How MOOCs became platforms

How MOOCs became platforms

Richard Terry

Over the last few years, public scrutiny and concern over the social impact of digital platforms has increased, even leading some to describe the current era as one of ‘surveillance capitalism’. As policymakers propose new regulations to curtail the powers of ‘Big Tech’, it has become clear that ever finer-grained detail of our public and private lives is being captured, or ‘datafied’, via platform interfaces.

A fundamental economic attribute of platforms, digital or otherwise, is to enable transactions to take place between two or more buyers and sellers. Amazon is the most obvious example of this principle, but others include the advertising models that underpin platforms such as Google and Facebook. The value of the data that we produce as platform users is central to this platform mode of commercialisation, and the concerns and controversies that this engenders have followed in its wake.

My ESRC-funded research project acknowledges and affirms the huge social significance and potential public benefits of digital platforms, but seeks to critically investigate a specific instance of their implementation in the field of higher education and training. I view this platform type as a specific case of the increased digitisation of social life, my focus being on the question of how we become ‘datafied users’ through our participation in platform interfaces.

One question I ask is how MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, ended up as digital platforms.  As part of my response I suggest that the discourse that preceded and supported the emergence of MOOCs contains four interrelated propositions that prefigure the development of MOOCs according to the platform model. These propositions embody themes drawn from a wider cultural discourse, founded on the tenets of the free market, and especially the role of competitive exchange in knowledge production and transmission.

MOOCs first appeared over a decade ago, followed by a wave of hype and publicity about their presumed transformational effect on higher education. MOOCs nowadays are provided by the online learning platforms of commercial organisations such as Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn, part of a network of public and private institutions in an increasingly globalised market of education and training.  This network comprises established academic and corporate bodies, together with new organisations entirely rooted in the digital domain. In this context, MOOCs represent a fascinating case of the complex relationship between governments’ employment and training policies, private corporations, increasingly commercialised and market-focussed higher education institutions, and the transformative capabilities of digital and online technologies.

Significant cultural themes influenced the historical trajectory of online platform development, and MOOCs were no exception to this.  These themes found coherence in concepts such as ‘cyberspace’ and ‘Web 2.0’, ideas that were co-opted into a new theory of learning called ‘connectivism’. While connectivism is widely recognised as a significant conceptual influence on the emergence of MOOCs, it has been less tangibly linked with their development into online learning platforms, even though the concepts it deploys establish a compelling case for such development.

Connectivism envisages online networks as self-organising collectives of competitive knowledge exchange.  In George Siemens’ highly influential 2005 article, ‘Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age, four key propositions emerge from his analysis of how learners exchange and manage knowledge:

  • Learning is a knowledge exchange activity.
  • This activity is competitive, self-organising, spontaneous.
  • It occurs collectively in conventional organisational contexts.
  • It is augmented by online networks.

The first proposition arises from Siemens’ claims about the rapid churn and obsolescence of knowledge, and technology’s role in its exchange. The second portrays this exchange as spontaneously self-organising, driven by competition among individuals for network connections in a struggle for status and value. The third suggests these connections form particularly between specialised communities, undertaking knowledge management in organisations to engender collective cognitive ability. The fourth stresses the connection-making conditions of ‘information flow’ in online networks, enabling users to ‘plug into’ information sources.

Influential authors had already developed the principles underlying these four propositions, in earlier attempts to map the social impact of digital technology.  From the late 1980s one such intellectual movement formed around the concept of ‘cyberspace’. Through the 1990s, leaders of this movement evangelised cyberspace’s peer-to-peer knowledge networking potential. American educationist Howard Rheingold, for example, described it as a ‘conceptual space’ based on new forms of knowledge exchange, while French social theorist Pierre Lévy developed a theory of what he termed ‘collective intelligence’, a skillset  enabling learners to exchange knowledge through mastery of capabilities to navigate a web of knowledge, rather than a traditional ‘course’.

American author John Perry Barlow’s 1996 manifesto ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace praised its alleged self-organising spontaneity, defending the purported liberties of its ‘Electronic Frontier’ against the encroachment of the corporate State. ‘You have no sovereignty where we gather’, Barlow warned the global establishment.  Meanwhile, Rheingold was arguing for a new conception of citizenship underpinned by the equally self-organising production of ‘collective goods’ that included ‘social network capital’ and ‘knowledge capital’.

