Role for Educators in MOOCs


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?


Thanks @hsp to explain your view. I see that we differ on a couple of issues - and that’s fine. Forums like these shouldn’t be about reaching a common understanding but exchange ideas and challenge ideas. And that is exactly what we are doing now.

This view is in my opinion a very common but still unwarranted belief of what constructivism epistemologically is. You might find some that would hold that knowledge it is a matter of opinion but mostly that would be people talking against constructivism.
At least: I don’t support a believe that knowledge is privately hold believes.
Your critique is, to my understanding, on a wrong level - you argue from what private people think and believe, but actually it is about what constitute knowledge, and knowledge can never be a mater of privately hold believes. Knowledge is relaional. Constructivism as epistemology is the understanding that knowledge is a construction in a system of signs. Truth is a relation between assertions in sign systems. Truth is not a matter of correspondence between assertions and matter. Knowledge consists of system of true assertions. Of course, knowledge is not about private feelings and understandings. Saying that we cannot have global truths is, hence, not saying the everything has to stay relative. But that is quite the opposite of relativism in that you are dependent on acknowledged systems of knowledge which - of course - can be challenged.
On a second level the bigger systems of knowledge has to be integrated in more local systems where specific context will have to be taken into consideration.
But I’ll leave it with that.


I have been following these discussions as and when I can - it is a moving feast of ideas and concepts!
I think on this latter point of systems of knowledge for me the point about integration into local systems is crucial. It moves us more towards seeing knowledge as being socially constructed within webs of power and authority that become the knowledge or truths and facts that I privately think and know. What I know is embedded in my social context and experience of the world in other words and as an educator I feel I need to have an awareness of this - which does link in some ways to @sharplem point re different expectations and knowledge patterns of learners from different parts of the world and different experiences of the world also.
In-between while to add another reference the paper by Jen Ross and colleagues is interesting on the role of educators I think - see Teacher experiences and academic identity: The missing components of MOOC pedagogy at


@hsp writes, “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.”

We’ve digressed a lot from the topic of ‘the role for educators’ but in an interesting and necessary way. And indeed, many of my discussions of MOOCs begin with a discussion of the nature of knowledge.

Allow me to begin, though, by dividing the discussion into a practical thread and a theoretical thead:

  • the practical matter of whether educators ought to see themselves as conveyors of authoritative knowledge, whether or not such knowledge actually exists, and

  • the nature of truth, and whether there are truths that can be known in an absolute sense, as opposed to the relativism described by @Zerove

With respect to the second matter, I think that the net result of some 2600 years of philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge and truth is that knowledge and truth are at best relative to a community, a symbol system, a model, a perceiver, or some such non-global entity.

It does not matter that “a further dialectic process towards a global understanding of facts” is hampered by this. [x] Arguably, this is beyond our reach - we could engage in the process forever, but never know whether we are even getting closer to a conclusion.

We could discuss the state of knowledge and truth at length, but that might best be a separate thread.

The practical question is whether, despite this, and for more pragmatic reasons, teachers out to be seen as conveyors of authoritative facts and knowledge.

Several reasons have been advanced in the discussion this far:

  • it may be the case that students are unable to learn unless facts and knowledge are presented in this way, ie., there are pedagogical reasons

  • it may be the case that there are cultural reasons for presenting knowledge and information this way, ie., there are cultural reasons

  • it may be that the stability and prosperity of society as a whole may depend on a common understanding (or, if you read Rawls, agreement) on certain propositions, ie., there are social reasons

Against these arguments I offer my own proposition that social, pedagogical and cultural issues are better addressed by encouraging learner autonomy than by encouraging teachers to act as sources of authoritative facts and knowledge.

  • first, it is arguable that students learn better if they are able to understand and reconstitute the knowledge for themselves, rather than having it distributed to them as already known and authoritative. There have been some recent discussions around the Common Core approach to mathematics that are illustrative of this.

  • second, it is arguable that culture, rather than being harmed by a decline of authority, is actually strengthened by it. This is a long digression which I won’t explore here, but a significant topic worthy of discussion.

  • third, society as a whole is more stable if the ondividuals in it are viewed as autonomous, pursuing (as Mill says) “their own good in their own way”. There has been a lot of recent discussion showing the quality of decisions and stability of social systems are increased when organized as networks of diverse autonomous members.

