Role for Educators in MOOCs


What are the appropriate roles for educators?


For me this is the big question of the moment. We are no longer in any doubt that it is possible to design and run a massive online learning experience however good or bad. But obviously running an online course for massive numbers of participants has to have significant implications for the role of the teacher/educator. Kop et al. started to write about this in 2011 …

Kop, R., Fournier, H., Sui, J., & Mak, F. (2011). A Pedagogy of Abundance or a Pedagogy to Support Human Beings ? Participant Support on Massive Open Online Courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(7).

… and also somewhere (although I can’t find the reference at the moment) questioned whether we would need teachers as we know them in the future. Having been a teacher all my working life - this was a bit of a facer - so recently I have been pleased to see Gert Biesta defending the role of teachers

Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), 35–49. Retrieved from

and this is supported by Edinburgh University’s new manifesto for online teaching where they write: Online teaching should not be downgraded into ‘facilitation’.

But perhaps in your question Mike, you were thinking of educators in broader terms than teaching.


I think that a more fine grained analysis is needed, analysing the educator/teacher roles to answer the question in the case of MOOCs.
Some of them are easier to be accomplished than others in a MOOC. If we bear in mind the Teaching Presence construct, from the CoI framework, Designing and (to a certain extent) Organization will be easier to be exerted than Facilitating Discourse, with a large number of participants and multiple interaction spaces.

And, of course, we have to consider the issue of distributing teaching among other participants and software, dissociating the teaching function and the agents of that function.

It is interesting that the issue of the “teacher redundancy” or disappearance keeps reappearing. Going to check Biesta

Don’t know if you were thinking of this remark but another paper says: “The role of the tutor will not only change, but may disappear altogether. (Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3),”. They were talking about the connectivist teacher

Best Regards


Hi JPaz - yes that’s the Kop remark I was thinking of. I just couldn’t remember where I had seen it and a Mendeley search didn’t sort me out!

Would you be willing to say more about what you think a fine-grained analysis would reveal? For me a big question is ‘who is the teacher in a MOOC’. Some have claimed that everyone is a teacher - peers teach peers and therefore teachers as we have known them in the past, i.e. trained teachers with the associated pedagogy and expertise are no longer needed. Whose role is it to facilitate discourse?

What do you think?


When you consider the teacher(s) in the MOOC as moderators, it might be helpful to study Moderating Functions, and consider if they can be distributed at some points among ‘worthy’ and willing participants. Here you find a nice overview of moderating functions (Contextualizing, Monitoring, and Meta functions).



Yes - when we talk of moderators I automatically think of Gilly Salmon - but sometimes I wonder whether a teacher in a MOOC needs to be more than a moderator or a facilitator? Is moderation the same as teaching?


Hi @sharplem,
It’s a pretty big question asking about the role for educators when it comes to MOOCs and in particular MOOCs that foreground social learning.
The main role for a teacher in online learning as in any other kind of learning is to design processes that support learners in achieving the desired learning objectives - learning goals whether they are specified as very concrete ones (knowing, competencies) or might be of more abstract nature (behavior, thinking, values).
This no-answer only to suggest that teaching is a design practice to quote Diane Laurillard.
With respect to concrete MOOCs the educator have to make sure that the technical design facilitate the kind of processes she want to take place. I’ve stated in many of my posts in this hot seat that it is a question of scaffolding. The teachers job is to scaffold the students work in order to eventually let go.
In MOOCs we often desire a high degree of flexibility for the learners, which means that we don’t want learners to be (too) dependent on directly teacher presence. Therefore, it is very, very important that teachers/educator know how to make their presence ‘felt’/‘visible’/know for the students by the design. Students/learners will like to feel that they are in good hands and the more tech is taking over, the more design have to compensate.
I don’t think that ‘moderating’ is sufficient in most MOOCs - althoug in minor MOOCs visible moderating and feedback might suffice for teacher presence. @Fleur_Prinsen and @jennymackness you are discussing exactly this point. Moderating and even facilitating is not enough and often not possible in MOOCs. You’ll have to think of teaching as the way the student experience the MOOC and for social learning to be a part of that, you have to lead (be design) the learners to establish bonds of peers.
So, really, @sharplem what you ask is: how do you do that: make the learner experience that she or he is part of a social learning event?



Hi Jenny,
To me teachers/educators/those-who-are-knowledgeable can never be replaced or erased from society. Maybe the roles might change slightly, but even in each of our personal learning networks we have those who teach us. Maybe teaching will be more distributed, across both field experts and peer experts, but sharing curated, critically composed knowledge is at the core of each of our learning journeys. I think the role will stay.
Additionally, humans like to admire someone, as such - even if it is only due to that inclination - teachers will stay :wink:


@Ignatia - so good to see you here. You have so much experience to share.

