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Course comparison: f2f vs #etmooc

February 25, 2013

I read a friend’s blog today in which she offered her concerns about MOOCs, and posed some pointed questions about the capacity of a massive course to be responsive to learners. I have only had experience with cMOOCs, and I’m an unabashed supporter and fan, so I want to respond. One of the reasons I have such optimism about MOOCs comes from the comparison I regularly make between my experience in brick and mortar higher ed education classes and the learning opportunities in cMOOCs.

Since I’m currently enrolled in the Educational Technology MOOC, or #etmooc, and I’m also enrolled in a graduate class at a local university, entitled Literacy Professional Development, I thought I’d do a little three point comparison. After all, I would never argue that MOOCs are perfect learning opportunities, but I would argue that learning experiences in a MOOC are often richer than those available through traditional modes at the local university. Generally speaking, the MOOC provides a more responsive dynamic learning opportunity than the course I pay tuition for. Here’s the comparison-

Access to quality content

In my graduate course, I’m required to read the fourth edition of a text that offers a general overview of approaches to instructional coaching and a history of literacy coaching. Since I’ve worked as a literacy coach and in my current role I facilitate the professional learning of a team of instructional coaches, I have great interest in reading about the topic of coaching. However, the cost of the book I’m required to read far exceeds the cost of any of the six books I’ve purchased and read for my own professional learning about coaching and is not nearly as supportive because of its general treatment of the topic. Each week, I read what is required before completing and handing in a completed graphic organizer, responding to my professor’s reflection questions. This text and the corresponding weekly assignment is just one example of the rigid, questionable and expensive content my face to face course provides.

By comparison, etmooc also holds great interest for me, since I work in the educational technology department of a large, urban school district. Unlike the course I pay tuition for, this course offers a variety of high quality resources all for free. In the last week, I attended a web session hosted by Howard Rheingold from Stanford University, where he discussed attention literacy and crap detection. Incidentally, despite the massiveness of the course and the crowded web session, he took my question about backchannels and spoke for a couple of minutes on the topic. I also heard from Doug Belshaw from Mozilla, who shared his work on digital literacy and referenced Mozilla’s Web Literacy white paper. He also invited participants in #etmooc to join in Mozilla’s effort to establish a web literacy standard, posting the link to a follow-up online meeting where we could meet to participate. The daily reading in the MOOC is aggregated on the blog hub, where university instructors and learners of all stripes post as co-learners inviting and responding to comments about their own thinking.


My face to face course this week requires that I answer two discussion prompts posted by the instructor before responding to the answers of two of my classmates. I’m responding this week to three different readings about the history of reading research and policy in America. When I read the responses of my classmates I see a range of background knowledge on reading research but no range in interest in the topic (everyone is  writing the minimum requirement of posts and all posts are of roughly the same length). At the time of this writing, the post I wrote a few hours ago has received no comments.

As for the reading notes I turn in each week, on the only paper returned to me so far my instructor put a + sign at the top of the page indicating that I would get participation credit for the submission. She also circled one of the claims I made on my paper and wrote:


In the massive #etmooc, my posts to the community on Google + receive instant comments. My colearners write extensively and creatively in response to ideas that captivate them in the MOOC. I participated in a threaded discussion weeks ago with 3 teachers, a professor from Northwestern and one of the organizers of the MOOC. My blog has received 15 comments on the blog itself and many more in Google +. Each vlog post I create receives comment from Benjamin Wilkoff, a participant who invited me to begin vlogging with him after he watched my video intro to the course (no masterpiece, that). I also heard from Alec Couros, who congratulated me on my response to Rheingold’s presentation, writing:

Thanks very much for this, Joe. This is well articulated and fits really well with how I see the role of many learners in #etmooc. We’ve seen the community allow for, create, and share far more knowledge, tools, and information than anyone can possibly take in. Attention is key.

And thanks for the vlog format – I am hoping to see others take these on as well. I always feel closer to people when I see and hear them speak.

Couros is the lead facilitator of this course which, at the time of this writing, had 2303 blog posts submitted to the blog hub, the same place where I turned in my humble vlog.


In my Literacy Professional Development course, I chose a partner with whom I will exchange philosophy papers. She’ll read my 15 page draft tonight and I hers. We’ll email each other comments and copy the professor so she can verify that everyone is following through on this commitment. I have another partner in the course who is my “coaching partner.” On several occasions, we’ll watch five minute clips of one another’s instruction in order to provide feedback. This will allow us practice with the coaching strategies we encounter in the assigned reading. We are often grouped by the grade levels we teach for short discussions, the longest of which so far has been about 10 minutes.

