MOOC vs OER Roundtable: Tony Bates talks to Pierre Dillenbourg and Cristobal Cobo

March 10, 2015 by EDEN Secretariat   Comments (0)

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"What works in one context may well not work in a different context. This leads to problems of generalization in research into human learning, because the conditions of learning can vary enormously."

Tony Bates

Last year's #EDENRW8  - EDEN Research Workshop was an extraordinary occasion to explore a most condensed aggreated top contemporary research into online and distance learning. Participants and speakers contemplated current complex challenges facing researchers and the intersection of their work with ‘doing better things’ for key stakeholders. Tony Bates distilled his experiences in a series of online reflections (available as Guest Posts on the EDEN President's Blog) in his posts and invited the keynote speakers to reflect on three key questions. Cristobal Cobo and Pierre Dillenbourg answered his call and gave their sometimes detailed, sometimes on-the-point short answers.

MOOCs and OER's dominated the recent year's open and distance learning debates. EDEN Conferences continue to feature talks on MOOCs and OERs for a good number of years. Scenarios, learning models and methodologies as well as the impact of MOOCs and OERs are in the forefront of discussions at the upcoming #EDEN15 Annual Conference in Barcelona as well. Martin Weller, keynote speaker at the 2015 EDEN Annual Conference in Barcelona will touch on the same issue in his upcoming pre-conference interview. Let's take a look on Prof Dillenbourg's and Dr Cobo's answers before following up with Martin Weller.


Tony Bates: At the moment, there seems to be several very different directions for open and online learning: fully online (distance) courses for credit; blended courses; OERs, and MOOCs. Will MOOCs eventually replace these other forms of online and open learning? If not, what unique role(s) will MOOCs continue to play?

Cristobal Cobo: Unfortunately the term MOOC is not necessarily very useful. As known, some universities embrace a variety of derivatives from MOOC. While some of them are massive, open, online courses. Others are non-massive; or not entirely open; some of them are subjects oriented rather than courses and in some cases they are not only online (but blended). We might need to move toward more appropriates taxonomies. Unfortunately I don’t have an specific proposal to offer in this sense. Now, if we understand MOOCS not as a particular mode of teaching-learning but as ’transitional model’ of learning that better integrates formal and informal learning supported by a variety of technologies then I think we can get into the core of the discussion.  So far, these exploratories models are still evolving and I am afraid that expecting to see a ‘unique role’ of this variety of experiments (some of them successful and many failures) might be somehow reductionist or provide an incomplete perspective.

Pierre Dillenbourg: No, MOOCs will not replace every things. The multiplicity of formats will increase simply because the multiplicity of training needs, audiences, contexts, etc… is very large.

TB: What implications do these new developments in open and distance learning have for EDEN as an organization?

Cristobal Cobo: I  think is time to admit a couple of non-necesarily comfortable trues. Here some reality check facts: 1) the education online in Europe is mostly United Stated-oriented. Therefore European universities have (so far) a latecomer position, coping and adopting late these foreign educational models that have worked in the US. Today a large number of european universities are trying to copy the Coursera model instead of creating their own one. 2) the online education broadly offered by a large number of higher education institutions is poor (from the pedagogic, technologic and multimedia perspective), boring (low level of interaction), content-oriented, lack of creativity (poorly integration of disciplines in many cases), etc. Hence, the enthusiasms for these “new” MOOCS can be seen as a broad interest to explore better and more suitable formats for teaching and learning. 3) excess of bureaucracy, which has affected the possibility of offering educational programs which are more flexible in time and contents (i.e. menu a la carte), ubiquitous (with syllabus, credits recognised transversally along universities in the whole region if not further), etc. These are only a few of the challenges to be addressed. Therefore I think the implications and opportunity  that EDEN has are not trivial. Better research is needed in the field and EDEN can helps a lot in this sense.

Pierre Dillenbourg: EDEN should forget about OERs and rethink online education with high-brand universities.

TB:  There have been 20 years' research and experience in credit-based online learning and over 40 years research in open and distance learning. Is any of this relevant to MOOCs and the use of OERs or are these complete game-changers?

Cristobal Cobo: Absolutely. Sometimes, you have the impression that everybody is trying to reinvent the wheel. Many times we fail learning from the previous experiences in education (i.e. Open education, educational television, informal learning, etc.). Although educational television and MOOCS are not the same, there are enough commonalities to have a closer look at the lessons learned. Many higher education institutions still think that their main business is transferring contents (when those contents are already online and available). It’s my hope that when these courses won´t be content-oriented but understood as a social opportunity to co-construction of knowledge with and among peers then OER could play a key role. But there’s still time to go in that direction.

Pierre Dillenbourg: Existing research on distance education is relevant… simply new people who join MOOCs are not really excited reading the last 2'000 papers on the topic… We would need someone who builds for online education what John Hattie did for education in his book "Visible Learning".



Cristobal Cobo coordinates research on innovation, open knowledge initiatives and future of learning. Currently he works with a trans-disciplinary group of PhDs specializing in areas of knowledge generation and transfer, digital skills, future of learning, creativity, innovation and digital culture. His research interests include knowledge transfer, self-learning, digital awareness, skills for innovation, informal learning, knowledge workers, collective intelligence, future of work, human-computer interaction. Dr Cobo is a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK


Pierre Dillenbourg graduated in educational science and started his research on learning technologies in 1984. He obtained a PhD in computer science from the University of Lancaster (UK), in the domain of artificial intelligence applications for educational software. He has been professor assistant at TECFA, University of Geneva and joined Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL) in November 2002. He has been the director of CRAFT, the pedagogical unit for 10 years and is now the academic director of the EPFL Center for Digital Education and head of the CHILI Lab: "Computer-Human Interaction for Learning & Instruction".  


Tony Bates is an EDEN Senior Fellow and the President and CEO of Tony Bates Associates Ltd., Canada, a private company specializing in strategic consultancy and training in the planning and management of e-learning and distance education. Having been a founding member of the British Open University, he has developed an intense international career in the last two decades. Tony is acknowledged across the world as one of the best known, respected and influential personalities in the international open, distance and e-learning field. As one critic once noted, he has earned the right to have his books placed on every distance educators’ bookshelf. Read more here.


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