In the first decade of the 21st century, media theorist Henry Jenkins posited the existence of a collective ‘convergence culture’ in which discrete, individualised knowledge was being shared through participation in the activity of social interaction online. Jenkins focussed on ‘skills valued in the modern workplace’ in a competitive environment, ‘shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind’.  Around the same time, as a standard bearer for the cyberspace movement, Pierre Lévy’s ‘information capitalism’ concept also emphasised the spontaneous self-organisation of knowledge production and exchange. Lévy mapped out the implications for a competitive education market place open to the ‘dynamics of globalisation’, characterised by an ‘aggressive’ struggle for market share, a ‘fight’ to enrol students and robust negotiations to agree distribution franchises and partnership deals.

Lévy in particular also drew attention to the augmentation effects of online networks a decade before the first MOOCs appeared. He envisaged open and distance learning at scale, serving a global demand for skills, employing the automation advantages of networked technologies to reduce costs. Economies of scale, greater student numbers and greater profits were all benefits awaiting institutions who adopted an approach to distance education rooted in the networked technologies of cyberspace.

This cyberspace movement hugely influenced a second major trend in digital technology, energised by the concept of Web 2.0. In 2000 Dan Bricklin had postulated a method ‘to get volunteer labour’ through user generated content (UGC). Writing in the wake of the 2001 dotcom crash of tech company share prices, Silicon Valley publishing entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly deployed Bricklin’s insight to brand Web 2.0 as the ‘Architecture of Participation’, a central common attribute of the internet and the Web.

O’Reilly hailed Web 2.0 as the rebirth of the commercial potential of the Web and online technologies following the crash. He lauded the capability of online platforms for creating the conditions for sustained return on capital investment. He defined the Web’s exploitative commercial possibilities, claiming that Web 2.0 represented ‘The Web as Platform’, a new version of the Web comprising three core elements:

  • Web applications delivering commercial web services
  • Multi-device control of UGC data flows
  • Value extraction from collective intelligence.

As I mentioned earlier, in their commercial form digital platforms act as creators and mediators of two- or multi-sided markets, brokering transactions between producers and consumers. The convergence of the technical architectures of O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 concept with the fixed capital assets of monopoly-oriented corporate entities is arguably the most significant sociotechnical development of this period. This convergence recasts the multiple potentialities of the Web into a singularly potent form: the industrial-scale, fully commercialised digital platform.

In terms of Siemens’ four connectivist propositions, online learning platforms meet all the requirements of exchange environments that augment connective capabilities. By early 2018 the transformation of MOOCs into commercial online learning platforms had witnessed the launch of 57 MOOC platforms in 23 countries, offering more than 17,000 courses to over 100 million users. 89% of these platforms launched in the period of peak commercial hype between 2012 and 2015. In a global market place, the deployment of online platforms by commercial partnerships of corporations and universities supports at least two significant platform value propositions: fees derived from learner accreditation, and perhaps more importantly, massive flows of user data to fuel the predictive capabilities of machine learning applications. In 2012 Siemens himself suggested that ‘MOOCs are really a platform’. In a very real sense, they had been all along.

Despite MOOCs’ relatively minor role in the development of commercial digital platforms, I argue that they are nevertheless imbued with the exchange logic of such platforms, and furthermore that Siemens’ connectivist framework helped blaze an intellectual trail that prefigured such a convergence. Connectivism’s central propositions are committed to the existence of self-organising competitive exchange mechanisms that are then augmented by the online network effects of digital platforms. These propositions are suggestive of another platform characteristic: technologies that can be exploited for private profit in new and powerful modes of implementation.

Given the current privacy and security concerns about the commercial exploitation of user data, it seems reasonable to question to what extent higher education institutions should be complicit in this trajectory. In addition, when viewed by the light of the recent history of digital platforms, the ideas of the cyberspace pioneers now look somewhat utopian to say the least.  Even so, there were many in higher education and beyond who genuinely believed that MOOCs might offer improved opportunities for participation in collective knowledge production, quite distinct from their commercial platform attributes.

An optimistic outcome then, as the regulatory backlash against Big Tech gathers pace, and online learning platforms find themselves subject to a more critical scrutiny than hitherto, may be a more appreciative valuation of their broader educational potential, in contrast to their predominant, and rather narrow, labour market-oriented commercial focus.


Richard Terry is an Interdisciplinary Studies PhD researcher at CIM, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick (for CIM on Twitter see @CIMethods).  Richard’s research investigates the construction of datafied users in online learning platforms (‘MOOCs’).  Richard can be contacted at

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by David Ragusa on Unsplash.