Most of the cacophony of comments and posts about MOOCs and their disruptive potential has focused on their free cost to students, high enrolments, superstar teachers and high prestige Universities.

Relatively little has been published, much less researched, about MOOC pedagogy. A thoughtful article by C. Osvaldo Rodriguez in EURODL mapped the evolution of the so called cMOOCs to connectivist generation of pedagogy that Jon Dron and I wrote about in IRRODL.  Conversely, given the focus on measurable outcomes and dissemination of content, it isn’t too much a leap to suggest (as Rodriguez’s does) that most of the big name xMOOCs are following the mass education model pioneered by open and distance education institution which we referred to as first generation, cognitive behaviourist pedagogy.

But putting labels on delivery models, doesn’t really lead us forward, unless we are also brave enough to venture into issues of effectiveness. However ontological differences between the models make comparisons based on effectiveness challenging. It is easy for traditional and constructivist pedagogues to jump to arguments about educational effectiveness that have at their root, notions of intense interaction with teachers or at least with peers. Of course with 100,000 students one has to change normal definitions of “intense interaction” to even begin to argue about effectiveness from a social-constructivist perspective.  Thus, most social constructivists focus on the opportunities for peer interaction and point to the emergence of meet-ups and online study groups as spontaneous evidence of MOOC effectiveness. I see these as a capacity, but in my experience of adding or even encouraging optional opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction, it doesn’t lead to much take-up  (beyond those exchanging telephone numbers with potential romantic partners).  However, with 100,000 students even a take up of a few percent is not insignificant and may be life-changing for some learners.

From a cognitive-behaviourist  perspective, educators usually want to argue effectiveness in terms of costs and outcomes. How much does it costs to induce and measure a behavioural change in students that evidences achievement of learning outcomes?  Unfortunately assessing learners with care given to reliability and validity – including reducing potential for cheating and identity fraud – costs money. And MOOCs students, normally are adverse to fee based system – unless of the course the fee is associated with something concrete of value- like transferrable credit towards a sufficiently valued reward- such as a university diploma or degree.

Thus, we have been urging our university, Athabasca to get into the business of credentialing learning associated with MOOCs. At Athabasca, and some other institutions, we have a long tradition of allowing students to challenge courses by writing an extensive examination that attests to their attainment of the learning outcomes from the course. This explicitly recognizes that learning can and does happen, even without following the path prescribed and using the learning resources provided in our courses and without the guidance and feedback of our tutors. This policy is not supported by all faculty who fear that it provides a path that displaces or discounts their own contributions. However, I strongly support the idea that learning happens in many ways and curriculum delivered from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, can not all be that bad!  Resistance to this challenge exam policy resulted in a vote by our Academic Council and Board to raise tuition for challenges exams to $350 for Canadians or $598 for students outside of Canada. This dramatic increase in price cut the number of students by 75% in recent years, as we effectively priced ourselves out of this market.

The opportunity provided by MOOCs creates a great opportunity to regain and build a whole new market and to provide a service to potentially large numbers of students. As a fully accredited Canadian public university and the only Canadian university that is regionally accredited in the US, credit for our courses is readily transferable or can be applied towards a regular Athabasca degree. However, we have not as yet been able to exploit this market and have seen the University of Colorado allow crediting for at least one Udacity course, (for a course challenge fee of $95) while Excelsior College is developing a similar challenge policy for an as yet undecided fee that will depend on the cost of developing and adminstering the examination

This type of challenge exam accrediting presents a classic disruptive technology challenge to our university. Our current leaders are terrified that students will eschew the regular courses and just challenge the exams for credit. They seem more interested in maintaining the current delivery and staff model than in meeting the mission of the University “the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university-level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide” Note that nowhere in the mission statement is there are mention of protecting the existing model or staff from changes, development in new models or even to competition.

We have trying to determine the exact cost of administering challenge exams – which of course depends on real costs of invigilators, exam development and maintenance, marking (by machine and by humans) and credit registration. But the costing effort becomes extremely challenging when we try to estimate overhead costs. Should students who challenge Athabasca exams have to pay a fair share of maintenance costs on buildings, faculty salaries, student union fees etc.? Clayton Christensen in his classic books on disruptive technologies suggests that innovations should  be incubated in “skunk works” to avoid predation from established units and unfair cost burdens required to maintain an older production model, while they develop new models.

To date we have not been successful in creating such alternative accreditation models – but we haven’t given up yet!