Review: Sir John Daniel on MOOCs, Online Learning, and Quality

As part of the transformation of teaching and learning in higher education, decisions are being made on the type and scope of online learning and whether to participate in MOOCs—a specific form of online learning.

AcademicPartnersTwo papers about MOOCs and online learning have been published by Dallas-based Academic Partners, an academic support company. They deserve the attention of those in colleges and universities making those decisions. What makes these specific papers important is Sir John Daniel’s participation as author or editor. Leading the UK’s Open University from 1990 to 2001, he assembled a talented and dedicated team that had to develop learning processes adapted to the needs of non-residential students, to lead the transition into learning technologies, ensure quality, and be financially successful. Combining this background and a history of scholarship, his thorough and pragmatic approach yielded two publications that share his insight as an understandable guide for discussions with Boards, state executives and legislators, and the press and public.

“Making Sense of MOOCs: Musing in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility”

While a Fellow at the Korea National Open University in September 2012, Sir John Daniel wrote this research paper. His motivation was the “media and web coverage of [MOOCs]”. Sir John Daniel provides the broad perspective to understand both the MOOC phenomena and its place in the fifty-year progress of online learning successfully serving a population of non-traditional students (71% of U.S. undergraduates) and supplementing classroom instruction and student research.

He comments:

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the educational buzzwords of 2012. Media frenzy surrounds them and commercial interests have moved in. Sober analysis is overwhelmed by apocalyptic predictions that ignore the history of earlier educational technology fads.

And continues:

New trends in higher education are poorly reported in the international press until elite institutions in the United States adopt them, so there has been frenzied reporting on MOOCs in 2012.

Although xMOOCs dominate the news, we also look at smaller-scale eLearning partnerships involving more modest institutions that are at least making money and getting students to degrees.

Stephen Downes: “The origin of the “x” (in xMOOCs) indicates programs that aren’t part of the core offerings, but which are in some way extensions.”

Perhaps modest is not the right word for UK’s Open University. 201,270 students and a university ranked above (4) the University of Oxford (5) for teaching excellence. Or the Korea National Open University with more than 180,000 students.  Or Anadolu Üniversitesi in Turkey with, according to Wikipedia, 1,945,439 distance education students and 22,622 residential students. Or Open University China with 3.59 million students; an institution that began using OU UK as a model. OU China also used OU-produced course materials. Or Open Universiteit Nederland with 19,064 students (enrollment limited by the requirement all instruction be in Dutch). The concept of free online courses emerged here in 2006. The free version was available as an alternate and unsupported access to credit courses [described here].

During his time as Vice-Chancellor (Chief Executive Officer) of Open University (OU) Sir John Daniel and his very talented and dedicated colleagues developed the academic, instructional, and business processes that underlie all of these institutions. In the U.S. OU UK cooperated with Rio Salado College to share the diffusion of this expertise and experience to the U.S. community colleges where there was a history of offering television courses.

Sir John Daniel defined “a MOOC [as] a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web.” He credits the origin of the term saying: “The term MOOC originated in Canada. Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander coined the acronym to describe an open online course at the University of Manitoba designed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.” He quoted David Caufield cautioning MOOCs “are at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.” He further cautions:

It is a myth to think that providing not-for-credit open online learning from the USA will address the challenges of expanding higher education in the developing world.

But he also see the possibilities “[…] an important process is underway that will chart new paths for the universities involved and for higher education generally.” Sir John Daniel predicts: “We envisage that MOOCs will have an important impact in two ways: improving teaching and encouraging institutions to develop distinctive missions.”

He also predicts: “… various actors from the media through student groups to educational research units will be publishing assessments of xMOOC courses. These will quickly be consolidated into league tables that rank the courses – and the participating universities – by the quality of their offerings as perceived by both learners and educational professionals.” Hence the need for quality assurance of courses.

As the “ranking” of MOOCs changes from number of students enrolled to learning results, participation in MOOCs may enhance a college or university’s reputation and, as the Open University UK did, be noted for its teaching quality.” Or the rankings may reflect poor quality. For those colleges and universities focused on national rankings, Sir John Daniel comments:

We need a climate in which colleges and universities are less imitative, taking pride in their uniqueness. It’s time to end the suffocating practice in which colleges and universities measure themselves far too frequently by external status rather than by values determined by their own distinctive mission.

