MOOC shmooc?

Image by Flickr user nkcphoto. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Image by Flickr user nkcphoto. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A few weeks ago, Laurie wrote the first of five posts on the Edtech trends of ELT, covering online learning. In his post, he wrote:

it’s only a matter of time before someone is teaching English via a MOOC – either delivering courses through the existing platforms or creating an ELT MOOC (honestly, why has no-one actually done that already?).

Here’s why: there’s a good chance it won’t work.

In a recent edition of The New Yorker, Nathan Heller wrote an extensive, informative article on MOOCs, posing the question, “Has the future of college moved online?”. He offers a balanced take, for the most part, despite several passages which suggest he pines for a more traditional model of face-to-face education:

In Cambridge, when the weather starts to warm up, fragrances return: first, there’s a soft, faint scent of earth and fog; the grass comes back; and trees begin to blossom in the courtyard of the old-books library at Harvard. Groundskeepers set down mulch.

You don’t get that sat in front of your PC.

Heller defines a MOOC more succinctly than I could ever manage:

A MOOC is “massive” because it’s designed to enroll tens of thousands of students. It’s “open” because, in theory, anybody with an Internet connection can sign up. “Online” refers not just to the delivery mode but to the style of communication: much, if not all, of it is on the Web. And “course,” of course, means that assessment is involved—assignments, tests, an ultimate credential.

He goes on to say that ‘many people think that MOOCs are the future of higher education in America’.

But what role do they have in the future of ELT?

One of the thrusts of the article is that the implementation of MOOCs is generally easier (and, by extension, more successful) in more quantitative disciplines; a circuits-and-electronics course is one example given. Where they become more problematic is in the teaching and assessing of qualitative subjects, specifically the humanities. Ian M. Miller, a graduate student in charge of technical production for a history MOOC at Harvard, is quoted as saying:

From a computational perspective, the types of question we are asking in the humanities are orders of magnitude more complex.

Which leads us to ask, Doesn’t the teaching of a foreign language present an even greater level of complexity? And, if so, what chances does an ELT MOOC have of ever being truly successful?

There are two features of MOOCs which are especially problematic from an ELT perspective. Heller quotes William W. Fisher III, a professor at Harvard Law School:

Two features that can be found in most of this recent wave of online courses are: first, what could be described variously as the ‘guru on the mountaintop,’ or the ‘broadcast model,’ or the ‘one-to-many model,’ or the ‘TV model. The basic idea here is that an expert in the field speaks to the masses, who absorb his or her wisdom. The second feature is that, to the extent that learning requires some degree of interactivity, that interactivity is channelled into formats that require automated or right-and-wrong answers.

Let’s unpick that.

One of the ways that communicative language teaching differs from the style of teaching that many of us received at university is the absence of the ‘guru on the mountaintop’ model. Teacher Talking Time (TTT) is discouraged, as it limits Student Talking Time (STT). (I can’t have been the first trainee to have been taken aback by the concept of pair and group work on my CELTA course; I’d never encountered it at university, despite studying French and Hispanic Studies.) For fans of the communicative approach, the ‘broadcast model’ of a MOOC represents a step backwards in terms of ELT pedagogy, even if it’s a step forwards in terms of the use of technology.

Now, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. There’s certainly room in ELT for top-down instruction; after all, the goal of communicative language teaching is to reduce TTT, not eliminate it altogether. And many of the most successful ELT coursebooks follow a broad PPP (Present-Practice-Produce) approach, which would seem to lend itself well to the MOOC format (provided you could find a suitable solution for presenting and assessing spoken output).

The bigger issue, I would argue, is with the second feature that Fisher outlines: that interactivity in MOOCs is ‘channelled into formats that require automated or right-and-wrong answers’.

Interactivity is key to successful language learning. In fact, in his 2005 article Dogme: Dancing in the dark?, Scott Thornbury lists ‘high on interactivity’ as the number 1 feature of his imaginary course Dogway, a coursebook that ‘(by promoting dogme values,) both subverts the prevailing paradigm, and sets a new industry standard’ (an objective of MOOCs, too?). How could the level of interactivity required of a successful language-learning course be achieved in the context of a MOOC? Multiple choice questions can test our understanding of words or our grasp of grammatical concepts, but the business of communication is too messy for right-and-wrong answers.

