MOOCS and MOOC Study Circles in Adult Ed


Sometime soon adult learners may learn from MOOCS* as well as in classes or tutorials. The idea of students learning in an online distance education course that thousands of others across the world are enrolled in probably causes some adult education practitioners to shudder, including me. However, that may not be the right image. MOOCs are new, and not fully formed. There are lots of possibilities.

In Boston this past week the Mayor announced that the city has a new partnership with EdX, a MOOC consortium of Harvard, M.I.T., CAL Berkeley and other universities. (See my 2012 blog article about EdX at ) I wondered, since these online courses are accessed free from anywhere in the world, why Boston needed a partnership for residents to take advantage of them. Here’s why. In what could be an innovative nonformal learning model, they will be offered through community centers sponsored by the Boston Centers for Youth and Families. This will be a blended learning model involving what might look like study circles or study groups, possibly led by Harvard or M.I.T. faculty, but also possibly organized by community study group facilitators. In theory these blended model MOOCs could include adult education teachers, volunteer tutors, and possibly adult learner leaders, especially as many of these community centers already have well-developed, publicly-funded, standards-based adult education programs. That’s an intriguing model to think about. 

As far as I know adult literacy education MOOCS don’t yet exist, but suppose there were MOOCS for adult learners, that they were an extension of basic literacy, ESOL, ABE, ASE or Transition classes, that their content was well integrated with those classes, that the MOOC content was aligned with state content standards or national common core state standards. Suppose class-based or volunteer tutoring programs that offer group or one-on-one instruction trained and helped adult learner leaders to organize study groups using content provided by the MOOC.

Of course, this would require a way to train the study circle facilitators. There are some good models to draw upon, for example those developed by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, NCSALL specifically and,  the Study Circles Resource Center in Connecticut,  and CALPRO, the California statewide adult education professional development center, , among others. At some point, if there is a need, I may develop an asynchronous online or blended training for adult basic education MOOC study circle facilitators based on one or more of these well-developed models.

I wonder if anyone else in this CoP has been thinking about MOOCS for adult literacy education, and the possibility of making them blended learning models with face-to-face study circles or integrated with classes. If so, let’s hear about your ideas and experiences.

David J. Rosen

*…An acronym, for Massive Open Online Course (or Massive Open Online Class), a course of study indeed taught online using video. But a MOOC is more than that, as a recent article explains:

MOOCs are more than good university lectures available online. The real innovation comes from integrating academics talking with interactive coursework, such as automated tests, quizzes and even games. Real-life lectures have no pause, rewind (or fast-forward) buttons; MOOCs let students learn at their own pace, typically with short, engaging videos, modelled on the hugely successful online lecturettes pioneered by TED, a non-profit organiser of upmarket mindfests.
The Economist, 22 Dec. 2012.

In the 1960s the Open University in the UK was a pioneer of such distance teaching, in part using BBC radio and television. It has recently joined with other British universities to provide course content, lectures and assignments that follow the MOOC model. US institutions such as MIT and Harvard are providing MOOCs, as are several independent start-ups. They are proving popular, but for many students a downside is that few courses lead to a qualification and it is uncertain whether they can be economically viable in the long term.

MOOC borrows from online gaming acronyms such as MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) and MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). It was coined by George Siemens, a prominent Canadian educator at the Center for Distance Education, who with Stephen Downes created the first MOOC in 2008.

copyright © Michael Quinion 2013.


Hi David and everyone,

We are having a bit of discussion in the Formative Assessment cop about PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) and online learning opportunities.  


I understand there is some question about how to gauge learning outcomes when using MOOCs, and that they don't necessarily lead to college credit (although this is beginning to change).   This article ( discusses how people who have taken MOOC and other free online courses can gain credits toward degrees by taking "challenge exams" offered by Excelsior College (  Another resource for gaining credits in similar fashion is CLEP from the College Board (  

While the Excelsior and CLEP exams focus on college level, it sounds like another possible model to look at for adult ed as we move toward online learning.  We need to be able to effectively gauge learning outcomes, as well as structure such opportunities so that they demonstrate that the person taking the course "passed it" (wish I could say "gained credit" but...).  We should watch what higher ed is doing carefully so we can be informed for our field.

Thanks to Shawn Fisher, formative assessment cop member, who shared the article with us that led to our discussion.  




