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How Can MOOC Platforms Be More Dynamic?: A Comparison of Major MOOC Providers

educational collaboration

This past winter, like many prospective students, I browsed through hundreds of college course descriptions to find subjects right for me. Yet, unlike other students, I wasn’t enrolled in a degree program. Instead, in February, I became the MOOC equivalent of a full-time student. I enrolled in five course (listed here), from five different universities (over 1,600 miles apart), attending lectures weekly, submitting assignments almost daily and interacting with other students on a regular basis.

Moreover, the courses I choose were on three different platforms from major MOOC providers, Canvas, Coursera, and edX, and in this review I would like to discuss the advantages and shortcomings of each. Also, with the upcoming release of edX’s Open Source Platform on June 1, I want to inspire some critical perspectives and creative ideas about what improvements can be made to the systems.

MOOC technologies, and the very platforms they are embedded into, are in their infancy. As a comprehensive comparison of three MOOC platforms would be an impossibly large project for a single blog post, I instead wish to discuss a few points prospective students — as well as teachers and course designers — ought to consider as new opportunities to design and redesign digital education continue to emerge.

Comparing MOOC platform navigation and layout

A brief glance at the dashboards of the first two platforms, Canvas and Coursera, reveals almost identical layouts. They feature basic, information-rich portal pages, with navigation bars lining the top, left and right columns. As is typical, the top nav provides links to the most basic functions and account features; the left nav in a little more detail gets the user to the specific subsection necessary to reach content, such as “Lectures,” “Assignments” or “Modules;” and the right nav supplies a time-sensitive list of recent updates and deadlines.

EdX, however, has a significantly less busy layout. A top nav bar gets the user to nearly everywhere in the course, including “Courseware,” “Course Info,” “Discussion,” “Syllabus,” “Advice for Students” and the required texts for the class. All the multimedia content is stored under the first link, “Courseware,” and the rest proves self-explanatory.

While in all three cases, the information is navigable, their information design models appear more suited for a Web 1.0 environment. The content is static, updated once a week (usually Mondays), which produces little interest in returning to the site again before the following Monday. Interaction with other students is restricted to the forums, thus situating each participant as an isolated, autodidactic learner. The information is painfully linear, as each week tacks on yet another 10-20 subsections, by week ten, you find yourself scrolling to the bottom of an infinitely long page.

Discussion forums

All three platforms include Discussion Forums, but each approach is noticeably different. On Canvas, forums are embedded into the module design. Each week a student begins at a general “Objectives” page and proceeds through those tasks (which are generally audio/video, reading and/or discussion) by clicking a “next” button on the bottom of the content page. The instructor chooses where to embed a discussion page during this progression.

For example, after watching a thought-provoking TedTalk, a student is presented with a discussion page introducing similar questions. This model allows for a somewhat timely discussion and helps limit the subject to something more manageable for such a large community. After completing the linear presentation of the week’s material, a student may continue to check and contribute to the discussion forums through a link that lists all the previous topics chronologically. After the week is over, however, the activity in the connected discussion forums quickly fades.

Coursera’s discussion forums are even more isolated. They are only accessible through a “Discussion Forums” link, and the topics do not correspond with specific coursework. Instead, there is a static set of sub-forums, chosen by the instructor, and any participant can create new threads inside these headings.

While threads in the “General” sub-forum are viewed by sometimes upwards of 3,000 students (still a very small percentage of a 50,000-student course), threads in a more specific sub-forum such as “Assignments” often struggle to break 500 views. Whereas Canvas’s infrastructure allows the instructor to require participation in the discussion to complete the module, Coursera’s does not. As the course progresses, then, Coursera’s forum posts become a labyrinth of missed connections — hundreds of started threads, many of them similar in topic, but with only a couple hundred views and generally less than ten comments each.

EdX addresses the issue of the large class community in a different manner. From the very beginning, learners are separated into various cohorts, each of about 1,000 students. Each cohort has structurally similar but content-distinct forums. I, as a user, can only access the posts and comments of the others in my specific cohort. The instructor provides weekly discussion prompts to inspire guided and relevant discussions. Out of the thousand members of the cohort, approximately 150 respond to these weekly instructor prompts.

In addition to these reading questions, participants can, just as in Coursera’s platform, create their own posts. In edX, too, this option rarely works, as a post originating from a non-staff member averages only one response. Again, as with Coursera, the value of such minimally active forums relative to the effort of navigating them is low.

Points of discussion: How can MOOC platforms be more dynamic?

MOOC platforms, as they are designed currently, do not reflect the new hybrid pedagogies necessary to teach within, through and about a digital environment. Many of their features have been simply lifted from various classroom methodologies. I find it deeply problematic that the current normative structure for MOOCs consist of video lectures of talking-heads, supplemented with readings and usually optional and somewhat strained discussion. Some go beyond this, sure, but not far beyond and not very often.

Below are some preliminary suggestions on how to break out of this aging and increasingly irrelevant academic model.