The answer would seem to lie in some sort of compromise, in the use of the online space to deliver certain content and the face-to-face space to produce and assess communicative competence. As Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, put it to Heller:

Part of what we need to figure out as teachers and as learners is, Where does the intimacy of the face-to-face have its most powerful impact?

But at that point we’re not talking about MOOCs anymore; we’re talking about blended learning, or the flipped classroom. And can a blended course or a flipped classroom ever be truly massive? Can a course like that accommodate tens of thousands of learners, like some MOOCs do? Can it ever be truly open, if suddenly there are geographical constraints or time zones to navigate? And if it’s not taught entirely, or predominantly, online, is it really a MOOC at all?

We’ll no doubt see the emergence of ELT MOOCs, but the successful ones are unlikely to follow the format and structure used in the US Higher Ed context. An evolution of some kind will be needed, and that’s where it’ll start to get really interesting.

36 thoughts on “MOOC shmooc?”

  1. Very good post, Nick. There are MOOCs for languages though. Take a look at the courses offered at , which include an English course for beginners (Spanish speakers) and a professional English course at intermediate level. I have no ideas how good/successful they are, but there are people out there trying.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Graham, and for taking the time to comment. I wasn’t aware of Miriada X, but I’m going to have an explore. Hope you’re settling into the new place!

  2. Nice one, Nick. I needed to hear your doubts about MOOCs because they are very much the flavor of the month in the context in which I work (the US tertiary one). In terms of scale, perhaps the nearest thing to MOOCs in face-to-face methodology is Crazy English, in which the instructor drills football-stadium-size crowds in China, a degree of participation – and interactivity – that is impossible to replicate online, or not at least until technology can multiply to the power of 100 the immediacy of small-group participation that is just possible in Skype conference calls and smallish webinar events. Until then, MOOCs will only be another version of the kind of mass-market programmed instruction that was the mainstay of those language school chains in the 1990s, where teachers were replaced by technicians.

    That said, the use of MOOCs to deliver MA TESOL content is a threat less easily countered by appeals to the need for interactivity, community etc, especially when pitted against the potential income such programs might generate.

  3. Really very interesting article Nick, and so well explained to those of us out here grappling with the notion and how it might play out in real world teaching and learning. My sense is that in the learning environment, (wherever that might be) elements of MOOCs will be appropriated by early adopters who are actively seeking out the means by which they might be soundly pedagogically integrated. I sense that the move will be towards principled eclecticism, mixing the intimacy the face to face with CMC tools with blended learning/flipped classrooms. I will watch with interest to see how things evolve …

    • Many thanks for your comment, Miranda. It’s a good point that we’re probably still at the early adopter stage as far as MOOCs are concerned in ELT. However, I wonder whether the phenomenon as a whole (especially in the US Higher Ed market) is moving towards maturity. One sign that that might be the case is the love affair with Coursera apparently coming to an end, as reported here:

  4. Interesting and thought-provoking topic. I have to say that my first reaction was to agree that MOOCs are probably not the greatest way to learn a language.

    As with any online course, a huge amount of motivation is required by the student and in my experience, many students seem to need the teacher to encourage them. Having said that, perhaps that is why they come to F2F lessons with me rather than joining a free online course.

    One of the main problems of online courses is that anyone can basically set one up, copying a syllabus from someone else, and provide a low quality course cheaply. I suffered from this myself last summer when I decided to do a course in Android App Development – with no programmming knowledge I really tried hard to get to grips with Java! the Android programming language but ended up dropping out. This was because the course description claimed that no knowledge of programming was required, and the tutor obviously didn’t know how to deal with people like me. In ELT this means people being in the wrong level, as they join a B1 or B2 course because they need the certification. Of course this is by no means unique to MOOCs.

    On the other hand, a task-based approach can work very well with a MOOC or other online course. I am an EVO moderator on a small MOOC (we called it a SMOOCH!) and the task-based nature of the training allows people to work at their own pace, doing some background reading before trying out the tools and completing tasks. This could work equally well for language learners. They would see their progress as the tasks become progressively more difficult. Assessment is not required either, self and peer evaluation may be more appropriate.