Having himself developed learning methodologies and a business plan that, whether measured by retention and degrees awarded or by financial viability, was successful, Sir John Daniel is an author whose work deserves special attention. The six pages of references also provide the reader of this paper with an opportunity to more broadly understand online learning and how to be successful.

“A Guide to Quality in Online Learning”

Sir John Daniel and Stamenka Uvaliæ-Trumbiæ, former head of UNESCO’s Section on Reform, Innovation and Quality in Higher Education, edited this narrowly focused 28 page paper on the quality of online learning. It was authored by South Africa-based Neil Butcher and Merridy Wilson-Strydom.

The ultimate test of online learning and soon MOOCs will be learning effectiveness. Do students learn what the course learning objectives list? This Guide addresses the forthcoming criterion of success. The context:

Online learning should rather be seen as a different teaching and learning method that can be used by itself or to complement classroom teaching. … The power of online teaching and learning is that it gives different—and sometimes better—learning experiences.

And the authors say:

The key principle is that higher education institutions must always take full responsibility for the quality of the qualification they award, so references to institutions subsume any partnerships that they use to facilitate their online teaching and learning and any unbundling of the processes involved.

That is, colleges and universities will ultimately be held accountable to students, graduates, businesses, and governments for the learning of students regardless of what they “outsource” to others.

Quality assurance can also be “a route to quality improvement.” This approach has been used by U.S. community colleges over the past decade. (Specifically those who participate in or follow the work of the Instructional Technology Council).

An example they cite is the U.S. Department of Education-funded Quality Matters Program  that has established what could become “national benchmarks for online courses.” According to their website, the Gates Foundation is seeking proposals to provide “course reviews” for awarded grant projects.

QM lists these common aspects of quality assurance as practiced now:


  • Institutional support (vision, planning & infrastructure
  • Faculty support
  • Course development
  • Technology
  • Teaching and learning (instruction)
  • Evaluation
  • Course structure
  • Student assessment
  • Student support
  • Examination security

And commented:

Central to the QM Understanding of online learning quality is the concept of alignment, which is evident when learning objectives, measurement and assessment, educational materials, interaction and engagement of learners, and course technology work together to ensure achievement of desired learning outcomes.

This would be familiar to Sir John Daniel since this quality assurance process was set in place by Pro-Vice-Chancellor Diana Laurillard at Open University UK. (She later became Head of e-Learning at the UK Government’s Department of Education and Skills and now heads the London Knowledge Lab at the University of London and is on the Governing Board for the UNESCO Institute for IT in Education). Laurillard has demonstrated and would argue that learning design is the foundation for quality learning and teaching.

It is also interesting that Open University UK’s Director of Learning and Teaching Niall Sclater is noted for his major contributions to learning assessment. Earlier he was OU’s Director of Learning Innovation. Perhaps this suggests knowledge of assessments is becoming important for online learning.

Those urging government mandated “measures of performance and quality” should consider this point:

Institutions must distinguish between quality assurance procedures, which can easily become compliance focused, and real efforts to enhance quality. For example, evaluating a course, though required, is not sufficient. Quality enhancement will only take place when the lessons from evaluation are reflected in the next offering of the course. Institutional quality assurance structures and processes are important, but beware of making them an exercise in compliance or accountability, rather than process of learning and self-improvement that really improves quality.

Current U.S. Department of Education measures are simplistic and create incentives for lowering the quality of courses to increase a college or university’s measure of performance.

The authors recognize the limitations of available resources.

If institutions do not employ cost-effective approaches to online learning, they will struggle to achieve its full potential. Cost effectiveness means establishing and maintaining the key processes needed to sustain online learning. Inadequate resourcing and financial management will compromise the quality of online learning.

The authors cite the list of ten cost drivers from the Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructors.  And recommend “You should base decisions about resource allocation or the development of quality online earning on sound business plans and cost estimates.” So far costs have not been a part of the discussions in the U.S. of online learning and MOOCs specifically.

