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Massive open online courses: Is there a lesson for our academic professional associations?

Roger Atkinson

A recent posting to an educational technology email list caught my attention with its heading, "This is not a MOOC!" [1] Well, have MOOCs become so widespread, so "in", that attention for one's activity can be grabbed by proclaiming "This is not a MOOC!"? Of course, in this instance the attention grabbing was helped by other words and names: Professor Tom Reeves as poster, Open University of the Netherlands and the University of Twente as providers, "How to conduct educational design research" as topic, and "Online Master Class" as an indication of the kind of audience being appealed to.

Although "How to conduct educational design research" is not a MOOC (massive open online course), because it specified that "Enrollment will be limited" [1], it is a good starting point as an example of an open online course concerned with continuing professional development for practitioners ('CPD'). That's the core topic for this column, with particular reference to how professional associations may use MOOCs and other recently emerged technologies to further their contributions to CPD for members and the wider community.

To illustrate a specific context, consider an example provided by the UK's Association for Learning Technology (ALT). In 2013 it conducted a MOOC, "ocTEL" (Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning), "... an online course to help you understand better how to use technology to enhance your teaching practice. The course is aimed primarily at people teaching at Higher Education level... now over, but the materials will remain available for the next few months". There were no fees charged, no prerequisites, no attendance required, and now readers are being advised that ALT is "... likely to run the course again in early 2014" [2].

Do we have any Australian counterparts to ALT's "ocTEL" MOOC? The short answer is "No", if we consider all of the key features in a MOOC, namely "massive" (i.e. large enrolments), "open" (no prerequisites, no geographic or institutional restrictions, and no fees), "online" (no attendance; technology-enabled), and a "course" (i.e. a structured program with some interactivity, etc; being more than a multimedia textbook; though not a formal award course), together with the target participants being higher education teachers. However, the short answer "No" leads us into several obvious but nevertheless interesting questions: Why not? Do the initial developments of MOOCs by other kinds of organisations leave niches for "technology-enabled CPD" delivered by academic professional associations such as HERDSA and ascilite? Are there lessons for us?

To begin with the "Why not?" question, a number of influences could be nominated for further inquiry. Foremost is likely to be that attempts to create an association-based MOOC will encounter the problem of time constraints faced by potential developers. Although ocTEL was developed by a large team (presumably unpaid volunteers) [2], circumstances may be different in Australia. Potential Australian developers may be heavily committed to MOOCs and related activities within their individual universities, and they may be under pressure to produce research outputs for their universities, thereby limiting or precluding time allocation to "outside" activities undertaken for an academic professional association.

Evidence about the initial developments of MOOC activities by Australian universities is becoming abundant [3, 4], and evidence from elsewhere in the world is also readily available [5], although to date much of it is in the form of news and blog items rather than research articles. Academic associations wanting to enter the next generation of technology-enabled CPD will need to hurry, before all niches (and all of the potential creators) are pre-empted by university-based initiatives, and international initiatives such as ALT's ocTEL. The problem of workload on potential creators of MOOCs could create the risk of a kind of technology weariness. Consider a lecturer who in earlier times may have worked hard on creating multimedia resources for learning, perhaps with publication via an avenue such as Apple's iTunes U, then more recently has worked hard to make best teaching and learning use of the university's Moodle, Blackboard, or whatever, looked into virtual worlds, online simulations, etc, etc, and now may be hit with yet another new technology, the MOOC. At what point will technology weariness kick in?

Evidence about academics being under pressure to produce research outputs is also abundant, though often anecdotal. For some, this may mean concentrating their spare time upon writing up research for journal publication, possibly tempted by several recent calls for papers in special issues on MOOCs [6]. For others, chapters in a research-oriented book may be an attractive avenue, for example MOOCs are one of the topics in a current call for chapters issued by IGI Global, for a book edited by three Australians [7]. However, regrettably, it may be quite difficult for academics to secure any element of research recognition for participating in the creation of a MOOC, whether for their own university or for a professional association. The constraints are set out in the Australian Research Council's publication ERA 2012 Submission Guidelines [8]. Adding to the difficulty created by the fuzzy dividing line between "chapters in a research book" and "chapters in textbooks", Submission Guidelines specifies in Section that the chapter must be "in a book that has been published by a commercial publisher", though a follow on paragraph in muddles matters by stating that "... the ARC recognises that there are cases..." such that non-compliance may be acceptable in relation to free, non-commercial, online only chapters [8]. Given that ambiguity, we should not be surprised if Australian academics choose options perceived as safer, in relation to growing the number of their research outputs, than participating in MOOC creation activities.