    At the end of the day, it really depends on each learner’s objectives and preferences. As a F2F teacher who tries to implement blended learning, I think some kind of contact time with a tutor important, however this could also be done online via Skype, Hangouts etc.

    Whatever happens in the future, it will be interesting to see and be a part of. Our profession is constantly changing and I think we need to be aware of and prepared for that.

  5. Great post, Nick. It seems to me that what is really interesting here is the “M” factor, that is, the sheer numbers of students that MOOCs reach. After all online ELT courses have been around for a good 15 years now and can be very interactive. We have definitely moved on from just “right-and-wrong” answers and I see no reason why interactivity between materials and students, students and students cannot be just as effective in MOOCs an in smaller-scale online courses.

    The two issues for me here are 1) the role of lecturer/teacher, is there any way to move beyond the “guru on the mountaintop” model for teachers in MOOCs? And 2) How can you “meaningfully” assess this number of students within the cost restraints of MOOCs?

    • Thanks for the comment, Fiona, and for the two questions you’ve raised. With regards to question 2, I suppose the risk is that the assessment on really massive courses won’t actually be meaningful at all. The missing element would always be an assessment of the learner’s spoken communicative competence. It’s not that you can’t assess that online, of course. The question is, could you assess it if you had 50,000 students enrolled on a course and all hoping to graduate at the same time … !

  6. This is a very useful way to frame the issue. Thank you, Nick.

    Certainly the broadcast model is what we most associate with MOOCs today, given Coursera and edX’s porting of the university lecture format onto an online platform. I agree that this is not a good fit for language education.

    The distinction between quantitative and qualitative is apt, I think. On the other hand, there are some promising solutions to the issue of providing qualitative assessment on scale. Coursera has experimented quite a bit with peer review with some of their humanities courses. In some cases, it approaches the reliability of teacher scoring.

    To the extent that you can maximize learning through form-focused instruction, explicit vocabulary instruction, comprehension questions — all of those ‘quantitative’ elements of language learning — an online environment is well suited.

    Beyond that, we’ll start to see some ways of scaling up the more ‘qualitative’ elements. First and foremost in my mind is the use of the semantic web for providing relevant input. A student model that adapts to their path through the material would be necessary as well.

    I can see something involving adaptive learning, utilizing the semantic web and using scalable systems of peer review. That said, this may only be a supplement to F2F teaching.

    • Thanks for the brilliant response, Brian. Very interesting to hear about the potential accuracy of peer review compared to teacher scoring. I wonder how that would translate to language learning; it would be fascinating to look at.

      I like the possible future you map out in the final paragraph of your comment. I wonder, in real terms, how many years we are away from that. Do you see any evidence of it happening already, especially the semantic web stuff?

  7. Great post, Nick. I’d suggest that if MOOCs have a future, then it isn’t in the form of blended courses (which, as you say, would mean that the MOOC was no longer fully online – perhaps more of a plain old MOC!). The need for a classroom-based element, after all, would itself imply a resort to the ‘guru on the mountaintop’ model and so actually be regressive in terms of the pedagogical trend in ELT.

    While I certainly agree that a collection of automated right/wrong answers does not make for a successful ELT course, these constraints are blown out of the water when MOOCs take on ‘social learning’ elements that allow users to participate in communication with their peers (in effect, allowing for unlimited student talking time). Social learning will, among many other things, create opportunities for peer teaching and review (two elements that are exactly in line with modern ELT pedagogy) which will bring a much-needed new dimension to digital learning, and, in my view, allow it to flourish like never before.

    Another thing that I like about the idea of social learning is that it promotes a style of communication that is inherently authentic. Learners communicate with each other on forums and in chats just as they often do in the ‘real world’ of their L1. (This has got to be better than having learners in a classroom with a group of strangers and a teacher telling them to talk to each other, right?)

    With the proliferation of social media use, face-to-face communication is, of course, no longer the only form of interaction that feels ‘real’ and authentic to learners. This, combined with the use of social learning elements in courses, will, in my view, mean that the fully online, effective MOOC can become a reality.

    • Fantastic response, Rob; thanks for taking the time to write it.

      I’m especially interested in what you said about face-to-face no longer being the only form of interaction that feels ‘real’ to learners. It opens up a potentially much wider discussion into the role that spoken communication plays in ELT courses in general. Given the time most people now spend online or on our phones — in a state of almost constant communication, very little of it spoken — do we need to revisit the balance of spoken/written communication skills in our courses (and coursebooks)?

