Nuts and bolts – impacts of online learning technologies

Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version.

Comparatively few of the nation’s more than 4,000 degree-granting American colleges or universities . . . have the personnel, instructional and technological infrastructure . . . to invest in launching their own MOOCs.[1]

~ Kenneth C. Green

Practically speaking, MOOCs are a platform of bundled technologies. If you sign with Coursera, Udacity, edX, or other xMOOC providers, you’ll make use of the technology bundle that they provide. If you elect to develop your own cMOOC, you likely already provide support to your on-campus constituents for most of the technologies used to deliver such MOOCs—though you may not have consciously connected them in the same manner, or at the same scale. cMOOCs make use of information systems commonly found on campus: an LMS, wikis, blogs, social media, and video and videoconferencing tools.

But MOOCs are more than just the technology that drives them. MOOCs—especially cMOOCs—are personal learning networks, enabled by technology, that enable the learner to interact with and derive knowledge from other participants. Learners themselves take responsibility, create connections and develop networks of resources that contribute to their professional development and knowledge. In the context of these personal learning networks, the learner need not know other participants personally or ever meet in person.

These concepts underscore the thinking behind MOOCs and the rationale to aggregate the technologies brought together to create them. It is in this context that MOOCs have the potential to amplify the scope and scale of learning as well as your institutional influence and reach.

The potential of these technologies notwithstanding, there are issues your campus planning team should consider before finalizing a MOOC program. The nexus of existing technologies and the implementation of them at the scale of the MOOC amplify attendant (and pre-existing) issues—support and scalability, exposure and liability—that you will need to consider as you identify the extent to which you participate in the provision of MOOCs. The amplification of these issues will likely impact how your institution supports current practices should you decide to participate in and provide MOOCs.

It’s worth reviewing the underlying technologies that enable MOOCs and online learning. In this post I’ll outline some issues and challenges regarding user support, scalability, exposure, and liability that implementing technologies at the scale of the MOOC introduces.

A brief review of the technologies that implement and sustain MOOCs:

            Learning Management System (LMS). Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, and Instructure are examples of LMS services in place on campuses now. Common attributes of LMS services include: discussion forums, file exchange, text chat, whiteboard and screen sharing, student groups and portfolios, tests and test management, gradebooks, student participation tracking, and accessibility compliance. The LMS is more than likely the core of your current online learning effort. Significantly, the LMS is also generally at the core of many MOOC implementations, with attendant supporting technologies. It is important to note that deploying LMS for MOOCs will impact your current LMS programs.

            Wikis. A wiki is essentially a website that allows users to add, modify, or delete content via a browser. Wikis are intentionally participatory and intended to be developed and used collaboratively, thus making them effective in the cMOOC environment. Wikis complement and may even replace centrally administered content management systems. The decentralized nature of wikis allows them to provide for efficient dissemination of information across an organization or community of practice. MediaWiki, DrupalWiki, and PBWorks are examples of wiki platforms in use on many college campuses.

            Blogs. WordPress, Drupal, Moveable Type, and Live Journal are popular blogs used in higher education. Ready-made templates make these blogs easy for users to implement quickly and to manage effectively. Academic bloggers have been making use of these resources for over a decade. Blogs are an effective tool, enabling reflection and participatory review from learners and instructors. As with wikis, the intentionally participatory nature of these resources makes them exceptionally relevant for MOOCs.

            Videography. Lecture capture and videography are an important component of MOOCs. Short videos developed using simple desktop webcams and delivered via YouTube are easily accessible to participants. More ambitious producers use high-end videography talent and tools to develop broadcast-quality videos that employ multiple camera shots and sophisticated editing.

            Social media and networking. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ are common social media sites used by faculty and students. MOOC participants have become acculturated to connecting via these resources and they use them quite effectively to stay connected, keep pace with trends, and share resources.

These technologies are in use today and have experienced widespread adoption by faculty, administrators, and students. However, programmatic support for them and for various other services varies, being dependent on available staff and budget. As you contemplate participation in MOOCs—whether as provider or participant—you need to consider the implications of such an expansive technology-enabled program in the context of your institutional mission, ability to provide support, and the potential for exposure and liability.

Consider this: MOOCs amplify pre-existing support challenges

            Support for the MOOC: Does it scale?  Are you prepared to support the communities of practice at the scale of MOOCs?  For many colleges and universities, technology support is funded and staffed for current technology implementation with little room for exploration or innovation, especially where that exploration requires supporting users not formally affiliated with the institution.

