MOOCs and why VLEs were so exciting in the first place

Having worked in online distance learning for 15 years, one of the intriguing things about MOOCs is watching their role as a vehicle for the wider world to “discover”  things that are common knowledge to those of us in the field.  This is happening across the board (the latest example from California is something for another day), but at the moment it is the technical issues that are feeling a bit groundhog day.

Admittedly technical shenanigans are more likely to happen in platform independent MOOCs rather than the more commoditised Coursera versions,  but  the technical teething troubles around many MOOCs are giving me flashbacks to the early 2000’s when the technology you used was regularly flaky and just getting people online and enrolled in the multiple tools we stitched together to make a “learning environment” (with extra bonus multiple different passwords and user names) was half the challenge of delivering online learning.  When the first VLEs emerged offering one password into  a coherently presented (OK not always) set of tools, with the functionality you need to develop a course it seemed like a small miracle.

Now I know VLEs often don’t have all the tools you want and there are learning benefits in their own right in asking students to engage with various open web tools, however I think it is easy to forget just how intimidating this can be for learners – yes still.  I tend to characterise it to academics as “you want your students to spend their mental energy on your subject not on the technology”, we know badly integrated, hard to use technology was a major factor in students’ bad experiences of online learning for years, something we have largely eradicated – do we really want to go back?

Technology for online learning is an area where I think you need to be prescriptive to make it work – because  if you can manage minimal cognitive overhead with the learning tools, that’s when you can start to reasonably expect students to engage in more challenging learning activities, and the fun really starts.

Image: Groundhog Day / AlicePopkorn2 / CC BY-ND 2.0


6 Responses to “MOOCs and why VLEs were so exciting in the first place”

  1. Sheila MacNeill Says:

    Hi Marion

    Great post and I totally agree – have some ramblings on my experiences of the OLDSMOOC about the struggle -or perhaps overload of technologies ( The c-MOOC or now p-MOOC (project MOOC) does require quite a sophisticated level of digital literacy and technological confidence. Playing around with new stuff is fine for someone like me but it can detract from the learning objectives and can be isolating.


  2. Pat Says:

    I think this is part of the problem with the differences between MOOC types.

    I’ve done one “centralised” and two “non-centralised” MOOCs, and in the non-centralised ones I have no ideas what’s going on. Feels a bit like walking outside and shouting “WHO WANTS TO LEARN”

    I think there is a danger that in “opening” up, we open up in specific ways and for specific people, which in doing so is almost “closing” for others. If the open is conditional – like say wheelchair access isn’t possible – then I’d not call it open. I’m happily an open zealot though.

    Creating a system which openly contains technical barriers which are a prerequisite to accessing the educational content (comparable to a password you could never remember) seems nuts.

  3. Pat Says:


    I agree as well – I found some of them really poorly designed in terms of topology – and I wonder also about curation of them and future reuse if everything is all over?

    And that’s coming from Mr RSS himself.


  4. Marion Manton Says:

    @Pat it is interesting that xMOOCs which are usually less open in licensing terms, are possibly more open than cMOOCs in an ordinary person getting on with it way, conversly making them more open…you almost need open-gratis, open-libre and open-easy?

  5. Kerri McCusker Says:

    Excellent piece, ensuring ‘minimal cognitive overhead’ with a range of integrated learning tools is high on my developmental aims for my PhD research. It was an all too familiar sight seeing students and in some cases academic staff being overwhelmed with tech, so much so that it detracted from the engagement time with the actual content.

  6. Steve Mackenzie Says:

    Hi Marion,

    The thing is – the best, ease of use learning tools are real world web 2.0 tools. for short course, yes keep it simple but for university programmes the whole thing needs rethinking – the digital skills required need embedding in the curriculum – in every module students need educating. Academic Staff need training and need to engage with the tools – those that embrace it will soon learn – the “i don’t do technology” argument does not cut it with me.

    Footnote: I don’t blame any academic staff rejecting working with technology in certain VLE setups – the poor design and functionality can raise legitimate greviances.