Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ From MOOCs to Personal Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 05, 2015

This Journal Article published as From MOOCs to Personal Learning in Revista FGV Online Year 5, Number 1 69-77 Oct 05, 2015. Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]


The cMOOC, is based on connection rather than content, looks more like an online community than a course, and doesn't have a defined curriculum or formal assignments. What makes a person able to function in such an environment? What constitutes the literacy that is missing in such a case? What type of learning design or learning technology is best suited to support learning in a free-form community-based environment? These are the questions intended to be addressed in this paper. It describes the basis for a personal learning architecture and outlines the elements of the 'learning and Performance Support System' project being developed to implement this architecture.


MOOC, e-learning, personal learning, web, pedagogy, sharing, learning resources, open educational resources, networks The first Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) was created in 2008 by George Siemens and myself. The course, titled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, was implemented as part of the University of Manitoba's Certificante in Adult Education and simultaneously offered at no charge to approximately 2200 people worldwide. In the years that followed CCK would be offered three more times. Additionally, the same platform was used to deliver a course called Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge (PLENK) in 2010, as well as the 30-week course on Change.

In 2011 Stanford University offered its first MOOC, the Artificial Intelligence MOOC authored by Norvig and Thrun. It differs from the network-based connectivist MOOCC (cMOOC), though, by being centred on a single platform and focusing on content like a traditional course. The xMOOC, as this model came to be known, is characterized by limiting autonomy and diversity - all students followed the same lessons at the same pace. Although it was open, interaction flowed one-way, from professor to student.

Since that time the field has seen experiments, articles and publications in the field with varying attention paid to each of the four terms in the original definition. Research and reports have questioned the sustainability of the MOOC model, questioned variables like learning outcomes and completion rates, and questioned whether the needs of non-traditional and less independent students are being met. Some have questioned whether MOOCs should be massive at all. Others have questioned whether it should be free.

These questions need to be asked differently of the two types of MOOCs. The xMOOC has received most of the attention in recent years and have generally shaped people's impressions. But the other type type of MOOC, called the cMOOC, based on connection rather than content, looks more like an online community than a course and doesn't have a defined curriculum or formal assignments. These were the original MOOCs, and since they posed a much greater challenge to both the educational institutions that offered them and the participants who studied in them, they must be assessed differently.

One major criticism of the cMOOC is based on the free-form nature of the course. Students have to manage their own time, find their own resources, and structure their own learning. For this reason, it is argued, students must already have a high degree of skill and internet savvy in order to be successful. A student who cannot navigate complex websites, search for and assess resources, or make new friends through a social network may have difficulty navigating through a cMOOC. As Keith Brennan writes, "Not everyone knows how to be a node. Not everyone is comfortable with the type of chaos Connectivism asserts. Not everyone is a part of the network. Not everyone is a self-directed learner with advanced metacognition. Not everyone is already sufficiently an expert to thrive in a free-form environment. Not everyone thinks well enough of their ability to thrive in an environment where you need to think well of your ability to thrive." (Brennan, 2013)

But what makes a person able to function in such an environment? What constitutes the literacy that is missing in such a case? What type of learning design or learning technology is best suited to support learning in a free-form communitybased environment? These are the questions intended to be addressed in this paper.

Brennan himself suggests that proficiency is based in learner efficacy. "Self-efficacy is our belief that a task is achievable by us, and that the environment in which we are working will allow us to achieve that task. It's that ticking heart that measures out the motivation in us," he writes. And in order to preserve and promote self-efficacy, design is important. Tasks must be challenging, in order to be satisfying, but not so frustrating as to create confusion. Whether a particular task satisfies these criteria, he writes, depends on cognitive load and prior knowledge. That's why "why we tend to teach absolute novices using techniques and contexts that are different to the ones we deploy for absolute experts, and why we avoid exposing novices to too much chaos." Other writers refer to these criteria under the heading of flow, and trace its origin to game design. (Baron, 2012)

But cognitive load theory assumes that there is some specific outcome to learning such that supporting experiences can be divided into those supporting the learning outcome (aka 'signal') and those that constitute part of the background (aka 'noise'). This is especially the case if the purpose of the learning experience is to remember some specific body of content, or to accomplish some particular task. However, in a cMOOC, neither is the case. Indeed, navigating the chaos and making learning decisions is the lesson in a cMOOC. The cMOOC is in this way similar to constructivism. As George Siemens writes, "Learners often select and pursue their own learning. Constructivist principles acknowledge that real-life learning is messy and complex. Classrooms which emulate the 'fuzziness' of this learning will be more effective in preparing learners for lifelong learning." (Siemens, 2004)

What, then, would promote learner efficacy even in chaotic or noisy environments? A second, more robust, proposal takes the idea of literacy literally. A language might appear chaotic at first. Even if someone has learned how to spell the words, and even if they know what they mean, the nuances of using them in a sentence are many, and a language supports an infinite number of new sentence combinations. Each new experience with a language will be different, there are tens of thousands of words to choose from when forming a sentence, and only the barest of grammatical rules to aid construction. Imagine the language learner given a new text to read and criticize, picture them in front of a blank page they have to fill with words, and you have created an experience very similar to participating in a cMOOC.