Central IT provides fundamental (and approved) information technology resources to the campus. The policies are clear and the support model is documented. The constituents (registered students, faculty, and staff) work on campus. IT departments have a long history in the provision of these resources, know what to expect, have budgeted for system upgrades, license renewals, and incremental expansion, and are generally staffed to ensure appropriate response time to users troubleshooting issues and concerns.

In addition to “fundamental” campus-supplied technology, however, faculty, staff, and students make use of remote wikis, blogs, and social media sites on their own, with no institutional support. The ubiquity and growth of these readily available online services has made it easy for users to adopt and incorporate them into research and study and to connect with colleagues and collaborators with little or no assistance from central IT. This reality of extra-institutional technology usage reveals a gap in programmatic provision and support of IT services. Campuses, it turns out, don’t have a comprehensive account of technology usage by faculty and students in the pursuit of their research and scholarship. Faculty and staff routinely use external, discipline-specific technology resources developed and delivered by extramural professional associations to accomplish their work. Significantly, most would say that these technologies are also “fundamental” to their academic and professional success.

For example, the Modern Language Association (MLA) recently launched MLA Commons, a gathering space for humanists and others to work together, based on the Commons-in-a-Box resource developed by the City University of New York (CUNY). MLA Commons already had 1,361 active users as of March 2013. Users, primarily registered members of MLA, avail themselves of the Commons’ networking resources without relying on the support of their host institution, since MLA provides both the resource and the support.

MLA Commons users fly under the local campus IT radar; their own institutions cannot know the extent of their activity with these tools, issues encountered, support received from providers, and what it would cost the campus to provide comparable services. From a strategic thinking perspective, this is an important point: There are (potentially) good and bad outcomes to effectively outsourcing academic technology resources and legitimizing faculty and staff usage of them.

On the other end of the spectrum, should your institution decide to implement MOOCs, you bring (remote) users onto the (local) IT support radar screen. You may be obligated to support their needs and troubleshoot their problems regardless of location and affiliation. The introduction of MOOCs, with their legions of outside users, into your existing services and support model will have an impact on the quality and timeliness of support for traditional, on-campus, constituents. With no experience at this scale, and no metric available, it may well prove difficult to quantify the extent of that impact.

            Massive online technology failure: it can happen here. Even universities with great strength in technology and significant staff resources are challenged to support innovative technology implementation and usage on the scale of the MOOC. A recent event at the Georgia Institute of Technology is instructive.

In late January 2013, Georgia Tech offered the MOOC Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application, taught by Fatimah Wirth, and hosted by Coursera. This course was intended to teach participants how to provide effective online learning with an emphasis on mastering the technologies involved in creating and delivering online courses and managing the issues engendered in this environment. The course description states clearly what would be learned: “This is an introductory course on the fundamentals of online education. You will learn how to convert your face-to-face class into a robust online course based on theory and practice.”

The course description goes on to say, “In this course you will learn about the fundamentals of online education. The emphasis will be on planning and application. In the planning phase, you will explore online learning pedagogy, online course design, privacy and copyright issues, online assessments, managing an online class, web tools and Learning Management Systems. In the application phase, you will create online learning materials. The final project for the course will consist of you building an online course based on everything that you learned and created in the course.”

More than 40,000 participants enrolled. Less than a week after the start, the course was shut down due to technical failure. As of March 2013, it was still unavailable.

Officials from Coursera and Georgia Tech confirmed that the technology facilitating small group discussion—Google Docs—had failed. Richard DeMillo, the director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, said in a subsequent article in Inside Higher Ed (“Why the Online Ed MOOC Didn’t Work”) that support staff had not anticipated “any insurmountable problems” with the technology, going on to say that there “wasn’t enough time for his staff to test the small group discussion features of Google Docs.” Students who registered for the course responded with “a mixture of anger and humor to the implosion of the course, tweeting  “Fundamentals of Online Education’ MOOC, broke down in the first week. Cue scathing declarations of symbolism.”  DeMillo went on to stress the importance of experimentation: “If we tell people to just do safe things, we’ll stifle innovation.”[2] In the same article, Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, said the decision to experiment with Google Docs for the small group discussion component of the course “didn’t work well enough,” despite being “really innovative.” He provided assurances that Coursera will continue to develop quality control procedures that can be used before future course launches. He added that he was “proud we let instructors experiment with different formats.”[3]

All of this is reasonable from the perspective of Coursera, a Silicon Valley startup experimenting with Higher Education technology ventures. Frankly, it is even understandable from the perspective of Georgia Tech, an institute with the stated mission to be “distinguished by its commitment to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology.” These are the organizations and institutions that should be pushing the boundaries in just this manner. We rely on them to do just that. It is unclear, however, whether course participants not formally part of the in Georgia Tech community are as committed to being a part of the experiment in real time.