A question I have is - it is true that ‘anyone can be a teacher’? Does distributing the role of the teacher involve believing that anyone can be a teacher? On the one hand I can see that this is true. We can all learn from and teach each other. On the other hand I think that teaching is a specialist job, a job which requires many years of training and experience. MOOCs have raised the questions about what/who is a teacher, how do we recognise teachers, what do we want from teachers etc. I find it increasingly difficult to get my head around!


This reference is wrong.

Kop, R., Fournier, H., Sui, J., & Mak, F. (2011).

It should be:

Kop, R., Fournier, H., & Mak, S.F.J. (2011)

It’s Sui Fai John Mak - all one person.


At the risk of self-reference, I’d like to contribute to this discussion by pointing to something I wrote on the role of the educator a few years ago - The Role of the Educator - which was based on a few talks, including We Don’t Need No Educator.

The point of these presentations is to say two things: first, that as the learning environment is reshaped by technology, it doesn’t make sense to think of it as being provided by a single artisan manually performing a wide (and increasing) range of professional tasks; and second, that the role of the educator(s) is far more varied than one might think, even in the age of the MOOC.

After all, it’s not as though the one task of the educator was to present content, and it’s not as though the educator disappears once a person begins to be able to manage their own learning and find and view resources for themselves. Rather, it means that the same number of professionals (probably more) can now begin to offer specialized services to a much larger number of people.


Wow, the shorter the question, the harder to get a grip on it?
Somehow I think I am entering the realm of philosophy here. What is the purpose of the MOOCs we are talking about? I’m going to be a bit simplistic here for the sake of clarity.
If the scaled-up lecture hall is intended to transport knowledge to as many learners as possible in terms of facts, I believe the current drill and practice xMOOCs do just fine by canning knowledge and scaffolding. The educator needs to provide structured designs and content tailored to the learners learning capacity.
However, if the MOOC is designed in a “we don’t need no educator” social constructivist/connectivist cMOOC fashion, then there the trouble (at least in my mind) starts. I see a dichotomy between acquiring globally-known-to-be-true knowledge and socially constructed meaning. This dichotomy is this: globally-known-to-be-true knowledge unifies meaning for all of us, while social constructivist meaning making creates locally-known-to-be-true knowledge between participants in the meaning making process. Strict social-constructivist approaches, in my view, are connected to pragmatic truth theories. These are problematic in that they suggest that what works empirically locally is true. One of the criticisms on this approach is that it would require a bottom-up global debate to arrive at globally-known-to-true knowledge.
So, to return to the question about the role for educators in MOOCs, I feel that we should somehow strive to unify meaning to overcome many of the differences in opinions so they can become global knowledge, not local opinion. I guess this means also supporting some form of top-down process in meaning making in cMOOCs.
Happy shooting :wink:


@Stephen Thanks for the correction to the reference. That will teach me to just take an automated citation from Mendeley without checking it - and I should have known better, since I have also published with John Mak!


Thanks @hsp for trying to reduce the complexity in the question. I think I’s a good idea to start out with the more simple issues and then broaden the question to the more complex.
But I’m afraid that you’ve made the answer a little to simplistic. The idea of globally-known-to-be-true facts are non existent. And that for two reasons. All knowledge is knowledge for someone and for a purpose (not that this have to be conscious - so you could as wall say that it has a ‘meaning’) There, of course, is also an abstract knowledge that we more or easily share. We do that because we actually understand something differently when we share something as ‘the same’ That is possible because the actual meaning of the ‘knowledge’ isn’t important in the exchange. A lot of things going on i schools work this way - and you could, therefore, question if that is generating learning, but I think that’s a discussion for later : ) This first argument is a question of epistemology
The second ‘problem’ is about understanding of leanring: how do different people actually learn something? You suggest that memorization is learning when it comes to knowledge regarded as truth. That kind of learning is in your oppinion different from the kind of learning in social-constructivist approaches. Im not sure that learners have just one way of learning. But I’m pretty sure - or: I do believe - that learning consists of processing that is not only receiving facts transferred from one authority/teacher. The learning as to be negotiated through already existing knowledge/schemas or whatever and has to be placed in accordance with the situatedness of both the learning and the learned (knowledge).
In my understanding knowledge is always situated in a broader context (epistemology) and learning is also always situated (concept of learning).
As @Downes I do not believe that the teachers expanded roles is depending on the subject matter (authorized thruth vs truth to be constructed) - but a mater of knowledge and learning. (Not that I suggest that @Downes would agree in my view).
If I somehow have misrepresented your view @hsp, I apologize :smile:


@jennymackness I was happy to read you here also :smile:

I do agree with @downes on the (possible) multiplication of educators, especially when looking at the broad spectrum of educator opportunities. In one of the MOOCs I collaborate on, the MOOC is used as a first step for professionals (start-ups and SME) who then move to the opportunity to be coached in small groups for specific, very specialized content. The idea being that through this contextualized and personalized approach, their success rate will increase, and their networks grow. In that sense I fully agree with your mention that educators must definitely have experience, and that experience in a particular field is the best way to be able to ‘feel’ that field in terms of necessities, priorities etc.

