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MOOCs revisited: An Aesop's Fables perspective

Roger Atkinson

It seems to me that writers on edtech and IT in higher education topics have found few opportunities to draw upon the work of the great names we know from the Classical Greece period. To illustrate, Plato, Aristotle and Socrates are very rarely mentioned in the edtech literature, though "Socratic method" appears sometimes. My own learning experiences were confined to Euclid, Pythagoras and Archimedes (now long ago, but warmly remembered - the context was late 1950s high school maths and physics), who are almost never mentioned in the edtech literature.

So I was really quite chuffed to find an opportunity, at last, to invoke the work of a writer from the Classical Greece period: Aesop. Though perhaps not as great a contributor as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, Aesop does provide an insightful perspective upon the data in Table 1.

How is that so? Well, it is just the usual process of seeking a succinct descriptor or phrase for a key feature in a set of observations, for example, "survival of the fittest", in the context of the observations from which the theory of evolution emerged. My observations, summarised in Table 1, are nowhere near as momentous as Darwin's, but nevertheless the notion of seeking a succinct descriptor or phrase is equally valid.

To begin with, "MOOCs revisited" arises from my speculation, about one year ago, concerning the scope for MOOC activities by academic professional associations [1]. That scope, that window of opportunity, has receded or vanished, but quite interesting ('QI') perspectives arise from updating of observations on who is doing what in the MOOC scene [2]. Table 1 identifies MOOC contributions, if any, from each university in the Oceania region (Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands), and the consortium or delivery framework that the university has adopted. The 'QI' perspective arises from seeking succinct phrases to encapsulate key patterns in Table 1. My speculation led me to two that I associate with Aesop's Fables, namely "You are known by the company you keep", and "Birds of a feather flock together". These are the "Morals" from The ass and his purchaser and The farmer and the stork respectively [3]. Here my emphasis is upon the aptness of the "Morals", rather than upon the fable outcomes, which were definitely not good for the ass or the stork.

Table 1: Oceania region universities and participation in MOOCs

1: being among the world's most prestigious universitiesCoursera and EdXAustralian National U; U of Adelaide; U of Melbourne; U of NSW; U of Queensland; U of Western Australia.
2: having prestigious experience in online and distance educationOpen2Study and FutureLearnCurtin U; Flinders U; Griffith U; James Cook U; Macquarie U (incl. Grad Sch of Management); Monash U (FutureLearn); Swinburne U; U of Newcastle; U of Tasmania; U of Western Sydney; U of Wollongong; Massey U; U of Auckland (FutureLearn).
3: having a special commitment to open education resourcesOERuCharles Sturt U; U of Southern Queensland; U of Tasmania; U of Wollongong; Lincoln U; U of the South Pacific.
4. experimenting with an economical delivery frameworkBlackboard Course Sites or in house LMSCharles Darwin U; Charles Sturt U; Deakin U (in house: DeakinConnect); Swinburne U; U of New England (in house); U of Tasmania (in house); U of Waikato (in house).
5. no MOOC (i.e. no readily findable public information about a MOOC offering or planned future offering, during or before July 2014)
Australian Catholic Uni; Bond University; CQUniversity; Edith Cowan U; Federation U of Australia; La Trobe U; Murdoch U; Queensland U of Technology; Southern Cross U; U of Canberra; U of Notre Dame; U of South Australia; U of Sunshine Coast; U of Sydney; U of Technology Sydney; Victoria U; Auckland U of Technology; U of Canterbury; U of Otago; Victoria U of Wellington.
Notes for Table 1
  1. Table 1 contains all universities in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, with other regions of the world and other kinds of educational organisations not included, in order to keep the size of Table 1 reasonable.
  2. The 'MOOC participation rate' for Table 1's listing (July 2014) is 28/48, i.e. 58%.

To test the aptness of "You are known by the company you keep" and "Birds of a feather flock together", I have arranged the Oceania universities that provide MOOCs into four "clusters". Succinct illustrations of key characteristics of each of the "clusters" may be obtained by quoting briefly from their websites:

  1. "EdX offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world's best universities."
    "Coursera is an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide ... Choose from 400+ courses created by the world's top educational institutions."

  2. "We [FutureLearn] are a private company wholly owned by The Open University, with the benefit of over 40 years of their experience in distance learning and online education. Our partners include over 20 of the best UK and international universities, as well as institutions with a huge archive of cultural and educational material, including the British Council, the British Library, and the British Museum." (
    "Open2Study is backed by Open Universities Australia (OUA), an Australian leader in accredited online education." (

  3. "Based on our research, the top three reasons why organisations join the OERu network are:
    1. to participate in an international network of "like-minded" institutions ..." (