To be fair, while the 40,000-plus registration numbers are impressive and have shock value, we know that the number of MOOC registrants is orders of magnitude greater than the number who actually complete these courses. Nevertheless, even with the most ruthless calculation, based on statistics we have for MOOC course completion, over one thousand participants would likely have seen the course through to completion, had there been no technology failure. One thousand students is a big cohort of learners in a single course and the fact remains that the course was cancelled as a result of admittedly incomplete planning and testing by both vendor and institution. While there is value in experimentation, most students would probably prefer that it not occur on their time.

            Massive exposure and liability: Are you legal?  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) ~ Sec. 12132, Discrimination, states “ . . . no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity.”[4] MOOC technologies greatly amplify existing issues regarding exposure and liability. As with scalability and support, challenges with respect to accessibility, copyright, and fair use will be magnified in a massive learning environment. You and your faculty and staff will need to consider institutional exposure as you contemplate entering the MOOC fray.

Academic libraries have long dealt with all of these issues regarding curricular materials. In October 2012, Brandon Butler of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), in a brief on the legal and policy Issues that MOOC technology raises, wrote: “Some of the key legal issues that MOOCs raise for research libraries revolve around copyright and the use of copyrighted content in this new context, while others relate to open access and accessibility.”[5]

Accessibility. Butler reminds us that the law “requires educational institutions to provide access to educational opportunities to all students on an equal basis without regard to disability.”  The Rehabilitation Act, passed in 1973, requires that any educational institution receiving federal funds must comply with regulations preventing discrimination of students with disabilities. Institutions must accommodate the needs of these students in order to ensure that they have equal opportunity to engage in their academic work: “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bars public colleges and universities from denying services, programs, or activities to disabled students, and prohibits private institutions from discriminating against disabled students, as well.”[6]

Butler goes on to say that these requirements “apply to university efforts on MOOC platforms, despite their being cutting edge or pilot programs.” He reminds us that the US Departments of Justice and Education have already “pursued this issue with respect to early efforts to adopt e-readers in universities, warning institutions that use of non-accessible Kindles, even for pilot programs, would violate both Section 504 and the ADA.”[7]

[See US Dept. Justice, Joint “Dear Colleague” Letter: Electronic Book Readers, June 29, 2010,; US Dept. of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Frequently Asked Questions About the June 29, 2010, Dear Colleague Letter, May 26, 2011,]

Ensuring accessibility compliance is not easy. The design of commonly used technology (web pages, blogs, wikis, and PDFs) and their integration with assistive technology devices for use by individuals with disabilities is a significant concern and should be addressed at the front-end of course development and delivery rather than after the fact. It is more difficult and costly to re-engineer materials for accessibility to the disabled than to practice appropriate design from the outset. Academic libraries routinely take steps to make accessibility a priority, and, as Butler’s brief illustrates, that ethos will by necessity extend to MOOC content.

Schools that actually have the available resources are generally able to cope with the challenge of ensuring accessibility of their online resources. For example, the Illinois Center for Information Technology and Web Accessibility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has done a great deal of work developing criteria for evaluating instructional resources for ADA compliance. On their website they note specific challenges for colleges that decide to deploy online learning resources:

“If not designed with accessibility in mind, Learning Management Systems (LMS) can pose accessibility problems for students and instructors with disabilities . . . Some LMS tools—Discussions, Quizzes, Chat, or Wiki tools, for instance—can be more problematic than others. Learning Management Systems are becoming richer and more complex applications, and if they are not designed with accessibility in mind, it can be next to impossible to make them accessible and usable to users with various needs.”[8]

Similarly, MIT works hard to ensure that the OpenCourseWare accessibility standards are met: “We spend a lot of time on the accessibility of PDFs . . . We work closely with the MIT Adaptive Technology for Information and Computing Lab to ensure that the MIT OpenCourseWare course sites are as accessible as possible.”[9] (

Schools like MIT, Georgia Tech, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have significant resources to bring to bear on the development of accessibility-compliant resources. As your campus considers online learning in the context of institutional mission and strategic priorities, engage the campus and survey existing policies and practices including copyright, intellectual property (who owns MOOC content developed and delivered by your faculty?), and accessibility.