Now I have the same "shudder" response you do to MOOCs, but my initial response was extreme enthusiasm. I quickly signed up for Lean Launchpad by Steve Blank. It was delayed to accommodate the release date (and heavy promotion) of his book. When it was finally released, the "course" itself was a series of (often poorly produced) YouTube videos and unfacilitated discussion forums. I've heard some MOOCs incorporate self-assessed assignments or Javascript practice problems that I imagine would be easy to cheat on if anything were at stake. While I have been thrilled by the idea of creating free, open access learning, my main concern--like yours--is how specifically we can make this work well for adult basic education/GED test prep learners, who already have struggled in traditional education and are not taking advantage of these existing "open courses."

I love your points about being standards-based and using research-based best practices. I also think we lose a lot in this conversation if we treat MOOCs like some innovation that Harvard, MIT and EdX or any of these tech innovators have invented. While MOOCs are a new form of delivery, the concept occured in our country with correspondence courses over a century ago. Here are 3 very good reasons that MOOCs are exactly like mail correspondence courses:

  1. Became available due to an explosion in reliable new forms of technology: mail a century ago, high speed internet today.
  2. Saw a huge boom in enrollments when for-profit providers found a way to capitalize on the new technology as an efficient delivery system for mass-produced educational materials.
  3. Completion rates of about 10%: best suited for that small minority with significant self-determination or strong local support & incentives.

After a couple decades, the industry of correspondence courses saw a steep decline in enrollments. However, a small minority of those involved in this method of delivery were able to thrive and provide quality education. We can learn a great deal from the "best practices" of the institutions that have survived from that time period:

  1. Chattaqua Literary and Scientific Circle: Identifiable physical hub and local, physical social participation: This book club started as a correspondence course in 1878. It thrives on local book clubs where readers physically get together to discuss the 9 selections.  After four years of active participation, members receive a certificate and become part of the alumni organization. The selected authors speak in person at the Chattaqua resort community in upstate New York. CLSC is just one of many educational programs offered.
  2. Distance Education and Training Council: Quality control and accreditation: Due to high rates of consumer fraud and low completion rates, correspondence courses quickly went out of favor with the U.S. public. However, a minority of institutions saw the benefits to the industry of creating a set of voluntary standards and methods for accountability. Originally founded in 1926 as the National Home Study Council, the organization changed it name to reflect that fact that distance education is a larger field than any one particular mode of communications technology (e.g. mail correspondence or online learning).
  3. Open Universities: There are too many of these to name any one institution, but the U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries in the world without an open university which provides formal higher education via mass-produced distance education for greatly reduced cost to students. The key lesson here is formalized and facilitated teaching: MOOCs will ultimately fail if we refuse to invest in actually teaching in them. I don't know if it is possible to have genuine teaching presence in a course that defines itself as "massive." However, formalized structures like managed enrollment, facilitated social connections, accountability through administrative supervision, access to student support services, and respected credentials upon completion are all elements that have allowed traditional higher education to have completion rates of 75% or more in correspondence courses...successes that have translated to online learning.

If we can translate these lessons into the way we design MOOCs, perhaps they will make a genuine long term contribution to education. Otherwise, I'm pretty convinced they will become just another forgotten lesson from history.

Hello Meagen,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I was especially interested to see your mention of chatauquas. This late 19th and early 20th century American invention was the forerunner of the Swedish study circle, still an important element of adult education in that country. In the 1980's and 1990's the study circle returned to the U.S. through the National Issues Forums, sponsored by the Domestic Policy Association in Dayton, Ohio, and with Kettering Foundation support. The NIF encouraged and provided training for facilitators of some adult new reader Issues Forums study circles, and for several years produced great easy-reading materials for them. The use of study circles was also accelerated in the U.S. at the same time by the Study Circles Resource Center in Connecticut, that identified and produced issue-focused reading materials, and provided facilitator training materials. In the early part of this century, largely through the effort of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy, study circles were used in some states for health literacy professional development.

I think it's a better idea, as you seem to, to take this proven face-to-face study circle model and enhance it with the possible additional benefits of MOOCs or other online learning. The blended learning model has a lot to offer to more people, especially adult learners. I suspect that the MOOC, however, will attract more funder and policy-maker interest than study circles, and so we need to be ready to link study circles with MOOCS.

Do you -- or does anyone here --happen to know if any of the 19th or 20th century chatauquas also used the (then state-of-the-art technology) correspondence course materials? We might be able to learn from their experience then if we have the opportunity to combine study circles and MOOCS now.

David J. Rosen