Perhaps academic associations need more time to become accustomed to the MOOC push, with its emphasis on being free to any Internet user, and on seeking large numbers of participants. For example, HERDSA's Guide series is very "non-open", being available only via purchase of printed copies [9], and ascilite's webinar series ascilite Live! does not have a "massive" reach with its "... average of 20-30 attendees" per event [10].

Given the rapid expansion of MOOC developments by other kinds of organisations, will there be appropriate niches available in the near future for academic professional associations? This is not an easy question to address, owing to the existence of many sets of CPD-related learning resources that could be repurposed into MOOCs, perhaps in some cases after relatively little extra developmental work, though in other cases only after significant extra work. Indeed, one could argue that in many subjects we can find a near continuous spectrum of online, open access resources ranging from e-books (or 'e-texts'); to online independent study modules, sometimes with computer-administered self-assessment, available anytime; to MOOCs which have study schedules that facilitate virtual group activities. Thus one could argue that MOOCs are rarely "entirely new", usually being a repurposing and extension of existing learning resources. So MOOCs are most likely to proliferate from providers who have existing resources that require relatively little extra developmental work.

From an abundance of illustrative examples, several may be especially pertinent. Open Universities Australia offers Open2Study ("Still deciding whether online study is right for you?") [11], and the UK Open University offers OpenLearn ("The home of free learning from The Open University") [12]. Both seem to have scope for relatively easy repurposing into MOOCs. Two examples of CPD-related modules that could be repurposed were collaborative modules developed by Curtin and Swinburne Universities (Transnational education professional development program), and by the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney (Tutor training: Professional development online).

The phrases "relatively easy repurposing into MOOCs" and "collaborative modules" may be the key phrases for academic professional associations seeking to go with the MOOC flow.


  1. Posting by Thomas C Reeves to IT Forum list,, 8 June 2013. Subject: This is not a MOOC! "How to conduct educational design research" Online Master Class.
  2. ocTEL (Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning). Association for Learning Technology.
  3. Norton, A., Sonnemann, J. & McGannon, C. (2013). The online evolution: When technology meets tradition in higher education. Grattan Institute Report No. 2013-3, April 2013.
  4. For some updates on the Norton et al. (2013) list of Australian MOOC developments, see:
    Deakin University (2013). Deakin's MOOC to explore innovations in assessment.
    University of Tasmania (2013). Understanding Dementia MOOC.
    Curtin University (2013). New free open learning from Curtin University.
    University of Melbourne (2013). Coursera.
    The University of Western Australia.
  5. Some recent references that contain extensive bibliographies include:
    Clarà, M. & Barberà, E. (2013). Learning online: massive open online courses (MOOCs), connectivism, and cultural psychology. Distance Education, 34(1), 129-136.
    EDUCAUSE (2013). Massive open online course (MOOC).
    Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. & Ludgate, H. (2013). NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
    Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A. & Williams, S. A. (2013). MOOCs: A systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(3), 202-227.
    Mor, Y. & Koskinen, T. (2013). MOOCs and beyond. eLearning Papers, No. 33.
  6. Recent calls for papers to appear in MOOC-related special issues of journals include:
    Distance Education -
    Journal of Online Learning and Teaching -
  7. IGI Global (2013). Call for Chapters: Open Learning and Formal Credentialing in Higher Education: Curriculum Models and Institutional Policies.
  8. ARC (Australian Research Council) (2011). ERA 2012 Submission Guidelines. Canberra: ARC.
  9. HERDSA (2013). Guides.
  10. Ascilite (2012). President's Report 2012, p.16. File 'Presidents Report 2012.pdf'
  11. Open Universities Australia (2013). Open2Study.
  12. Open University (2013). OpenLearn.
  13. Curtin University and Swinburne University of Technology (n.d.). Transnational education (TNE) professional development program.
  14. The University of Melbourne and The University of Sydney (2007). Tutor training: Professional development online. (see also Bell, A. & Morris, G. (2009). Engaging professional learning in online environments. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(5), 700-713.
Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. In mid-2012 he retired from a 17 year association with the publishing of AJET. Website (including this article in html format):

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2013). Massive open online courses: Is there a lesson for our academic professional associations? HERDSA News, 35(2).

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