            Fair Use and Copyright. In addition to accessibility, MOOCs raise legal questions with respect to copyright and fair use. In February 2013, Stanford University Libraries hosted a panel on “MOOCs, Online Education, and the Library.”  One of the panelists, Merrilee Proffit, Senior Program Officer at OCLC Research, shared results from her research on Libraries and MOOCs. She pointed out “copyright issues are making universities cautious, since the classes most often provide access to learning materials to users outside the usual licensing institutions.”[10]

Colleges and universities do well to maintain a cautious approach. It is not clear if MOOCs, especially when delivered in concert with for-profit providers, can assume legitimate use of course materials based on traditional applications of statutory exceptions or reliance on license agreements.

As for-profit providers and colleges and universities struggle to define business models for MOOCs, including potential revenue generation schemes, the status of a MOOC course as “non-profit” grows less certain. The more a MOOC partnership resembles for-profit publishing rather than non-profit teaching, the less likely it is that traditional teaching exceptions for colleges and libraries will apply to MOOCs. These traditional exceptions and licenses may require reexamination in the MOOC world.

Colleges and universities clearly have a part to play in helping to determine the next steps with respect to compliance and legitimate use in the context of MOOCs and online learning. Academic libraries in particular have a persistent role to play in identifying the issues and questions, then working with their institution, partner organizations, publishers and providers to define potential paths to success. The library investment in developing and managing relationships with publishers represents a significant resource in your consideration of MOOCs.
With respect to the modification of license agreements, Academic Impressions interviewed Kevin Smith, director of scholarly communications for Duke University’s Perkins Library, in January 2013 (“How will MOOCs Affect Fair Use and Copyright Compliance?”). In the interview, Smith argues that colleges and university libraries “have a huge opportunity to establish new partnerships with copyright holders (publishers and various clearinghouses), developing agreements to use their materials in the MOOCs, because of the significant opportunity for the MOOC to raise the visibility of their materials.”[11] Despite concerns to the contrary, Smith maintains that publishers will in fact be amenable to flexibility with respect to MOOCs specifically because of the expansive market that MOOC participants represent.  Smith argues that instructors recommending (or requiring) texts will lead to spikes in sales for publishers. He describes a situation in which a publisher initially denied a request from an instructor to use copyrighted materials in a MOOC that she successfully used in her traditional classroom.  Smith describes how his office persisted, asking the publisher’s permissions office to check in with the marketing group: “Please talk with your marketing office. Because what is going to happen here is that 40,000-50,000 people are going to self-identify as interested in the topic, and your textbook will be recommended to them by a well-regarded authority. We have seen a number of instances in which a professor recommends a book and then sales spike because of the MOOC. So we have empirical evidence. It’s marketing gold for a publisher.”[12]

Not everyone shares Smith’s enthusiasm, nor does every campus has the negotiating clout of larger academic libraries. However, as more schools develop and deliver mission-driven online learning programs, there is opportunity to identify new consortial approaches to leverage the “marketing power” of like-minded institutions. Campuses are poised to leverage the success of existing library consortial models to address the exposure and liability concerns that MOOCs and other online learning models raise. Institutions will do well to review their strategy for inter-institutional collaboration and cooperation, so as to position themselves successfully in negotiations with providers and publishers in the context and scope of expansive online learning models.

In addition to the significant concerns of support, exposure, and liability that implementation of MOOC-scale information technologies bring, there are other, technology-related issues to consider.

            Bandwidth divide. Even if your campus is capable of delivering on the scale of the MOOC, you are part of an online ecosystem that is not created equal. There are very real obstacles to delivering online resources to users in the “last mile” of the network who are unable to receive your course because their network bandwidth is effectively nil.

As Jeffrey Young says in “’Bandwidth Divide’ Could Bar Some People From Online Learning” (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 2013), there is a chasm between the bandwidth haves and have-nots. “As more colleges rush to offer free online courses in the name of providing educational access to all, it’s worth asking who might be left out for lack of high-speed Internet access to watch video lectures.”[13]  Young goes on to cite Martin Hilbert, researcher at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who argues that the bandwidth divide is real and is widening. Hilbert notes that the divide between those with high-speed Internet access and those with dial-up or cellphone access is “bigger than people think.”  Only 66 percent of American adults have broadband access at home, according to a May 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. This has implications for the successful deployment of MOOCs by colleges regardless of the institution’s capacity to develop, deliver, and support online learning. By design, the success of MOOCs and online learning depends in large part on the motivation and capacity of the learner. This must include the capacity to consume high bandwidth resources.

