of the Advisory Board for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL), where he also serves as a reviewer and as the HETL Ambassador for Chile.

Thomas enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. Thus far, he has written the following genres: romance, historical fiction, autobiographical, sports history/biography, and English Language Teaching. He has published a total of forty six (46) books overall.

The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family, his wife Gabriela, and his son, Thomas Jerome Baker, Jr.




Pinterest: Paperback Books by Thomas Jerome Baker

Pinterest: Books by Thomas Jerome Baker on Amazon

Amazon Author Page: Thomas Jerome Baker


About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Baccalaureate, Connectivism, Culture, Education, Higher Education Teaching & Learning, Interviews, Reading, Reflections, Teaching Tips, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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