By @mhawksey

Notes on technology behind cMOOCs: Show me your aggregation architecture and I’ll show you mine

For those not familiar with MOOCs Dave Cormier & co. have a nice video explaining them here. Dave should know as the term:

MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in response to an open online course designed and lead by George Siemens, associate director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University and Stephen Downes, Senior Researcher at The National Research Council (Canada). The course was called "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge" and was presented to 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba in addition to 2,300 other students from the general public who took the online class free of charge – from Wikipedia

If MOOCs aren’t already on the Gartner ‘peak of inflated expectations’ I’m sure by the end of this year they will as various people are gambling Where there’s MOOC, there’s brass?. Recently projects like Coursera, Udacity and edX have attracted over $100 million in investment to deliver MOOCs. It’s worth reiterating that not all MOOCs are the same and as George Siemens recently wrote:

Largely lost in the conversation around MOOCs is the different ideology that drives what are currently two broad MOOC offerings: the connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs?) that I [George Siemens] have been involved with since 2008 (with people like Stephen Downes, Jim Groom, Dave Cormier, Alan Levine, Wendy Drexler, Inge de Waard, Ray Schroeder, David Wiley, Alec Couros, and others) and the well-financed MOOCs by Coursera and edX (xMOOCS?).

George’s post was entitled ‘MOOCs are really a platform’, which got me thinking that given the recent announcement that Coursera is offering it’s platform to other partners, including the University of Edinburgh, this falls into the ‘as a Service’ model as used in cloud computing. So Coursera are offering chosen partners (for a fee) ‘MOOCs as a Service’ (MaaS), or using the distinction from above ‘xMaaS’.

One other consideration is whether xMOOCs are really MOOCs. Martin Weller recently questioned if the recent offerings from Coursera et al. are truly open. So ignoring the xMOOCs for now I thought it would be useful to survey some ‘real’ MOOCs and identify if there were any technological trends and possible future directions. This process has left me the questioning if there is a need for more shared guidance and support on aggregation architectures. [This post is mainly for me to record thoughts and resources but it might be something we (JISC CETIS) take forward. If this is something you’d like please comment or share this post to let us gauge the level of interest]

How the data was collected

A list of MOOCs was taken from the ‘(Very) Partial History of MOOCs’ section of (maintained by Stephen Downes). This was added to with UK based examples funded by JISC/HEA. All 14 courses were then visited and examined for technologies used. The criteria for inclusion were that the course had to have finished or started.

Because of the nature of MOOCs there is a grey line between the technology: chosen by the course team; recommended to students; and used by students either as part of their personal learning environment or used to facilitate smaller study groups. A distinction was attempted to only include technologies chosen/used by the course team.

Data collection was also not entirely conclusive due some of the early MOOCs (CCK08  and CCK09) no longer having a web presence and others like MobiMOOC reusing their existing web presence (the 2011 version of the course has been edited to become the version for the 2012 session).

A Google Spreadsheet with the data and annotations is here. Please contact me for edits/additions.


Above is the obligatory word cloud of the frequency different technologies were used in the MOOCs surveyed (if you are feeling brave you can explore the data as a treemap on ManyEyes).

Two things are apparent in this data. Firstly, email is often a hidden technology. Services like Google Groups, Twitter and Facebook all allow (and in some cases rely on) email notifications. Secondly, it’s of limited use to know what technologies are being used, the important question is how they are being used.

We can get some insight into this from the diagram below taken from George Siemens “What is the Theory that Underpins Our MOOCs?

gRSShopper is an application that allows you to define your own community of RSS feeds, aggregates content from those feeds and organizes it, and helps you integrate that content into your own posts, articles and other content [source]

Because of the connectivist theory underpinning cMOOCs gRRShopper is a key component in aggregating distributed activity. It’s worth noting that only 5 of the 14 MOOCs surveyed used gRSShopper, but there is evidence that other mechanisms are in place to preform similar functions. For example in Digital Storytelling (DS106) this functionality is handled by the FeedWordPress plugin which allows administrators to specify feeder RSS feeds and selectively repost content to a self hosted WordPress blog. In PHONAR and PICBOD, which are photography based courses, students were directed to publish work to Flickr using a common tag to allow aggregation of work.

The general sense of it all – distributed, chaotic, emergent 

The ‘distributed, chaotic, emergent’ comes from a recent presentation by George Siemens for EDUCAUSE talking about cMOOCs. It’s apparent from the survey of MOOC technology that course teams are taking a loosely joined set of tools that they are comfortable with to facilitate a shared experience with the learner. As commented by Downes when writing about gRSShopper “the users are assumed to be outside the system for the most part, inhabiting their own spaces, and not mine”. It’s also apparent that people are taking discipline based approaches using tools aligned to study areas as previously described with PHONAR/PICBOD.

Even with the bespoke nature of MOOCs there are still opportunities to start collectively raiding the parts bin. Given the widespread use of Twitter in MOOCs are there tools/techniques required to aggregate and disseminate the course discussions? Given the wide use of WordPress within education are there opportunities for MOOC specific themes or plugins? With the ability to freely record and stream video from a Google Hangout do we need a wrapper to allow comment collection and annotation?


It’s just not the technology that sits on top. It’s been fascinating to read the blog posts from JIm Groom as he and his colleagues come to grips with the infrastructural issues of running As commented by Stephen Downes, and as Jim is finding, “aggregation kills websites”. So if it’s the aggregation of content that’s the glue in cMOOCs, perhaps this becomes the area of priority? Perhaps this is the area where JISC CETIS can most useful provide or facilitate guidance?  As Jim recently commented:

No where in the raging discussion around MOOCs is there anyone talking about sharing the infrastructural/architectural work they’ve done freely with others – Jim Groom in Integrating FeedWordPress with BuddyPress

So having loosely started with the pedagogy, looked at some of the technology I’m beginning to think aggregation architecture/infrastructure might be the best place where an organisation like JISC CETIS could help. Do you agree?   

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