MOOCs are more than the technology that makes them work. MOOCs represent great potential for educational outreach and institutional influence. The development and deployment of MOOCs also represent significant challenges in ensuring effective user support and conscientious oversight with respect to commitment to access and intellectual property.

Online learning is not going away. It has become part of the academic ecosystem. In light of this, as you consider offering MOOCs as a part of your institutional mission and strategic planning, you need to ask yourself: What is your responsibility to participants in your institution’s programming at this scale?  How will you mesh strategy, innovation, and mission?


Planning Questions

  • Does your existing accessibility program scale to the audience of the MOOC?
  • Do your campus policies regarding copyright and fair use scale to the MOOC?
  • What is your institutional responsibility to ensure equal access to online resources, even when you offer and provide them to users not necessarily affiliated with the campus?
  • How will existing library materials be used and incorporated into MOOC courses?
  • Does Fair Use apply?
  • Do your existing license agreements provide for MOOC usage?
  • Will publishers be amenable to modifying license agreements?
  • Is your academic library currently part of a local or regional consortium?
  • What leverage does that consortium provide with respect to publishers and licenses in the MOOC environment?

Recommended Readings

“Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, AS AMENDED with ADA Amendments Act of 2008.” Accessed March 6, 2013.

Butler, Brandon. “ARL Policy Notes, ARL Issue Brief: MOOCs + Libraries = ???” ARL Policy Notes. Accessed April 9, 2013.

———. “Issue Brief: Massive Open Online Courses: Legal and Policy Issues for Research Libraries.” Accessed April 9, 2013.

“edX Makes Key Code Open Source.” Inside Higher Ed, March 15, 2013.

“FAQ: Technology Free Online Course Materials.” MIT OpenCourseware, n.d.

Green, Kenneth C. “Mission, MOOCs, & Money.” Association of Governing Boards, February 2013.

Howard, Jennifer. “For Libraries, MOOCs Bring Uncertainty and Opportunity.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, March 25, 2013.

Illinois Center for Information Technology and Web Accessibility. “A Comparison of Learning Management System Accessibility.” Accessed April 9, 2013.

IT Accessibility: What Campus Leaders Have to Say, 2012.

Kolowich, Steve. “Georgia Tech and Coursera Try to Recover From MOOC Stumble.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Wired Campus, February 4, 2013.

Makokha, Joseph Maloba. “In Case You Missed It: ‘MOOCs, Online Education, and the Library’ Report.” Stanford University Libraries, February 27, 2013.

McDonald, Steven, and Kevin Smith. “How Will MOOCs Affect Fair Use and Copyright Compliance?” Academic Impressions, January 11, 2013.

Morrison, Debbie. “How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix It.” Online Learning Insights A Blog About Open and Online Education, February 1, 2013.

Perez, Thomas E., and Russlynn Ali. “Joint ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter: Electronic Book Readers,” June 29, 2010.

Rivard, Ry. “MOOCs Prompt Some Faculty Members to Refresh Teaching Styles.” Inside Higher Ed, March 5, 2013.

“Why the Online Ed MOOC Didn’t Work.” Inside Higher Ed, February 5, 2013.

Young, Jeffrey R. “‘Bandwidth Divide’ Could Bar Some People From Online Learning.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 2013, sec. Technology.

[1] Green, “Mission, MOOCs, & Money.”

[2] Jaschik, “Why the Online Ed MOOC Didn’t Work.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, AS AMENDED with ADA Amendments Act of 2008.”

[5] Butler, “Issue Brief: Massive Open Online Courses: Legal and Policy Issues for Research Libraries.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Illinois Center for Information Technology and Web Accessibility, “A Comparison of Learning Management System Accessibility.”

[9] MIT OpenCourseware, “FAQ: Technology Free Online Course Materials.”

[10] Makokha, “In Case You Missed It: ‘MOOCs, Online Education, and the Library’ Report.”

[11] McDonald and Smith, “How Will MOOCs Affect Fair Use and Copyright Compliance?”.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Young, “‘Bandwidth Divide’ Could Bar Some People From Online Learning.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s