  4. "Move Your Courses Online Free ... Create up to 5 course websites, free. ... Engage students in social learning. ... Weave multimedia into class content. ... Assess performance and manage grades. ... Share Open Education Resources. ... Teach open courses or MOOCs." (Blackboard - Bb CourseSites in Table 1) (
It now seems very clear that "the company you keep" (the "Consortium" column in Table 1) is more important than the underlying technologies that deliver the online services for a MOOC. These days, one can almost say that it no longer matters which LMS (learning management system) or other software is used for a MOOC, or who provides the computer servers that host the MOOCs. This reflects a truly great maturation of the underlying technologies, the "ICTs". Firstly, current software and hardware from any of the major providers allow teachers great flexibility in implementing their desired pedagogy. Secondly, from an educational provider's perspective, we have benefitted from an incredible lowering of technology costs in the areas of media production, digital storage, and online searching, retrieval and group discussion activities. Thirdly, from a learner's perspective, we also have enjoyed an incredible lowering of technology costs for access to learning and learning resources. Fourthly, the same ICT advances have enabled a very welcome expansion of free online provision of educational resources by media organisations (ABC, BBC, etc), libraries, museums, galleries, zoos, government departments, businesses and community organisations - thereby expanding the range of learning resources that MOOC creators can utilise.

Of course there are quite a number of limitations in the perspective summarised in Table 1. Some universities seem to be trying out more than one "Consortium", for example the University of Tasmania. It is important to note that polytechnics, TAFE colleges, community colleges and industry based providers are beginning to compete effectively with universities for "MOOC space". Whilst awareness of "the company you keep" is important, academic leaders in universities have many other perspectives to consider in planning for MOOC participation. One of these perspectives is how to complement and draw from the university's existing activities in "brand name promotion", rather than compete with or detract from them. In particular, there are numerous other avenues that universities are using for free dissemination of educational resources associated with their "brand name promotion", for example Apple's iTunes U [4], YouTube, media outlets such as The Conversation (, and of course their own university websites and extension departments.

Diversification in MOOC design and operation is increasing. For example, OERu is promoting MOOC "sub-components" characterised as a "micro Open Online Course (mOOC)". MOOCs have started to offer formal academic credit as an optional, fee paying extra. For example, Coursera partners can provide "official recognition from universities and Coursera with a verifiable electronic certificate", as in UNSW's Learning to Teach Online with its $49 option, "Introductory Price, For a limited time only!". From OERu, "Our formal assessment services are optional - provided on a 'fee for service' basis by our partner institutes."

To conclude, does Table 1 provide helpful insights into the way forward for current and potential providers of university based MOOCs in our region of the world? Perhaps that question requires much more research and many more data tables, extending worldwide and into other sectors of education. However, very tentatively, I suggest that further growth in "cluster 1" ("world's most prestigious universities") is probably unrealistic, because, let's face it, with modesty: few of our region's universities enjoy worldwide popular recognition as being in that category. Advances in our contributions in the MOOC format will centre upon "cluster 2" and "cluster 3". These have strong regional roots through Open2Study and OERu (noting that OERu originated mainly from New Zealand). There could be strategic advantages in an informally or semi-formally coordinated Oceania region suite of offerings that differentiates us from American-based "big name" consortia. Another strategic direction could be to substitute "modest" for "massive" in the acronym MOOC. Thinking "modest" could enable better serving of the purpose, "A good way of offering 'taster' courses that hook students in" [5]. Thinking "modest" could also enable better matching to regional, local and institutional interests and promotion, for example CDU's MOOC, Charles Darwin, Evolution, and Tropical Australia [6] serves all three, whilst also having an international appeal. This MOOC is in "cluster 4", which has significance as a potential pathway into "cluster 2" and "cluster 3". Switching into "non-tentative" mode, the Aesopic morals, "You are known by the company you keep" and "Birds of a feather flock together", are also insights into the way forward. Just choose one's company and one's feathers modestly.

Now some personal words of remembrance and appreciation for the late Roger Landbeck, for so long the Editor of HERDSA News. During the ten years that I have been contributing a news column I have been nudged along by Roger's gentle reminders, though sadly we never got around to meeting in person. I will miss the "Hi Roger, .... Cheers, Roger" emails.


  1. Atkinson, R. J. (2013). Massive open online courses: Is there a lesson for our academic professional associations? HERDSA News, 35(2).
  2. For recent, wide ranging updates on MOOCs and MOOC research, see: Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
  3. Jona, K. & Naidu, S. (Eds) (2014). Editorial. Special issue: MOOCs: Emerging research. Distance Education, 35(2), 141-144.
  4. Norton, A., Sonnemann, J. & McGannon, C. (2013). The online evolution: When technology meets tradition in higher education. Grattan Institute Report No. 2013-3, April 2013.
  5. From a number of online, open access sources for Aesop's Fables, the most useful seemed to me to be:;; and
  6. For examples of iTunes U participation, see
  7. Campbell, A. (2013). Science & Engineering BioBlog, University of Waikato, 10 December.
  8. Charles Darwin University.

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. In mid-2012 he retired from a 17 year association with the publishing of AJET. Website (including this article in html format):

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2014). MOOCs revisited: An Aesop's Fables perspective. HERDSA News, 36(2).

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