One final note. We will not doubt touch on the distinction between ‘authority’ and ‘expert’. The two are very different. The former represents a perspective that is imposed on the learner. The latter represents a perspective that is given weight by being recognized as such by the learner.

Contrary to the perspective of cMOOCs offered in the paper cited by @Vivian below, the position of connectivists (or, at least, of me) is that while teachers should not take on an authoritative role, they can and certainly should function as experts.

Their role is not merely to facilitate - that is a conflation of connectivism with constructivism. Their role is, to put in slogan form, to model and demonstrate.

[x] In the same way the assertion that “we do not have wings” hampers our ability to fly. But no much it hampers our ability to fly, it does not follow that we have wings.


Hi Jenny,

Moderation can be teaching, in a way, but not in others… if people pay attention, then the efforts of the moderator can be demonstrative of e.g. group norms and ‘operations’ that are usefull to get the best out of the group. In a way the moderator is modeling strategies to get the group learning in an optimal way. If others follow the lead then the group will, I think, become a more productive group as a whole.



Dear Mr. Downes,

Thank you for explaining how there could be social, pedagogical and cultural reasons to ascertain authoritative knowledge. I totally agree with you that building student autonomy should be our major aim. Still, does this deal with the problem of social constructivism leading to students being able to come to disparate conclusions based on the same facts? I think the way we teach students to work with ‘facts’ is also a social construct (namely methods we agree lead to dependable knowledge). If you follow the same method based on the same facts you should reach the same conclusion… We are trying to see how this works in a course on information skills for social scientists at the OU that I am teaching. Still, the essays that are produced from the search procedures we teach are all very different, so is the quality of the students’ search process… Conventions only hold with strict methods for replication, but this is not how the world works, is it? Maybe in some guarded circles.

I’m very interested to know more about your statements about the effect of decline of authority and it strengthening culture. I think that the nature of culture would predict this, but then you need to see it as a constantly changing entity (not everyone would agree). And the stability of a society consisting of diverse ‘autonomous’ agents - in which contexts are we studying this?



Hi Ove,

Yes, designing for social learning events and designing for (felt) inclusion is also a focus in our TELI group at the OUNl.

I really like your comment about students feeling they are in good hands. This can partly be addressed by good (seamless) design and (gained) trust in the organizers of the MOOCs, and by transparency. And then how do you develop a culture of learning in a massive MOOC? How does the learner get immersed in it and where does he/she get cues? The social spaces that develop within MOOCs can turn out in such different shapes that we should think about where the possibility for (universally) shared experiences lie. The design of the medium can only constrain these experiences to a certain degree, that’s for sure. So maybe students need to be prepared more BEFORE entering the MOOC space.



Indeed and recognition by the learner is necessary for them to give credence to and not dismiss any feedback from an educator that isn’t simply clear praise. That is, we commonly treat non-praising (‘negative’) feedback as false (and possibly even malicious) unless we accord the giver some expert status. So whilst adopting/according ‘authority’ might distort learning, achieving recognition of ‘expert’ status matters to support learners.

As an aside, I had begun to wonder if peer feedback is potentially even an improvement on - in some instances - individual educator feedback, but this point of the need to recognize expert status to accept some feedback stops me.


@Fleur_Prinsen I guess I would ask first of all why it is wrong for people to come to different conclusions based on the same facts. This is a very common phenomenon, and it is indeed this diversity of opinion that strengthens our own cognitive processes and the cognitive processes of a society as a whole.

But also, secondly, I challenge the presupposition that there is such a thing as the “same facts”. To my knowledge everybody experiences the world in different ways, and while there may be social and linguistic conventions concerning our shared experiences (eg., the sentence “Paris is the capital of France”) even these are experiences by different people in different ways.

What we call ‘facts’ are theory-laden representations of the world and experience, and are literally different depending on whether one believes in spiritual entities or not, on whether one believes in an underlying reality or not, on whether one interprets the perceptions as particles or waves. They vary from perspective and point of view, in significant and importance and relevance, in salience, and with reference to background knowledge, context or understanding.

So I do not think that it is an objection that people come to different conclusions. I think it is a strength.