In #etmooc, I have been invited by Couros to participate in a crowd-sourced lip dub, something that intrigued me, though I didn’t follow through. In Rheingold’s session, he offered up the mic on the webinar and implored everyone in the session to jump in saying, “Go ahead. It takes a little courage but I know you have questions.” More important, I mentioned above that I was invited to participate in Benjamin Wilkoff’s vlog channel. He’s also invited me to participate in a weekly vlogging experiment patterned after the Fellowship of the Ning. Though neither of us is required to work together, we regularly provide feedback to one another’s videos, sometimes responding with video.

While this comparison could go on and on, I think it illustrates how a self-directed learner might have a superior learning experience in the MOOC, while a face-to-face course, bound by tradition, can discourage self-direction, exploration and creativity.


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  1. I never thought of trying to compare a face to face course with a cMOOC in this way, but your post vividly shows the potential of a cMOOC in this comparison. Of course, in some face to face courses, the feedback from the instructor is much more detailed (at least, I try to give more helpful feedback myself on writing assignments, though not on short ones). And depending on who is in one’s course as participants, the peer feedback can be great as well.

    However, having the larger pool of participants in a cMOOC, as well as people dedicated to “connecting,” does make the feedback and community experience likely to be better in a cMOOC.

    Of course, part of the value of etmooc and maybe other cMOOCs too is that there are a lot of really motivated teachers and other professionals who understand the importance of connecting, commenting, contributing, helping, participating, creating, etc. That may not be the case in every face to face course, though it’s possible it could be!

    Thanks so much for the post. I felt it was relevant to a post I just finished, so I included a link to it at the end of my post as an “update.”

  2. Joe: I loved reading your reflection. Being involved in ETMOOC is certainly an enriching experience and is hard to really understand unless you are involved in the process. Many of the most important learnings come from places we might not expect. Thanks for sharing your ideas. I believe we are very fortunate to be in a great MOOC where people love to learn and share . It is a fantastic opportunity run by great leaders.

  3. Joe: I have taught courses in the past using the general options of the Blackboard program (typically for online courses rather than f2f), and they had some of those less-than-inspiring elements you describe in your own on-campus course. I know from participating in the Collaborate sessions on Etmooc, that even the traditional framework of a LMS has more room for creativity than I thought. I have learned so much in this cMooc, and your comparison of your two experiences confirms my intention to change what was so unsatisfying in those past courses (but that I didn’t know how to change).
    Thanks for your reflections.

  4. A wonderfully written reflection. I just finished reading some thoughts from Clay Shirsky on MOOC’s, I will leave his link here as he is a great writer. I agree with you completey and thank you for breaking this down so beautifully. I agree, our community is our teachers and our facilitators are absolutely fantastic. Etmooc is a great experience and I’m glad you have received so much.

  5. really helpful comparison, Joe…i find that as more and more people in education become aware of MOOCs in their xMOOC talking head video form the (legitimate) backlash against that pedagogical and business model makes it harder and harder to help people hear what i’m saying when i talk about these kind of positive MOOC experiences. MOOCs are more than a single thing, but in this networked sharing I really find a great deal of value.

    Would you mind being quoted in a presentation or book chapter? 🙂

    • onewheeljoe permalink


      Thanks for your comment. I’d be happy to have you quote me. Incidentally, I had a great experience in #change11 also, and I share all the time with educators in my PLN about the rich opportunities, so I can share more examples of the responsiveness of cMOOCs if you need. I have a favorite blog comment where someone thanked me for helping him plan for a professional learning he would lead in his work, going into detail about a challenge he was facing and how he would apply the ideas in my blog post to his problem. Another favorite example of the potential of MOOCs which I also share- I had an appointment cancel on me at work when I was enrolled in #change11, so I had an unexpected chance to sit in on Stephen Downes’ presentation on Connectivism. One minute I was sitting in the English office waiting for a meeting, the next I was in the school library on a webinar with Downes fielding my questions about this learning theory. That still strikes me as a wonder of technology in education.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Joe. I enjoyed reading it. I’m glad you’re having such a rich MOOC experience.

    It’s been a while since I’ve been in f2f course (I suspect that I’d have a hard time in most :), and I must admit that when I critique MOOCs, it is often more in comparison to other forms of online collaboration and learning.

    The kind of rich feedback and community you talk about in the #etcmood does seem indicative of the best of the cMOOCs. More MOOCs should be like that imo.

  7. Joe: Hope your reflections are read by trainer-teacher-learners everywhere. They offer extremely valuable reminders that if we want to engage learners, we have to offer something more than rote assignments and dashed-off one-word notes assuring them that their work is “interesting” instead of taking a bit more time to respond in an “interesting” and interested manner.

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