What sort of literacy would be appropriate in a cMOOC? Two major types of literacies suggest themselves: 21st century literacies, and digital literacies.

21st century literacies are those literacies appropriate for living and working in the 21st century. This is an environment which changes at a much greater pace than in previous years, where there is a constant flow of information, where connectivity with people worldwide is part of our everyday reality, and where jobs that existed ten years ago have disappeared, and new ones have taken their place. A good example of this is the Framework for 21st Century Learning, which addresses several dimensions of this new type of learning, including core skills of collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking, and supporting skills such as workplace skills, information media skills, and the traditional core types of literacy and numeracy. (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills , 2011)

Alternatively, we can focus on literacies specific to the digital medium itself. For example, the Mozilla Foundation has developed and promoted a Web Literacy Map which describes in greater detail how to engage with digital media (as opposed to merely consuming it). (Belshaw, 2015) Three major types of skills are identified: exploring, building and connecting. The first describes how to find your way about the chaotic environment and even to make sense of it for yourself. The second examines traditional and new forms of content creation, including authoring and art, in a digital media environment. And the third addresses the previously under-represented function of sociality and connection. Taken together, these three literacies can be seen as a way for individuals to manage cognitive load for themselves, to adapt the task of making sense of the web to their own skill level, and therefore to manage even in an environment that is not well designed.

Belshaw writes, "In its current form, the Web Literacy Map comprises a collection of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web. Web literacy is about more than just coding. The web literacy standard covers every part of web literacy-from learning basic coding skills to taking action around privacy and security." In this sense, the modern understanding is about more than communication and meaning in a language or symbol system. It is about operating and interacting in a complex and multi-dimensional environment. This makes it particularly relevant to an understanding of the difference between literacies required in traditional courses and the contemporary literacies required in a much less structure learning environment such as a MOOC.

These types of literacies can be combined into an overarching set of literacies that may be described under the heading of 'critical literacies'. These literacies encompass not only the skills related to comprehension and sense-making, but also the creative abilities that support criticism, construction and communication. And they go beyond this in addressing the dynamics of today's world. They include, at a minimum, the following: the ability to detect and define syntax, structure, patterns and similarities; the ability to identify and generate meaning, purpose and goal; the ability to sense and create context or environment; the ability to apply or use language, literacy and communication to accomplish tasks; the ability to support a conclusion, criticize an argument, offer an explanation or define a term; and an understanding of how to recognize, manage and create change. Or, in brief: syntax, semantics, context, use, cognition and change. (Downes, 2009)

These literacies may be necessary for success in a MOOC, but they are more widely applicable as well. The theory of knowledge underlying the creation of the cMOOC suggests that learning is not based on the idea of remembering content, nor even the acquisition of specific skills or dispositions, but rather, in engaging in experiences that support and aid in recognition of phenomena and possibilities in the world. When we reason using our brains, we are reasoning using complex neural nets that shape and reshape themselves the more we are exposed to different phenomena. Choice, chance, diversity and interactivity are what support learning in neural nets, not simple and static content. Cognitive dissonance is what creates learning experiences. To learn is to be able to learn for oneself, not to learn what one is told; it is to be able to work despite cognitive overload, not to remain vulnerable to it. So the cMOOC is harder, requiring a greater degree of literacy, but in developing these literacies, promotes a deeper learning experience.

Finally, an understanding of the literacies required also helps us understand the difference between traditional courses, including the xMOOC, and the less structured cMOOC. It also offers ground for criticism of the former. Traditional literacies are rooted in our comprehension of, and ability to work within, abstract symbol systems (and in particular, language and mathematics). It is no coincidence that PISA, for example, measures student performance in language, science and mathematics. These are be languages of learning, as well as the content of learning. But from the perspective of the cMOOC, these traditional literacies are inadequate. They form only a part of the learning environment, and not even the most interesting part, as we engage in environments that cannot be described through timeless abstractions or static facts and figures. But this is exactly what we face when we attempt to extend our learning from the eternal present and into the vanishing past or future. We need to learn to engage with, interact with, and recognize form and change in the environment for ourselves, rather than attempt a static and distanced description.

Learning in a MOOC and literacy in a MOOC become synonymous. We are not acquiring content or using language and literacy, we are becoming literate, becoming MOOC. Each bit of experience, each frustrated facing of a new chaos, changes you, shapes you. Participating in a MOOC is like walking through a forest, trying to see where animals have walked in the past, trying to determine whether that flash of orange is a tiger. There are no easy successes, and often no sense of flow. But you feel the flush of success every time you recognize a form you defined, achieve a skill you needed, and gradually ou become a skilled inhabitant of the forest, or of 21st century human society.