Now… sharing my two cents, and - warning! - this idea comes from wild and free dreaming…
I feel that most jobs in the next phase will be transformed into automated jobs (some of the stuff legal people do can be automated, grading papers will become more automated, building houses will become more automated - including the full 3D-printed house). So, while resting I think to myself, what could this mean. To me, this means we need to prepare for the next Age of humanity. Which can be seen as dark and somber, or wrapped in a pinkish hue of optimism (and probably somewhere in between). Maybe it is like Moore’s law, and the Age of human is increasingly shifting from one age into the other: Industrial age, Knowledge age… Leisure age? Why should not we build a society where production and labour for money is transformed to being able to lead a fulfilling, leisure-based life? In that case, all ‘jobs’ will stay, but it will no longer be necessarily linked to money (the jobs), it will be driven by passion, willingness and interest. In that space, we - as educators - will thrive, I am sure.


I do not believe that the teachers expanded roles is depending on the
subject matter (authorized thruth vs truth to be constructed)

@Zerove I would be very disappointed with myself if that’s what you got out of my post any my articles. I have intended to say no such thing.

I am indeed more sympathetic with your response to @hsp and do not believe there is anything like ‘authorized truth’ that ought to be taught by teachers. Quite the opposite.


Understandable, @Downes, the comment was a provocative answer to @hsp and not to your post. Actually, I also saw this point as something where we agree but where @hsp maybe have a different take on knowledge. My "As @Downes should be read as: In agreeance with, or Like Downes I too do not…
Sorry for the confusion. :sunny: as a compensation :smile:


@Stephen Thanks for posting the links to your work on the role of the educator. It was good to be reminded of them and I have listened to your video again.

When you first made these posts, they did not surprise me. What you have written/said seems perfectly aligned to everything else you have written and how you approached the design of your MOOCs - and whilst I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to come up with such a comprehensive list myself, I did and still do recognise all the roles.

But in the past year it has seemed to me that there has been something missing in some of the MOOCs/courses I have attended - something to do with the relationship between educator/teacher and learner, which for me is only explicitly present in your identified role of teacher as mentor which you have acknowledged can be a defining experience for a learner.

So having listened again to your presentation (which is so relevant to this discussion), I find myself wondering about the interplay between these roles. They have been presented as though they are all as important as each other, but I wonder if they are. And how do they influence each other. What sort of balance between the roles should we look for.

Thanks for getting into your agitator role :slight_smile: It’s good to see you here.


Thanks @Zerove for your suggestion that we should rephrase the question as “how do we make the learner experience that she or he is part of a social learning event?”. That is certainly one aim in designing a successful MOOC platform and a valuable course. Effective learning design for MOOC courses is important, and we still lack design patterns for learning at massive scale (though these are starting to evolve through practice). But moderating and facilitating on MOOCs are both possible and, I would suggest, normally essential. Moderating is needed at very least to monitor and manage abuse - which if left unchecked could result in legal issues and personal distress. Fortunately, the experience of FutureLearn is that such abuse is rare - but active moderation is in place for al courses.

Facilitation is needed to orchestrate the interactions (to ‘oil the wheels’ of social learning by indicating valuable learner comments and to challenge or critique incorrect or partial ones). There is also a role for the teacher as authority - in general, learners value the ‘voice of the educator’. As with all teaching, a balance needs to be struck between didactic teaching and free-for-all. The finding so far from the FutureLearn courses is that effective course design sets up the conditions for social learning - not necessarily by ‘bonds of peers’ but through ‘conversations for learning’ among multiple perspectives - and that educators mainly save their facilitation for commentary on effective learner contributions.


@downes @zerove Let me try to express myself differently: I have no issue with social constructivism per se, but I do have an issue with the relative and subjective knowledge that it can generate. It leaves room for groups of people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts. All well and good for diversity, evolution etc., you might say and leave it at that. My point is that such a position does hamper a further dialectic process towards a global understanding of facts. What would happen if we handled our knowledge of e.g., the sub-atomic world like that? I haven’t yet given up on a unifying correspondence view of knowledge, whereas I think that others have given up on this difficult position and turned it into a principle: you cannot have global truths and thus everything has to stay relative.
In much the same way that we read articles, newspapers and comments by others of whom we think they are knowledgeable or even authorities on some subjects, I guess many learners look at the teacher for guidance and interpretation in an effective learning process. This process might falter if the only teacher I have is my peer-learner (one might question whether this person is a teacher).
And then there is the issue of learners having different levels of learning powers, different levels of self-direction powers. Are we only taking about MOOCs for the ultimate self-directed, knowledge-scrutinizing , internally dialectical learner? And what about the role education plays in organizing society? I do not want to step into politics, but education is a societal tool and has always played a role in preparing for assuming a contributing part in our societies on both the skills and moral level. Can we/should we do without that?