Guest Post: “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”…or are we?

PLOS Sci-Ed is pleased to welcome Eve Purdy to the blog today to discuss Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and her experiences with them. For more on Eve, please see her bio at the end of this post.

Revolutions are characterized by radical change. Education has always been about knowledge distribution and the creation of learning communities. To me, these do not seem to be radical ideas. However, some are saying that they will revolutionize education. Some feel that they are just a fad. They are generating conversation and they are changing the way students learn, or are they?

The “they” are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have been on the education scene since 2008 when the course “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” created by George Siemens at the University of Manitoba registered 2200 students online. They are now available by the hundreds through websites such as as Coursera and Udacity that boast > 4 million participants. Despite attrition rates of >90%, MOOCs have the ability to reach more students in one course offering than in 40 years of teaching through an institution, as described in this article.

How do MOOCs work?
Anybody can register for courses on topics ranging from “Artificial Intelligence for Robotics” to “Microeconomic Principles” to “The Anatomy of the Upper Limb“. These courses, most often taught by a professor at a reputable post-secondary institution (Harvard, UCSF, Stanford etc. have joined the ranks), are offered for free and run for 4-12 weeks. Though courses vary, in most MOOCs, participants watch lectures on their own time, complete assignments, join discussion and submit/peer grade assignments.
I previously outlined my experience with the MOOC “Clinical Problem Solving” here. While MOOCs can supplement my medical school experience they cannot replace it. The same might be said for other practical laboratory and work environments.
xMOOCs vs cMOOCs

When thinking about the role of MOOCs in education, and for the rest of this discussion, it is key to make the distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.


xMOOCs are an eXtension of existing educational pedagogies. These are the most common types of MOOCs featured on Coursera, EdX, Udacity etc. They allow professors to deliver information in the same way that they do in a university lecture-based course but to a much larger audience using technology. The “sage on the stage” is still central to the learning with some secondary discussion on class discussion boards and peer graded assignments. Technology does not change the learning model but it does extend it to reach a larger audience.

xMOOCs provide an opportunity to deliver information in a relatively cheap and efficient way. Universities might consider them as a method to reduce costs and provide the highest quality teaching for courses when the main goal is to deliver information to students. Whether or not this is a valid educational goal is the topic of another debate but for now, let’s look at an example:

Medical students must learn some amount of anatomy. Historically, each institution has had a unique curriculum organized and delivered by professors at each school. This results in excess administrative costs and manpower for information that is essentially the same. From experience, I know that when I learned about the arm at McMaster University then again at Queen’s University the biceps brachii was still the biceps brachii. We could encourage the most engaging and effective anatomy professors across the country to collaborate to create an xMOOC “Anatomy for Medical Students” then share this resource with schools who may or may not choose to use it in their curriculum. Programs could support these MOOCs with other learning opportunities such as labs and tutorials. Such a future is explored in a great article “Just Imagine- New Paradigms for Medical Education“. There are certainly problems with this approach but if the goal is to streamline the delivery of factual information, xMOOCs might just be the way to go.


cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs) are different. They are a form of decentralized learning. The content is not central to the learning; instead, the process of learning is the learning. A single professor is no longer transferring knowledge in a top-down (vertical) approach as participants act as both students and educators by sharing information and engaging with each other, using technology as means to facilitate such interaction. Sounds a bit abstract right? To read more see this article. Though new to formalized education, this type of learning model is not new. It reflects the type of informal learning that colleagues engage in on a daily basis, but now the constantly evolving balance of learning with and from each other around a shared topic can be explicit and documented.

cMOOCs offer an opportunity to go beyond the material. Students become educators and educators become students. By creating a network where we learn to aggregate, remix, repurpose and share information we become aware that knowledge itself doesn’t make a doctor or an epidemiologist or a biologist. We become aware that how one interacts within a community is equally and likely more important than the knowledge. Universities might consider cMOOCs as a place to explore the already existing informal or “hidden” curriculum. Again, let’s turn to an example in medical education:

Cognitive biases often result in errors in clinical reasoning. For example a physician may be more likely to order unnecessary tests in an otherwise healthy young adult with chest pain if they missed a rare but deadly diagnosis related to that presentation early in their career. This is an example of the availability heuristic that sees recent or easily remembered, often emotionally charged events affect current decision making. If not recognized, it may result in increased costs to the system and to patients. There are many types of biases in decision making, each with different implications for physicians and patients. Simply delivering information about these cognitive biases to learners will not result in understanding or improved practice. Instead, a group of participants (medical students, residents, doctors, nurses, patients etc.) from an infinite number of institutions could commit to exploring cognitive biases through a cMOOC. This would look like the delivery of some content that would serve as a jumping off point for discussion, curation and creation of content from a variety of perspectives. Through such a course the medical student might learn not only what the attending physician knows but also the language she uses and the attitudes she holds. The medical student might challenge the attending and the attending might challenge the student. Being a horizontal course every participant would be in a position to contribute. The attending physician would learn from the nurse and the resident from the medical student. Knowledge acquisition is not the endpoint for the cMOOC the community is. For topics in medicine (and other sciences) that are less well defined cMOOCs provide a unique technological platform, not defined by boundaries of space and time, for exploration.

Are MOOCs revolutionary?

Will xMOOCs mean that more people have access to information? Yes. Will cMOOCs provide a platform for wider learning communities to create knowledge together? Yes. Will this require historical institutions to adapt? Yes. Will this create new opportunities for learning? Yes.

Will that series of “yes’s” result in radical change? You tell me!

I am interested in your thoughts on and experiences with MOOCs. Please feel free to comment below or contact me on twitter @purdy_eve. A thanks to Javier Benitez whose thoughts and perspectives in our discussions about MOOCs in the context of medical education have shaped my own ideas.

And since we may or may not be “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”

About the Author

Eve PurdyEve Purdy BHSc is a third year medical student at Queen’s University with interests in emergency medicine, medical education and social media in health care. She blogs at and you can always contact her on twitter @purdy_eve

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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