10 reflections on the SPOC vs MOOC conversation – Is Harvard moving out of the 1990s?

In the past two weeks, I’ve read countless articles about how Harvard is moving to the “post-MOOC era.” These same articles describe their gradually shifting attention from MOOCs to SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses).  Of course, those of us in the field of online learning know that small private online courses have been around for decades, and we have a solid body of research and literature about what they call SPOCs and the rest of us just call online courses.  Until a couple of years ago, with the media fascination about MOOCs, almost everything that we did in online learning was about small, private, online courses.  That is why it baffles me when the authors of these newest articles write about SPOCs as if they are some innovation.  At this point, I offer ten simple observations and reflections.

1. Many of the MOOC providers have mostly limited their massive online course experiments to xMOOCs, with few to no examples of cMOOC experiments. Many xMOOCs are stuck in some of the early 1990s versions of online learning that sought to build online courses which replicate face-to-face instruction, especially relying upon instructor-driven learning and video lectures. They are the digital equivalent of large lecture classes. As a result, they have rarely sought to leverage the power of a massive group of online learners to experience and leverage collective and networked knowledge.

2. There have been some interesting experiments with peer feedback in a few of the xMOOCs, but that sort of crowd-sourced assessment is one of the few real innovations that leveraged the distinct affordances of a large open group of online learners.

3. SPOCs are not new.  They are the norm in online learning.  Attend any online learning conference from the past 20 years and you see them dominated by conversations about the design and facilitation of high-impact small, private, online learning communities.

4. Most online learning scholars have moved beyond conversations that focus upon comparing face-to-face and online learning.  The informed student/scholar knows that there are thousands of different types of online learning environments and thousands of types of face-to-face learning environments. Online learning is not one thing any more than face-to-face learning is all the same.  The course design, the learners, the instructors and facilitators, and the media all contribute to a unique profile for every learning experience, face-to-face or online.  This is why one specific model is not the answer for all times, places, and needs.

5. Class size is one of these many factors.  There are certain affordances to having a class of 15 and certain limitations.  The same is true for classes of 10,000.  One is not right and the other wrong.  It is all about experimenting with class size, course design and instructional possibilities to get a mix that works for a given set of goals.

6. I’ve taken several MOOCs where I’ve built ongoing professional and academic relationships with dozens of people.  I’ve never taken a face to face course that allowed me to build that many personal connections with such a diverse and geographically diverse population.  I state this to point out that making a course “personal” is about more than the size of the class. Peer-to-peer interaction can be vibrant and intimate in massive online courses. Some MOOCs are more personal than some SPOCs.  Some SPOCs are more personal than other SPOCs and MOOCs.

7. It makes sense to me that some at elite schools would push for SPOCs.  They fit perfectly with the values of exclusivity and high achievement by limiting access to those who are already high achievers.

8. From the early days of distance learning, leading scholars wrote about being inspired by the vision of increased access and opportunity, empowering a type of learning that is possible while remaining in one’s community and current context.  The question for me is not MOOC or SPOC, it is about what will best accomplish our goals of increased access, opportunity and empowerment.

9. The size of a MOOC gained the attention of most, but I contend that we can benefit from more attention to the “open” part of the online course, whether we are talking about MOOCs or SPOCs. Of course the “P” in SPOC stands for private, which strikes me as the opposite of an open course.  A course that is built upon openness is a newer part of the online learning conversation.  As I see it, that is the true innovation in the xMOOCs and cMOOCs. We are seeing an increase in entire learning environments/experiences that are open and available to anyone, clearly separating the learning from the formal trappings of the traditional University like grades, credits, and degrees. I would like to see broad conversations about the significance of open learning, a phrase that goes back over forty years.

10. While the media may give precedent to whatever élite schools are doing with online learning, these are not the leaders in online learning, nor do they consist of the dominant influence in online learning.  At that same time, it is hard to deny that these recent experiments with MOOCs from selective Universities have helped to promote important conversations about the benefits and limits of online learning.  In the end, despite my critiques, what is happening in the media is helping to increase broader acceptance and reflection about the ongoing role of online learning.




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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.