  • Integrated real-time discussion – I, for one, would participate more if real-time discussion was integrated into courses. As it stands, I would have to jot down my thoughts (not with a tool on the platform, because there is currently no such feature), finish reading the text or watching the lecture (so I wouldn’t need to scroll back to my place on the page or rebuffer the media), navigate somewhere between 2-5 clicks to start a discussion. And I would have to hope I can create thread title clever enough to attract interest so my post isn’t bumped to page two by the following day. An embedded Twitter feed, for example, that provides real-time thoughts appearing directly on the content contextualizes and promotes a more useful discussion by including direct quotation and analysis rather than a generalized post-reading assessment of the content-at-large.

  • Crowdsourced annotations – I can analyze a text on my own. The real benefit of a class that focuses on close-readings and explication, as many of the MOOCs I’m currently taking do, comes from hearing alternative perspectives. Generally, that interaction is promoted in a seminar-class environment, but online, we have various options. The real beauty of a digital text is that it allows us all to read the same copy of a text, which could act as a central hub of interactivity and discussion. Yet, we continue to treat digital texts as though they are printed, specific to the individual reading it. Open up in-page annotations, and the reading experience becomes dynamic and communal.

  • Promote a more authentic community – Currently, the MOOC interactions are rare, question-and-response oriented and largely anonymous. This model doesn’t promote critical engagement with the content or — even worse — with each other. Interactive study environments, live chat systems with other learners currently online and audio/video mentor-mentee relationship need to be integrated into the system. Organizing collaborative meetups in the real-world or through third-party applications such as Google Drive, Wikis, Skype, and StudyRoom prove to be disorienting, often fall through and are thus met with little enthusiasm. A MOOC ought to be immersive, not necessarily in a gamified sense (though I do encourage such ideas), but rather all-inclusive. A digital classroom should be rich in digital technologies that promote 21st century thought and collaboration.

  • Open-source plugins – Users need to be able to customize their learning experience. The suggestions I offer above should be introduced as plugins to a more basic platform. Each learner has specific needs, and no one platform can accommodate all those differences, especially without customization. When EdX Open Source releases on June 1, I encourage coders and educators to collaborate to develop add-ons and plugins that will fill the diverse needs of the free education world.


I invite you to share your experiences with these and various other MOOC platforms. What features did you find useful? Which were not? What suggestions do you have to provide a better, more dynamic and immersive educational experience? How can MOOCs better provide for and promote the community?


Adam Heidebrink (3 Posts)

Hello! I am interested in and dedicated to research, education, and production/publication within the field of Digital Humanities. This includes Education technologies, hybrid pedagogies, and postmodern theory and literature. Furthermore, I am interested in these subjects historically, with a particular attention paid to the English Enlightenment and concurrent print culture established throughout Europe. I have taken several MOOC courses and closely follow the development of this and myriad other educational technologies as they continue to emerge, advance, and transform.

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  1. MOOC News & Reviews
    Comparing the major #MOOC providers. Why are the forums so bad? #MOOCs
    #moocdom #ed #highered

  2. How Can #MOOC Platforms Be More Dynamic? Interesting review of the major providers @MOOCNewsReviews #hesm @timoreilly

  3. edX + Coursera “information design models appear more suited for a Web 1.0 environment” One view, #ouch

  4. Interesting real-world comparison of #mooc platforms: #edtech ^LG

  5. Hello Adam: Your review of the MOOCs from various providers is useful. I have noted your insightful comments within the Canvas Social Media course and am in awe of your spot-on descriptions. Thank you for making me think!
    My limited involvement with the discussion groups is due to not understanding how to navigate the technology and not a lack of interest. In SoMe-Not-For-Profit groups I would often check the progress – see very little – and simply not have a clue what I was to contribute.
    I am 53years old – computers didn’t enter my life until 1993 and then mostly MS Office for work and no spare time for computer-fun. So ease of navigation of an online course is critical for me.
    Coursera course content is decent, although the discussion threads are overwhelming. How to make sense of what to follow?? Having lecture notes that I can review prior to the video improves my retention dramatically. I have dumped a couple of courses due to navigation issues – which I acknowledge could be my own in-experience with tech. I dropped two coursera courses because the lectures were so static and poor quality.
    Canvas courses seem to allow better interaction with the instructor. I get the sense the Canvas instructor cares and wants to ensure success for the students. Having the Canvas SoMe group post on facebook – was easy for me to follow.
    I look forward to my first edX course starting next week.
    Still amazing to me what is available online. I am so very grateful to be able to access these MOOCs and like you, really enjoy hearing perspectives from the global participants.
    You do good work Adam – keep it up!

    • Hi Henriette. About note-taking: check out Debbie Morrison’s piece under Success Strategies for her method.

  6. Hi, nice OpenMOOC platform review.
    Do you know openmooc platform?
    OpenMOOC is a spanish open source project. Is used in entities including the UNED (National Distance Education University) that has more than 150k users.

    We publish a comparison between EdX and OpenMOOC:

    Take a look 😉