  8. I’ve just recently started a couple of Mooc courses and I’m enjoying them a lot. Though I teach English myself, it hadn’t really crossed my mind to think of Mooc possibilities in that area. There’s nothing much I could argue with in this particular post, but I would say that the sheer size of the Mooc would appear to be evidence of its flexibility rather than rigidity and I’ve already found on my courses that in addition to the main course there are lots of little semi-independent mini courses coming to life in the forums, interesting ideas being developed, etc, just on the basis of students exchanging relevant information/experiences. And when it comes to gurus and automated answers, isn’t this already the case in many self study software/CD/DVD courses and from memory it’s one of the places where computer based courses started. A lack of interactive resources/opportunities would obviously matter more in language courses than it does in mine but it’s probably just a matter of will and time till someone starts to set that right. Not all interaction, after all, has to be with a living, breathing teacher, and one thing which already seems to be missing and is only a logical extension of what happens in the forums is assessed student-centred project-based work, which I think could adapt easily for language learning.

    I also think that Mooc courses compare favourably to other ,accredited, more expensive but with much more teacher input, courses already available online. I’ve met students on this type of course who put honing their language skills right up there with mastering the content of the course, whether it be literary theory, 19th century history, or film noir. I’d almost decided that the next time an ex-student pestered me for some ideas how to keep up their English, I’d nudge them in the direction of an online course in another subject they’d enjoy. I wouldn’t particularly nudge them towards a Mooc at the moment, but maybe in the not too distant future. And if and when the Moocs evolve into something more suitable for language learning, it could be a bit of a game changer, because they are likely to be free or very cheap.

    • Hugh wrote: “I’d almost decided that the next time an ex-student pestered me for some ideas how to keep up their English, I’d nudge them in the direction of an online course in another subject they’d enjoy.” Yes! I think this is key.

      Coming back to the question of teacher education, I can start to see a parallel between MOOCs and the kind of experience that, say, the hundreds of people who contributed to the Dogme discussion list had over the years (and that was essentially unmoderated), or even the kind of discussion that is going on here. What, then, does a MOOC add? Some kind of structure (e.g. a syllabus)? Some kind of assessment? According to whose standards? I’m curious.

      • Scott wrote

        What, then, does a MOOC add? Some kind of structure (e.g. a syllabus)? Some kind of assessment? According to whose standards? I’m curious.

        The answer is pretty much all of the above. The courses I’m doing are short coursera courses, “Coursera” being the provider of the platform, if that’s the right expression, and there being a variety of course providers. I’d give you the link but due to some kink in my browser, the only access I seem to be able to get just now is inside my personal area, and you wouldn’t want that. A quick search will get you there.

    • Thanks for the very interesting comment, Hugh. Again, it’s great to hear from someone with direct experience of learning through a MOOC.

      I’m particularly interested in what you said about ‘semi-independent, mini courses coming to life in the forums’. I hadn’t thought about it, but it makes perfect sense: with anything on this kind of massive scale, it’s inevitably going to start breaking up and going off into different directions. For fans of a more emergent approach to language teaching, that could offer a ton of possibilities: the teacher could basically get the course going, and then shepherd it along depending on the direction the learners end up wanting to take it. It could in fact end up being very flexible indeed, as you’ve said.

  9. I always recommend my students to do a MOOC….it has an amazing effect on their English…I’ve seen startling changes in some students English in the space of 5 weeks participation.
    Lets not forget the entrenched commercial hegemony of the ELT Celta/
    delta and emmerging MA TESOL industry…so a free MOOC course,[designing one just requires a bit of imagination-see Nik Peacheys on line teacher training course] would help a lot of EFL teachers[DONT FORGET…EFL teachers are really really badly paid!]with families, working on basic salaries.They’d love to do a DELTA course but 3,000 quid is out of the question.Lets ask the question…why do nearly 97% of people pass a CELTA course…most of what you learn there can be canned into one skype call and extensive reading!!!So in about 10 years time good bye to overpriced University education, only available to the privelaged few!!!