This is well-stated, @Downes, when we are working here in the social science. It is something I discuss with my research students when I try to distinguish from the so-called hard sciences, such as biology or astronomy, compared to the shifting nature of what we understand when we work together in these meaning-making pursuits.


Hi @Fleur_Prinsen, I agree with @Downes that facts are not just facts, and that diversity is a strength. I do think, however, that it is more dialectically than that. There is a lot of stability in our systems - and that go for our systems of knowledge. We have long lasting communities of shared knowledge and knowledge base. As a educational system we direct our students to these or some of these systems of knowledge (believes). The viability of these system is that they constantly are challenge and pressure tested. But, basically, our students grow into communally shared knowledge - and maybe we actually, should do more to make them differ.
Coming to different conclusions from some of the same ‘facts’ is caused by both local or semi-local differences (contexts) and from the fact that no fact or interpretation is value free (or without implicit theory/understanding).
I don’t think that we differ much in this matter :smile: I just wanted to chip in whit my understanding.


@jeffreykeefer Most of the research on ‘theory-laden data’ was actually done on research in the hard sciences. This slide show outlines some of the foundational work by people like Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend to establish this. Even the nature of observations themselves, much less theoretical statements, are interpreted differently depending on one’s theoretical perspective.

This is important not because it puts astronomy and astrology on the same level - it doesn’t - but because it corrects a persistent misunderstanding about the nature of knowledge and scientific theory. There is no ‘foundation’, there are no ‘basic truths’, no particular ‘facts of the matter’ carry a special status over and above the rest. Knowledge is not an edifice, construct, or canonical representation of the world. It is far more complex (and far more interesting) than that.

A couple of examples, one from Lakatos, and one from my own writing:

  • the Millikan oil drop experiment was one of the foundational moments in chemistry and physics. It involved dropping oil drops between two charge plates, measuring the effect of the plates, and deducing the value of the charge of a single electron. Previous efforts had attempted the same with water, but because the results were so fickle, Millikan employed oil instead. “The Millikan–Ehrenhaft contro-versy can open a new window for students, demonstrating how two well-trained scientists can interpretthe same set of data in two different ways.”

  • ‘basic’ mathematics. It has long been held that children should learn ‘basic arithmetic’, such as addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. But the selection of these as ‘foundational’ is completely arbitrary (and are not surprisingly challenegd by Collon Core). Mathematics itself may be thought to be based on a foundational set of axioms, such as are represented by Peano arithmetic, based in the concepts of set theory, identity, and succession. Or perhaps we could employ Mill’s methods, which derive mathematics from as a set operations on a series of pebbles. In view of modern computation (and to help in their later understanding of modal logic) perhaps the core concepts taught ought to be transitivity, substitutivity, and symmetry.


In our fully online courses, we employ a modified version of Garrison, Archer and Anderson’s COi model, a version that extracts ‘teacher presence’ in order to decrease ‘transactional distance’ (Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.) Theoretical Principles of Distance Education. New York: Routledge). I feel that the traditional role of teacher as knowledge disseminator (I feel compelled to tell everyone that I’ve got a background as a secondary science teacher) is no longer needed, in fact it becomes an impediment to student learning as this role is intricately bound to control issues. I believe that control by teachers needs to be ceded to learners, allowing them to make most of the decisions required for true learning to occur. This inevitably requires that the teaching role morphs into something other than control and dissemination. I like to think of teaching as the creation of spaces (or sandboxes as S. Papert describes in Mindstorms) within which learning can occur. Teachers within this space must be nimble to avoid control. Questions from learners such as ‘what am I supposed to learn? and what am I supposed to do?’ need to be deflected back to the learners themselves if they are to control their own learning. In this type of scenario, teachers/facilitators/instigators need to be prepared to support learners emotionally AND challenge their thinking by asking questions such as ‘what about this concept? what are the implications of this concept on your present conceptual model?’, etc. Since all learners in the community are required to challenge all other learners, teachers/facilitators/instigators are cast as fellow learners thereby decreasing transactional distance.