These literacies form the design architecture for a learning technology that supports personal agency in a learning community. They form the basis of the a personal learning architecture being developed in the National Research Council's Learning and Performance Support Systems program. This program was developed and approved to address the issue of skills shortages in technical and professional industries in Canada. It is an issue that costs Canadian industry billions of dollars a year while thousands of Canadians remain unemployed. Our solution is to provide each person with a single point of access to all their skills development and training needs, individualizing their learning path, providing learning support, and supporting learning tailored to industry needs and individual performance support.

This program builds on the National Research Council's deep connection to the e-learning industry, including collaboration and commercialization across the sector. The program draws on NRC's research in other fields, such as machine learning and analytics. And NRC is free to take risks on technology that might daunt commercial providers. NRC's track record in this sector includes the leadership role it played in the eduSource network of learning object repositories, the Sifter/Filter content recommender later commercialized as Racofi, sentiment analysis in learning, the Synergic3 collaborative workflow system, and more. NRC's Learning and Performance Support Systems program touches on all parts of Canada's learning technology, but has the most direct impact on the learning management system (LMS) sector. This is an area that includes content management systems, talent management systems, and the LMS. It also impacts content developers and e-learning distributors, including MOOC distributors and educational institutions. It also impacts end users themselves: not only students and individual learners, but also their employers.

In recent years NRC has become widely known for developing and refining the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), including the creation of the technology behind the original Connectivism and Connected Knowledge (CCK08) MOOC offered in 2008, creating a dynamic connected application to support learning. The MOOC combined several themes which were in themselves becoming increasingly important: the idea of massively multi-user environments, the idea of using open and distributed content, the idea of fully online delivery, and the packaging of these as an online course.

The NRC-designed MOOC differs significantly from traditional courses. The most obvious difference is that the course is not located on a single platform, but is instead a web created by linking multiple sites together. The architecture of this web is intended to optimize four design principles: each member of the web operates autonomously, the web links diverse services and resources together, the web is open and supports open engagement, and the web encourages cooperative learning. Engagement is at the core of cMOOC learning. Participants aggregate resources from multiple sources, remix these in various ways, adapt and repurpose them to their own needs, and then share them. If we look at the structure of the course from this perspective, we see a network of individual learners interacting with each other and exchanging, and working with, diverse resources obtained from a variety of internet sources.

Looked at more deeply we can describe specific support requirements for each student. A student creates a resource, and makes this available to the course where it is accessed by a second student, who via this resource finds a third student's resources. From the course provider perspective, students contribute content metadata and the learning provider may create additional content, all of which is accessed and shared by course participants, who may also attend live online events or access event recordings. From the student's perspective, by contrast, the view is to a set of other students or course instructors, and via interactions with these course participants, to a wide range of resources and services across the wider internet, everything from blog posts to YouTube videos.

To support a student's involvement, therefore, technology design is based on the idea of putting at the centre of a learning network, connecting via a single environment to other participants, course resources, and myriad online services. This in turn suggests a simplified design that supports this student-centered approach with connections to learning support applications, and in particular, to resource repositories, to external cloud media storage, to learning applications and APIs, and to external graph-based analytics. These components form the core of the Learning and Performance Support Systems (LPSS) technology development proposal, which incorporates these connective elements with a personal learning record to support lifetime management of credentials, training records, and learning activities, and a personal learning assistant to manage the system.

The NRC LPSS program is a 5-year $20 million effort designed to develop these core technologies and bind them with a common platform. The program applies this technology through a series of implementation projects with commercial and technical partners, including other NRC and Government of Canada (GoC) branches. These projects are managed through a program organization that maps the technology effort to client demands and the employment outcomes described at the beginning of this paper. Program deliverables include not only the technology development, which will be implemented in corporate, institutional and government environments, but also a series of publications and white papers describing the LPSS learning network, how and why it works, and how to connect to it.

Also LPSS can be viewed as a stand-alone system, it is designed in a distributed and modular fashion in order to enable it to be inserted, for example, directly into work environments and corporate contexts, directly addressing human resources and training requirements. This interoperability is achieved through the personal learning assistant (PLA). Like an LMS, the PLA displays learning resources and plays interoperable learning technology (using standards such as ADL's SCORM or IMS's LTI). But it also the leading edge to much more. As mentioned above, the LPSS program is developing five core technologies, linked by the Common Framework (CF). These are the aforementioned PLA, the Resource Repository Network (RRN), Personal Cloud (PC), Competency Development and Recognition Algorithms (ACDR), and the Personal Learning Record (PLR). Let us examine these in more detail. The first of these is the Resource Repository Network (RRN), needed to provide connectivity with external resources. This package of applications enables a user to manage and discover lists off sources and resources. In a sense, it functions like the syndicated content (RSS) readers of old, but is designed to access and manage many different forms of content, including calendar information and modern Javascript-based (JSON) descriptions of courses and programs.