There is an important trend: Teaching and learning is moving from a service of professionals (faculty salaries) into an investment in course materials. Experience so far, especially by the textbook publishers, show this requires a substantial investment. This investment cannot be sustained by faculty effort, alone or a transferred  to students in the form of higher textbook costs. The authors comment:

Since development of quality online learning materials requires a range of skills, materials development teams often comprise faculty or subject matter experts, instructional designers, curriculum specialists, technology specialists, assessment specialists, and a language editor.

That need is only now being recognized in the discussion of MOOCs. Coursera and others require the “branded” university to take that responsibility. The needed combination of talent and skills and facilities may not be assigned to the task; granting a professor $5,000 and 18 weeks from teaching or research will not, according to the authors’ research, achieve quality. The traditional “textbook authoring” approach may become a significant risk for the university’s brand.

The authors also point out “communication and interaction are essential elements within learning. (And was motivation for the Sakai OAE learning system).

Recognizing no 28 page paper can completely cover quality assurance, the authors provide 3 pages of annotated readings and 95 endnote references for further reading.


These two publications should be  read before reviewing current online learning efforts or planning a expanded use of online learning, or dashing into MOOCs. (The documents are available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License).

In 2013 online learning is no longer “innovation.” The challenge is implementation. The authors and editors have personally done it well.

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Jim Farmer is an engineering economist at instructional media + magic inc. His interests include educational technology, academic research, and information standards. He also writes for Intellectual Property Magazine. For more information, see his profile page.
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6 Responses to Review: Sir John Daniel on MOOCs, Online Learning, and Quality

  1. Tom abeles says:

    This is a call not to just look at DE and MOOC’s but at brick space knowledge delivery. “Flipping” is a band-aid, too. The advantage of “click” space is that its legacy systems are virtual and can be reconstructed essentially on a “green field”.-not so for “old main” in brick space covered in ivy and nostalgia.

  2. Laraine says:

    When I took my first MOOC many of the foreign students in the discussion groups referred to their previous experiences in such classes, and what they said didn’t seem to have anything to do with what I was experiencing. In particular, they talked about taking proctored exams that affirmed (or denied) their qualifications, which was very different from the pretty pointless peer assessments I and many others were taking part in in order to prove our “mastery” of the material.

    Now I get it. Those foreign students were talking about MOOCs modeled on or similar to the Open University model. Based on Sir John Daniel’s description, the Open University model has it all over the current American model, or perhaps I mean Coursera’s model, which is the only one I know and one that leaves everything in the hands of some beleaguered professor and a handful of overworked graduate students. Much as people are rushing to give Coursera money, I just don’t see that model working very well over the long haul.

    But what I now think of as the Open University model, or c MOOCs, seems really promising. I hope the current mania for rushing into xMoocs doesn’t ultimately undermine and defeat the promise of cMoocs as people decide, mistakenly I believe, that MOOCs in general don’t work because all they know is the xMOOC.

  3. tom abeles says:

    If one reads the Daniel document, one understands that MIT released its courses as open education resources and created MITx, in part, to better understand what they could learn for their classroom based courses. Loraine’s comments concerning x vs c MOOC’s and the Open University, OU, points out that we now have a variety of ways not only to gain knowledge but to validate, when necessary, the acquisition.

    The “revolt” in France by economics students over what was being put forth from the pulpit and which eventually played a part in changing economics shows that there are alternatives to how knowledge is presented and accepted by the learners. This has been seen throughout time and across cultures. Recent times has seen the rise of “free” universities in the 60’s, alternative institutions such as OU and many other blended forms in click and brick spaces.

    Knowledge, as we see, moves almost seamlessly across geo/political boundaries as does knowledge based businesses, creating problems for Ivy covered walls and for governments which underwrite such institutions for economic and political reasons. And, as we are now seeing, certification may even move across these boundaries.

    The current discussion on methods such as x vs c is much like technicians arguing the merits of one type of spanner vs another. The tools need to fit the problem which, in education implies subjects and the culture and context of the moment. The internet shows that one size does not have to fit all learners or all subjects. Mathematics differs from political studies. One needs an armamentarium that fits the time, space, place and context.

    Perhaps, in the end we can be “Foxes” and not “Hedgehogs”

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