@rolandv Your post resonates as I also have a science teaching background. My experience in face-to-face teaching was that science was taught in small groups (up to 30 students), which were then usually subdivided into groups of 4 or 5 for discussion and practical work. The purpose of this, particularly in physics, was usually to elicit students’ misconceptions and they had many. Science teachers know that misconceptions can be notoriously difficult to shift. The student can answer a question correctly but still hold on to their own misconception, i.e. they play the game but their fundamental understanding and beliefs haven’t shifted. I think this is where the expertise of the teacher which has been mentioned in this thread comes in. In these circumstances, if students are simply left to their discussions without any teacher intervention, they simply compound each others misconceptions.

I have never taught a fully online science course. Our courses were blended, which meant that we flipped the classroom and used face-to-face sessions for focussing on misconceptions and understanding.

Have you had any experience of teaching on a purely online science course or of teaching science in a MOOC? I have never been able to work out how teachers in these circumstances could know enough about individual student misconceptions to be able to intervene. Any thoughts?


Hi Jenny,
I’m afraid that I don’t put much stock in the ‘misconception’ concept. It seems to me that the idea of a ‘mis-conception’ implies that there is A correct conception. Science, as far as I’m concerned, and I borrow from K. Popper here, is a matter of proposing conjectures and then, on the basis of the refutations offered by oneself or others, crossing off the list of possibilities, the ones that have been discounted or falsified. Even T. Kuhn suggests that science proceeds from one line of thinking (paradigm) to another depending on, among other things, the ability to achieve consensus about theories that address most observed instances and have accounted for serious anomalies. There is no CORRECT conception or theory in any of this.

I’ve never conducted a purely online science course, per se. I’m not sure what that would look like, since I think that science is playing with explanations for physical phenomena so it could take a number of different forms.

I’ve mostly conducted courses that primarily focus on argumentation and cognitive psych. In these types of courses, the ‘teacher’ role is initially one of introducing a context or situation. The students are invited to propose or create problems/questions that they ‘see’ in the context or situation. In small, self-formed groups the students proceed to explore and clarify the problems/questions, ultimately working towards solutions/answers. The ‘teacher’ functions to listen to the elicited ideas and then challenge the thinking (usually by asking questions such as “how does this other concept apply to your problem/solution set?”) to move the students from their initial preconceived positions to new ideas/understandings. This function is extremely challenging in that it presumes a wide understanding of the discussions of the students while simultaneously fighting the impulse to revert to information dissemination.


@rolandv Thanks for a really interesting response. Without wanting to go too far off topic, does ‘misconception’ necessarily imply that there is A correct conception. I have always thought about it in terms of ‘incorrect’ conception. Can we know that something is incorrect, without necessarily knowing what is correct?

This is probably splitting hairs, but we know that students come to our classes with misunderstandings. As you write in your final paragraph one of the teacher’s roles is to elicit these ideas (misconceptions, misunderstandings, alternative understandings, whatever you want to call them) and provide an environment in which students will move ‘from their initial preconceived positions to new ideas/understandings’. Presumably this is why students are expected to take exams etc.

But I think the important point here is that moving students ‘from their initial preconceived positions to new ideas/understandings’ requires skilled intervention and expertise. That doesn’t always come from the teacher. I have, like all teachers, taught classes where at least one student can take on this role, but normally it’s the teachers role.

And adding this question a bit later: What have I failed to understand in your post?


@jennymackness I’m not sure that the concept of correct and incorrect is particularly helpful. Perhaps we need to encourage our students/peers/colleagues to propose (another Popperism) all ideas as conjectures (inductively derived generalizations/hypotheses) and then to actively test (refute) those conjectures against other instances (using primarily deductive processes) and ask those with whom we have contact to help us in refuting these conjectures. According to Popper, and I subscribe to this idea, we can then weed out the conceptions and theories that don’t work and focus again on the ones that hold more promise for the particular context under consideration.

I think that guiding learners through these processes: proposing conjectures, falsifying the less satisfying conjectures and then moving on to the next conjecture is a worthwhile set of processes. It also removes the tendency for the more novice among us to go looking for ‘proof’ supporting particular conceptions, since proof does not exist.

I agree with you regarding your point that critique or refutations do not always come from the teacher. In fact, in our fully online programs we endeavour to have all members of the learning community develop their critical competencies. We do this through formative and summative peer and self assessment exercises focussing on authentic activities.