Beyond the ‘c’ and the ‘x’: Learning with algorithms in the MOOC

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article examines how algorithms are shaping student learning in massive open online courses (MOOCs). Following the dramatic rise of MOOC platform organisations in 2012, over 4,500 MOOCs have been offered to date, in increasingly diverse languages, and with a growing requirement for fees. However, discussions of learning in MOOCs remain polarised around the “xMOOC” and “cMOOC” designations. In this narrative, the more recent extended or platform MOOC (“xMOOC”) adopts a broadcast pedagogy, assuming a direct transmission of information to its largely passive audience (i.e. a teacher-centred approach), while the slightly older connectivist model (“cMOOC”) offers only a simplistic reversal of the hierarchy, posing students as highly motivated, self-directed and collaborative learners (i.e. a learner-centred approach). The online nature of both models generates data (e.g. on how many times a particular resource was viewed, or the ways in which participants communicated with each other) which MOOC providers use for analysis, albeit only after these data have been selectively processed. Central to many learning analytics approaches is the desire to predict students’ future behaviour. Educators need to be aware that MOOC learning is not just about teachers and students, but that it also involves algorithms: instructions which perform automated calculations on data. Education is becoming embroiled in an “algorithmic culture” that defines educational roles, forecasts attainment, and influences pedagogy. Established theories of learning appear wholly inadequate in addressing the agential role of algorithms in the educational domain of the MOOC. This article identifies and examines four key areas where algorithms influence the activities of the MOOC: (1) data capture and discrimination; (2) calculated learners; (3) feedback and entanglement; and (4) learning with algorithms. The article concludes with a call for further research in these areas to surface a critical discourse around the use of algorithms in MOOC education and beyond.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)161-178
Number of pages18
JournalInternational Review of Education
Issue number2
Early online date13 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2018


  • massive open online course (MOOC)
  • algorithm
  • learning
  • student data
  • learning analytics


Dive into the research topics of 'Beyond the ‘c’ and the ‘x’: Learning with algorithms in the MOOC'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this