A second aspect of LPSS is the Personal Cloud (PC) set of applications. These applications manage personal cloud storage services. Some of these are familiar, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, and some of these are innovative, such as personal home-hosted cloud storage using OwnCloud. But more is involved than merely storing data; resources must be secured, backed up, authenticated and synchronized. This enables LPSS to support genuine data portability, and eliminate reliance on a single provider.

As mentioned above, interoperability is achieved through the Personal Learning Assistant (PLA). In addition to displaying learning resources and running e-learning applications, the PLA is designed to 'project' LPSS capacities into multiple platforms. These include not only desktop and mobile devices, but productivity applications such as Word and PowerPoint, interactive environments such as conferencing systems and synchronous communications platforms, simulations and games, as well as tools and devices. The PLA exchanges information with these environment, enabling them to interact intelligently with the user. One example of this kind of integration is LPSS's integration with another NRC product called 2Sim, which provides virtual haptic training simulations in medical environments. By exchanging activity data (using the Experience API, or xAPI data exchange format) LPSS supports a continuous learning path using these systems.

This points to an additional set of services that can be integrated into a distributed learning application, Automated Competency Development and Recognition (ACDR). This is a set of intelligent algoritms designed to import or create competency definitions matching employment positions, to support the development of learning plans based on these competencies, to provide resource and service recommendations, and to tackle the seriously challenging task of assessing performance based on system and network interactions. It is worth noting that while LMSs and xMOOCs tout learning analytics, only a distributed personal learning network application can apply analytics using a person's complete learning and development profile, and not only the specific LMS or cMOOC.

This functionality is enabled by the Personal Learning Record (PLR), which collects learning records and credentials obtained through a lifetime and stores them in a secure locker owned by the individual and shared only with explicit permission. The PLR collects three major forms of records: learning activity and interactivity records, such as xAPI records; a person's personal portfolio of learning artifacts and evidence; and the person's full set of credentials and certifications, these verified by the issuer.

It should be noted that LPSS recognizes, and is designed to cooperate with, existing personal learning environment and personal learning records, including Europe's Responsive Open Learning Environments (ROLE) project and start-ups such as Known, Learning Locker and Mahara. Additionally, LPSS is designed to work with MOOC providers - not only NRC's gRSShopper but also Coursera and EdX. We've integrated badges in a Moodle and Mahara environment for the Privy Council Office, we're doing xAPI application profile development, and are engaged in collaborative workplace training and development. These implementation projects (as we call them) reinforce LPSS's mandate to be more than just a theoretical exercise, but to apply the technology in authentic environments, supporting individuals in a learning network and feeding this experience back into product improvement.

It may be suggested that there are any number of companies engaged in aspects of learning analytics, personal learning records, learning technologies integration, and the like. But the LPSS approach is different - by creating many small things linked together instead of one large centralized application, many tasks that were formally simple - like data storage, content distribution, authentication and analytics - become that much more difficult. Take analytics, for example - how do you do big data analysis across thousands of separate systems each with its own unique data structure? These are the hard problems NRC is trying to solve.

LPSS launched in an initial pre-alpha version October 1, 2014. Invitations may be obtained by going to and filling in the short form. Users will also be asked whether they would like to participate in LPSS development research (this is not required and all personal research is subject to strict Government of Canada research ethics protocols). Functionality in this early system is limited; the first release focused on content aggregation, competency import and definition, and simple recommendation.

The next release will feature the 'connectivist' social interaction architecture being designed through an implementation project with the Industrial Research Assistanceship program (IRAP) supporting small and medium sized enterprise. The roadmap projects two other major releases, at 6-month intervals, coupled with ongoing client-specific and industryspecific learning solutions. Technology will be transferred to partner companies beginning in 2017.


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Belshaw, D. (2015, January 13). Web Literacy Map. Retrieved from Mozilla:

Brennan, K. (2013, July 24). In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice. Retrieved from Hybrid Pedagogy: a-guide-to-understanding-the-mooc-novice/

Downes, S. (2009, November 12). Speaking in LOLCats: what literacy means in teh digital era. Retrieved from Stephen's Web:

Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved from elearnspace:

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills . (2011, March). 21st Century Student Outcomes and Support Systems. Retrieved from 77

Portions of this paper appeared as a blog post, Becoming MOOC, February 11, 2015 ( and portions were presented as a keynote address, Design Elements in a Personal Learning Environment, March 04, 2015, delivered to 4th International Conference e-Learning and Distance Education, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (http://www.downes. ca/presentation/356)

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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