Tuesday, December 03, 2013

MOOC Platforms : a primer - biggies, newbies & freebooters

As the MOOCosphere expanded, more and more platforms sprung into action. Some have already delivered large numbers of MOOCs, such as the open source platform EdX and the Coursera. The other big ticket platform is Udacity which has now morphed into a specific market – corporate training. Although the wellspring was in the US, the UK, Europe, India, Russia, Brazil and many others have joined the party. The global LMS/VLE vendors (Blackboard, Desire2learn, SAP) and Moodle have jumped on the bandwagon. Some so-called MOOC platforms aren’t really platforms at all – they’re aggregators. Using the word ‘platform’ to mean ‘place or URL’ on the web. There’s also the ‘let’s call it a MOOC even though it is not’ mob. Apart from this last category, it’s all good. We need a pluralistic landscape. The internet may like ‘ones’ but education likes ‘many’. We also have to get away from the hopelessly simplistic xMOOC v cMOOC dualism. The MOOC landscape and taxonomy is way more complicated than this rather historic distinction suggests.Some so called MOOC platforms aren’t really platforms at all – they’re aggregators. Using the word ‘platform’ to mean ‘place’ on the web. There’s also the ‘let’s just call our stuff a MOOC even though it is not’ brigade.
This post is a follow up to one on MOOC strategy (7 strategic ways forward with MOOCs), with a deeper dive into what platform to use.
Look to the cloud
As my friend Dick Moore says, be very careful here. The predominant delivery model that underpins MOOCS is that they are either free or very low cost, and enroll large volumes of users. This low cost of delivery dictates that the service costs have to be in the order of cents or pence per learner hour and be capable or scaling up as well as down, its not a surprise therefore to see that all the recent MOOC frameworks are cloud hosted, typically constructed in infrastructure that can 'elastically scale' to meet demand.  
New platforms, such as Futurelearn and Canvas, are typically constructed using frameworks such as Ruby on Rails, others in Python. EdX in Django (effectively the Python version of Ruby on Rails). Courseara is also Django, Python and php/ Musql. Udacity is Google apps, which is effectively a Python stack and framework. The key thing is that they are all MVC framework development, which separates the rendering and representation of information from the user's interaction, logic and persistence. This allows more a flexible and agile approach and typically supports a continuous stream of releases and innovation, as it is far less monolithic than c# or JAVA development.
Why does this matter? Cloud platforms are intended from the ground up to be constructed from software components and are able to take advantage of cloud computing’s ability to ‘elastically scale’ and as a result eliminate the high capital overhead associated with the ‘stepped’ costs typical of second generation platforms such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn and SAP, (and Moodle) who are starting to feeling the competition.
EdX https://www.edx.org
EdX is one of the big boys in the market and has established a firm position with its ‘open source’ offer, solid funding and global reach. It’s a land grab and EdX have been out there in the Americas, Europe and Asia. We’re told that they’ve have marched into China with Peking University and Nanyang Technological University but others are also in China, notably, Coursera. There’s been lots of noise about them being the sole French MOOC platform but  École Normale Supérieure and HEC Paris have signed up Coursera. Note that Google Coursebuilder has also announced that it will fold into EdX in 2014 and it has a strong R&D programme. Even Stanford, the MOOC platform generator, has now gone for EdX. For me, this is a good, safe bet.
Coursera https://www.coursera.org
With $85 million of funding, these guys have deep pockets, massive global growth and a solid management team. Quite simply, they’ve delivered. Deals with US State Universities and dozens of others around the globe, in Europe, China, Korea, Russia and Mexico, among others, have given them the ability to get their Signature Track revenues going – with $1 million earned in XXXX. Their partnership with the World Bank won’t do them any harm either. Given that EdX was funded by Harvard and MIT, we shouldn’t be surprised that Coursera have Yale. Solid for-profit offer but courses are seen as a bit primitive and video heavy. Solid bet but you’re a hostage to commercial fortune.
Futurelearn https://www.futurelearn.com
A private company, set up by the UK’s Open University (and a backroom Government deal) as a bulwark against US domination, has done deals with a large number of UK universities and is not looking to expand abroad. They have built their own platform, which is fine, but the OU has tried this before, with less than stellar results. It doesn’t help, I think, that they have a BBC Radio guy at the helm. All of this suggests commercial naivety. It will be interesting to see how commercial they will be, as the OU burned millions trying to get into the US to no effect and have always struggled when it comes to business. Courses have been launched but the platform is not as ground-breaking as they claimed. One to watch.
Udacity https://www.udacity.com
Much has been made of Udacity’s switch into the corporate market but this may be smarter than many think, as it’s relatively untouched. However, this is not an assault on traditional internal onine training, which is already way ahead of Udacity’s capacity to deliver. The Open Education Alliance is interesting (not a capitalist plot) and all seems well with Udacity’s online Masters degree in Computer Science with AT&T at Georgia Tech.
Udemy offers a large catalogue of largely business and IT oriented courses that vary from free to $500. You can also create your own courses. They’ve set their sights on revenues from the start. Like Udacity, they seem to be shooting for the corporate market. Rapacious.
Iversity https://iversity.org
This Berlin based start-up offers 25 courses, some in English, others in German. With a rack of European Universities signed up, they’re getting there and have an eye on the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). They have an interesting Ambassador programme. They’re new and will have to raise money to survive. Risky as they’re not fully capitalized (as yet).
NovoEd https://novoed.com
Previously Venture Lab, this platform wants to break down massive numbers into manageable groups of ten or less, for group peer work. NovoEd takes a collaborative approach to MOOCs with an emphasis on teamwork and social learning. This, like Coursera and Udacity, is also out of Stanford and aims to deliver change both within and outside of the institution. With over 30 free courses, and a focus on entrepreneurship, it’s interesting, if not a little to business-focused and esoteric for most.
Canvas https://www.canvas.net
UC Irvine, who are going it alone in more than just platform choice. They launched a MOOC in September 2013 on The Walking Dead, hooking students into the deeper study of maths, physics and public health, through the hit show. But Canvas is a cloud-based, open source LMS and Canvas Network its MOOC platform, with over 40 courses on canvas.net, mostly free, with some at $49-$199. I like Canvas. It’s open source and seems like fun!