    • Many thanks for the comment, Philip. There’s certainly scope for MOOCs to open up courses to a wider audience, especially to people who couldn’t normally afford to take part. That would be a very positive development indeed.

  10. Like some people above, I think the best way to learn English from a MOOC may be by studying a subject of interest in English (rather than English language being the focus of the MOOC). I totally agree that a lack of communicative practice would make an ELT MOOC as problematic as a self-study language course – or as flawed as trying to learn a language from a TV programme.

    However, perhaps where ELT meets MOOCs (in their current form) is not by being an actual course, but by providing additional support for learners of English who want to study in English.

    • Cheers for the comment, Graham.

      Given the move towards English-language instruction in many universities, we’re bound to see more non-native speakers of English attending MOOCs in order to learn the subject whole improving their language skills.

      There could even potentially be a market for companion courses for some of the biggest and most popular MOOCs — courses aimed at helping non-native speakers to navigate the course in English by providing additional language input and support.

      • Nick wrote: ‘There could even potentially be a market for companion courses for some of the biggest and most popular MOOCs — courses aimed at helping non-native speakers to navigate the course in English by providing additional language input and support.’

        Nice point, Nick and Graham. But where does all this end and CLIL begin?

        • Martyn wrote
          Nice point, Nick and Graham. But where does all this end and CLIL begin?

          Maybe CLIL begins when there is a qualified language teacher thereabouts to give appropriate advice/guidance, and Moocs are for the hardy students who want to brave it on their own? Of course, not all Moocs are in English, so when I get the courage up, I might see what it’s like for myself and if it can reanimate some of my deteriorating language skills.

    • I think this is the key to an LMOOC (L=Language). More of the CLIL approach but with more scaffolding for the language learner. I am currently managing a pilot project to see how we can put this together, hopefully to launch in the Autumn – watch this space!

  11. This comes from the Learning Technology facebook page
    and it focuses on the kind of research which might be needed to evaluate the Mooc future as far as language learning is concerned. Don’t see it posted anywhere else here. I must admit, and I don’t think it’s ruled out anywhere in the article, I think the best place to start would be genuine participation in a short Mooc, there are some as short as five weeks that I know of.

    A five week Mooc would probably be just about right for me to finally iron out my long running problems with the Spanish subjunctive, but strangely, such a Mooc is not on offer. I would sign up for it tomorrow.

  12. A while ago I was contacted by someone who works for a company called ‘online PhD programs’, who asked if we would be interested in promoting their MOOCs at . I replied and said we’d be happy for them to write a guest blog post, but we don’t just promote stuff for people, that’s not what we’re about. I got a reply saying that they’d love to, and that I could use the ‘following text’ – what followed was a one-sentence slogan about their MOOCs. Well, the conversation didn’t go much further.

  13. Damian wrote –


    A while ago I was contacted by someone who works for a company called ‘online PhD programs’, who asked if we would be interested in promoting their MOOCs at . I replied and said we’d be happy for them to write a guest blog post, but we don’t just promote stuff for people, that’s not what we’re about. I got a reply saying that they’d love to, and that I could use the ‘following text’ – what followed was a one-sentence slogan about their MOOCs. Well, the conversation didn’t go much further.

    Seems more a comment on ‘Online Phd programs’ than Moocs. The name of the company looks dodgy as it is. I think Moocs could play an important part in the future of online education and I can understand the enthusiasm of some of the posts here about what they can already do, though their best offer at present doesn’t seem to be in ELT.

    Much as I have strong reservations about such self-study packages as Rosetta Stone (am I allowed to mention them? no intention to offend anyone…) I think it’s going to need something of that type, platform based, to make Mooc language learning work, and of course programmes like that are still very marketable, so who is going to give that away for free or next to nothing in a Mooc? But it could happen. And in the meantime I’m still enjoying my Mooc history courses and rate them quite highly alongside accredited online fee-paying courses I’ve done elsewhere…

    • Fair point, Hugh, and I’ll confess I don’t have much experience of MOOCs. I have used Rosetta Stone and the Duolingo app though and I think they’re pretty good for learning the basics, if you’re that type of learner (but, sorry, we weren’t going to name names, were we? : )). Like Crazy English though, I’m not sure MOOCs would appeal to everyone, and that’s kind of the point of them, isn’t it?


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