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Virginia Educators Continue to Shape Accessible, Online Courses

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Image courtesy of Ilonka Hebels, Creative Commons on Flickr @ilonkaTallina. @ilonkaTallina

In the last year, Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs have grown substantially. Free and open to anyone with an internet connection, MOOCs provide an opportunity for professional development and personal enrichment. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp has more on the Commonwealth’s connection to this online educational model.

Learn More: Browse or sign up for upcoming courses at:, MOOC List, EdX, Coursera, Canvas Network, MiriadaX and Future Learn. Follow Gardner Campbell's blog and read articles about MOOCs at Illonka Hebels Flipboard. Special thanks to Whitney Kilgore for sharing MOOC resources. If you have additional resources, please add in the comments.


The precursor to MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, can be traced to what might seem like an unusual place: World of Warcraft.

Gardner Campbell: Games that were known as massively, multiplayer, online role-playing games.

Gardner Campbell is a Virginia Commonwealth University Professor and Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success.

Campbell: And the idea was what kind of space can we collectively put together on the internet that would be able to take a lot of contributions from learners who were making things,  responding to things, as they learned, and have them be conspicuously networked somehow either because they were brought together in a particular online space or because the connections among them were very easy to see and had a kind of power to them and learners could see that what they were doing was not being done in isolation.

MOOCs have spread widely since Canadian educators Stephen Downes and George Siemens carried out the first one in 2008. In the last year, the number of courses has doubled to 2400 offered by about 400 universities, according to the MOOC aggregator To give you a sense of the range of options, here’s a few course titles: Entrepreneurship 101, Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets, the Basics of Nanotechnology, Exploring Filmmaking and History of the Slave South.

(Video: Slave South MOOC)

MOOCs are free and open to anyone with access to the internet. Courses are generally four to 12 weeks long and consist of video lectures, readings, quizzes and sometimes assignments and discussion forums. In most, the general public doesn’t earn college credit, but you can get certificates of completion.

(Video: Kennedy Half Century MOOC)

The University of Virginia has developed more than a dozen MOOCs covering topics in business, education and the humanities. Professor and Political Scientist Larry Sabato designed a four week course, the Kennedy Half Century, exploring the life and legacy of JFK. Since it was launched in the Fall of 2013, more than 150,000 people have enrolled in this MOOC, including Bess Littlefield, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

Bess Littlefield: I would encourage anyone to look into these online opportunities.

Littlefield is a “political junkie” and signed up for the MOOC after hearing about it from a friend. As a busy professional, the online course was a good fit for her schedule.

Littlefield: It allows you the opportunity to take the course at your own convenience and clearly, coming home from work and being able to change clothes and be comfortable on your couch and then take a moment and say I’m going to cook dinner right now and eat dinner and then go back to it.

There are numerous MOOC providers, including the non-profit, open-source EdX, founded by MIT and Harvard in 2012. UVA’s MOOCs are available on Apple’s iTunes U and the for-profit provider Coursera. They’ll launch several new MOOCs this year, including Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World, a 13-week-long course co-taught by UVA Professors of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies David Germano and Kurtis Schaeffer.

David Germano: One of the things that fundamentally attracts me to MOOCs is the democratization of access to knowledge and the capacity for us to reach out to a broad audience of people who are not a paying customers to the University of Virginia and be able to engage them and engage others and promote ideas and values we care about.

Kurtis Schaeffer: We thought this would be an opportune time to take something that has been very popular and generate a great interest here, namely the study of Buddhist mediation in contemporary context, out to a broader audience both as a way to further that conversation on a global scale but also to honestly join this experiment of online education. We don’t know exactly where it's going to go but you have to participate in order to shape it.

As MOOCs have evolved, two different types have emerged: Connectivist or cMOOCs, where engagement is a critical component of the learning process and xMOOCs, which VCU’s Gardner Campbell describes as more of “broadcast” model where people consume videos and other course material in a more isolated way.

Campbell: Now what you find is a set of videos with practice quizzes, with ways of tracking your progress, very much a computer-aided instruction model that dates back really to the 1960s. It’s not about the network, it’s not about learners learning together or co-creating knowledge. It’s very valuable, but it’s very instructionally focused, it pretty much ignores the social aspect of learning, which is a lot to ignore.

Campbell led a cMOOC on inquiry and argument in the digital age last summer that included both VCU students taking the course for credit and the general public. As an instructor, Campbell says he has a responsibility to connect participants to each other throughout the MOOC and even adapt the course as it progresses to strengthen the network that’s developing.

Campbell: Once you can begin to see ah, this person here is a human being asking questions of the world and you can see the shape that’s taking, then the instructor can begin to orchestrate that almost the way a conductor would and say, Ah, this is the note you’re playing, these are the notes your mind, your heart are sounding. How does that fit in with where we are as a community? How can I facilitate your discovering the co-learner who’s going to be your best mental friend for ever and be a real ally and co- learn  together. So you need to craft a network, so learners work is visible across the network and learners can find each other and link to each other in ways that begin to assert certain kinds of relationships. 

Campbell says a goal of this networked experience is a group working together for greater good, working toward a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Campbell: A former teacher of mine said people got into teaching because they had something to share and I think that’s true of all of the co-learners in an online course, but it is perhaps most intensely true for the person in role of teacher who wants to raise up a generation of people who themselves will be eager to share with each other. And it’s a leadership role, a kind of servant leadership I think that’s very important and cannot be replaced by an algorithm.

VCU carried out another cMOOC last year, where more than 100 participants, both students and the wider public, worked in teams to strengthen the social media campaigns of two global health non-profits. Campbell says the university continues to pursue connected learning and hopes to run his course again this Fall.

As both c and xMOOCs evolve, there have been criticisms; Some vary in quality and many who enroll don’t finish the course. Some educators are concerned about the potential commercialization of MOOCs and others cite a lack of diversity: most are taught in English by professors at Western universities and most participants are already well-educated. But that’s slowly starting to change. Spanish-language MiriadaX has grown to be the fourth largest MOOC provider and educators at a South Korean university are working on MOOC 2.0, described as a more grassroots, collaborative and humanitarian approach to online learning.

For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.