LMS/VLE vendors
Downes and Siemens ran their first MOOC on Moodle and we have had a Moodle MOOC on ‘Teaching using Moodle’. Moodle.org has always had a vibrant community around this valuable open source LMS/VLE but this is a structured ‘course’ rightfully qualifying it as a MOOC. Truth be told, Moodle is not really built for MOOC delivery as it only has one databases and will struggle with over 10,000 users. But it’s a lightweight option, especially if used with other platforms, such as Mahara. There’s a Moodle4MOOCs group in G+. Opition but has severe limitations.
Blackboard http://bbbb.blackboard.com/mooc-powered-by-blackboard
There’s 49 courses on what is really Blackboard’s Coursesites, and a few obvious Blackboard ’marketing’ courses. Blackboard is a LMS/VLE, not a MOOC platform, nevertheless, if it is used to offer ‘open’ courses, I see no reason for not calling it a MOOC platform. In that sense, any LMS/VLE, can be used, as long as the course is ‘open’. Give the 4000 plus institutions that have Blackboard, you may wish to play and experiment within an environment they already use and know. Others think that Blackboard will be wiped clean by newer MOOC and MOOC friendly platforms.
Desire2learn http://www.desire2learn.com/products/open-courses/
Similarly with Desire2learn, another attempt at rebranding LMS/VLE functionality as a delivery vehicle for MOOCs with 10 MOOCs in its OpenCourses. They make a big nise about their Desire2learn Course Binder for the iPad but don’t they all. Again, like Blackboard, you may want to stay in the family, while you find your way.
SAP https://open.sap.com/courses
SAP has announced Open.SAP.com for SAP product training. We’ll see more of this – free training from software companies on how to use their product, and boy do you need training to use SAP! This is simply rebranding an LMS as a MOOC platform, which is OK, if you’re a SAP house.
World Wide Ed http://wideworlded.org
Made in Canada – Open to the world! Formed in May 2013, this organisation has announced that it will be a platform for Canadian MOOCs. Their first course, Online Instruction for Open Educators was run in October 2013. Hard to tell if this is just a recent response to fear of US domination, a loose consortium, rather than the real deal.
OpenupEd http://www.openuped.eu
This Pan-European initiative, supported by the European Commission, with 12 current partners in Europe (also Russia and Israel) and an emphasis on Open Universities. The courses are designed to be delivered in 11 languages plus Arabic, and it claims to have delivered 174 MOOCs. Beware, however, as this is not actually a platform, more an aggregator, as each institution is free to choose their own chosen platform.
Indian consortium
In true Indian fashion, a rather vague consortium of Infosys, Cognizant, TCS and Nasscom along with seven Indian IITs (Institutes of Technology) claim to offer MOOCs. Then again IIT Bombay have already announced a partnership with EdX. One would expect India to go it alone as they are always reluctant to pay US prices for the use of platforms.
When is a MOOC not a MOOC?
There have been odd occurrences of people saying things are MOOCs, when they are, in fact, just conferences, workshops, resources or webcasts. Whether any of these are MOOCs or not depends on how tight a definition you want to hold.  Where I do draw the line is with the absurd MOOC Campus, yes it is a ‘residential campus’ for MOOCs, showing merely that they have completely missed the point! In the end everyone just has to be conscious of the four words in the acronym.
Massive depends on what you have as a comparison. Compared to the average tens to few hundred on a traditional course, that’s not hard to beat. I’d suggest that a figure above a thousand certainly qualifies. Then again, on open courses, where the commitment of the learner need be no more than signing up to have a look, many may just be browsing or tasting the course, to see what it is or whether its right for them, you will find considerable drop out. Drop-out is intrinsic to the model, and it is hopelessly optimistic to compare MOOCs to paid for, undergraduate courses.
Open is in my book, a necessary condition for being a MOOC. This is the distinguishing feature that separates MOOCs from other online courses. Unless courses are open for the public to join they should NOT be described as MOOCs.
Online is also a necessary condition. You can’t call a residential course a MOOC, nor, do I think you can count compulsory attendance somewhere, as a necessary part of the MOOC. This goes against it being ‘open’.
Course is an interesting one. The trouble with general open educational resources being classed as MOOCs, is that it is a slippery slope towards almost anything online being called a MOOC.
In moving forward we must all move beyond the simplistic mud-slinging, and group letter writing, aimed largely at people who are genuinely trying to do good things and grab this fantastic opportunity to deliver huge amounts of great learning, at very, very low cost to people who simply want to learn (and may not have access to HE or the ability to pay).
For other MOOC articles:


Anonymous said...


This was not the only MOOC hosted on Moodle in recent times.

Have you considered https://www.open2study.com/





Clint Lalonde said...

Good roundup of the major platforms. The only one I might have included is Peer2Peer University (p2pu.org). The platform enables anyone to design and run a course. Technically, the platform is called Lernanta, is OS, & built in Django https://github.com/p2pu/lernanta/wiki.

Brian Mulligan said...

How do you think alison.com fits into the MOOC landscape. Massive - yes, Open - yes, online- yes, courses - yes. However, it does not try to move a large cohort through in a specific timeframe. I have come to think of this as a necessary characteristic of a MOOC.

thomas jenewein said...

Btw:openSAP is not based on a classical LMS. It is a development based on freeware by the Hasso Plattner Institute - where open content has a long tradition. Includes things like gamification and social learning...
Current goal is to scale innovation topics which do not need to be product related per se. There are some non tech topics in planning. So a "x" style format was chosen to achieve that goal.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Thomas - useful update and correction. As 'freeware' what was it coding components?

Claire Donelon said...

openSAP uses a platform created by openHPI at the Hasso Plattner Institute. openHPI created the platform based on Canvas opensource and modified the system to their needs and supports openSAP to deliver our MOOC’s.
Although SAP is an LMS vendor, openSAP is a MOOC provider and not an LMS vendor There are SAP LMS products (eg SuccessFactors Learning) but these are classic LMS, not MOOC platforms. openSAP is solely a provider of MOOC's.
openSAP is what we call an “Enterprise MOOC” with the intention of providing courses related to our enterprise – maybe we should consider this to be an additional MOOC category?

Andrew Chambers said...

Another small but true Mooc platform is http://www.openlearning.com developed out of the University of New South Wales.

Some of those mentioned in the comments such as open2study.com are in fact running on other platforms such as Moodle...

Kate Ferreira said...

Stepic is a nice newbie platform too, though it's more an embeddable player than a full MOOC-platform.