Addressing Barriers to Access in MOOCs: Critical Inquiry


Earl Einarson, Jeff Goodes, Leigh McCarthy, Sue Reid, and Marta Samokishyn

Our team examined Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19, a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) delivered by Coursera and created by Steve Joordans, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and Director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab. Using this learning event as a case study, our team looked at the question: How do access barriers in MOOCs impact the “openness” and usage of MOOCs?

We believe this beginner-level course was an appropriate choice to examine openness and accessibility as its subject is of almost-universal appeal during the Covid-19 pandemic (Anderson, 2020). MOOCs have been trumpeted as a learning medium accessible to all: “The appearance and proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are open to any Internet user, in 2011 was supposed to completely erase the boundary of unequal access to acquiring and assimilating knowledge” (Semenova & Rudakova, 2016, p. 229).

Digital Divide

Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19 is offered as a free course. This is laudable, but it must be noted that Coursera does derive a tangible benefit from learners’ registration: they are now Coursera members. This gives Coursera an opportunity to market other courses which are based on their freemium model: enrollment is free but other elements including official acknowledgement of course completion requires payment: “Paid courses provide additional quizzes and projects as well as a shareable Course Certificate upon completion” (Coursera, 2020). This is at odds to the original intention of MOOCs to offer educational offerings to people who are disadvantaged, since “MOOC advocates suggested that MOOCs could include people who were traditionally excluded from higher education” (Lambert, 2019). While over forty million people have taken its classes online, Coursera is far from an idealistic venture: the company has been valued at over one billion dollars (Lunden, 2019).

Joordans’ Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19 offers an accessible learning experience on a number of fronts:

    • it is relatively short requiring less than eight hours of effort;
    • it is broken up into easily digestible parts;
    • it uses plain language.

The approach of the instructor is affable and disarming, which supports the inclusionary philosophy of MOOCs. However, there are questions to be asked about Mind Control’s delivery medium of online video. People’s access to bandwidth and devices continue to dictate educational opportunities in an increasingly digital age and global economy. Pulling back and looking at the larger digital divide created by socio-economic conditions, there are deeper issues that require policy changes to address historic economic and political disadvantage (Grace, Stratton, & Fonseca, 2019). Critics of MOOCs posit that advances in technology have not made them any more accessible, leaving the digital divide intact, despite promises to democratize education. “In fact, Coursera (2013), a leading producer of MOOCs, confirms this discrepancy reporting high participation in North and Central America and Europe, but no recognizable participation on the continent of Africa, West and Central Asia, and the post-Soviet states” (Mathews & Landorf, 2016, para. 29).

Content Divide

MOOCs are characterized by a content divide in terms of language access, and consequently inherent cultural biases. The course, Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19 was just this week translated into Spanish, Hungarian, and Serbian (Personal communication, Steve Joordens, April 16, 2020). Such translations are done not professionally, but voluntarily by course participants, which lends itself to questions surrounding the authenticity and quality of the content that reaches non-English speakers: what is potentially lost in translation. A recent study conducted by Grace, Stratton, and Fonseca (2019) examined the creation of MOOCs’ language content, establishing that “English language courses account for over three-quarters of all courses available to users…[While] five languages of instruction, English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic account for 95 percent of all courses” (p. 2004).

Whereas “MOOC advocates suggested that MOOCs could include people who were traditionally excluded from higher education” (Lambert, 2020, Introduction, para. 2), Lambert identifies gaps in the literature with respect to MOOCs inclusion that deal with lack of research on vulnerable populations (unemployed, refugees), indigenous communities, as well as  gender inequalities in MOOC education (Lambert, 2020). Haber (2014) touches on some issues and controversies surrounding MOOCs (such as user demographics, high drop-out rates, credit-earning, demands for MOOCs, security, openness). According to Rohs and Ganz (2015), socio-economic status of learners has a direct impact on their educational practices and skills (including their self-directed capacities for learning) and can further deepen educational gaps.

MOOCs such as Mind Control offer the promise of delivering quality education to the masses: “The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet” (Pappano, 2012, p. 2). However, there are real issues which take some of the shine off this bright high-tech star. The digital divide that socio-economic conditions around the world have created, specific to online learning, have deep roots that require national policy changes to adequately address historic economic and political disadvantage (Grace, Stratton, & Fonseca, 2019).


Anderson, P. (2020, March 28). High anxiety in America over COVID-19. Medscape. Retrieved from

Coursera. (2020). About. Retrieved from

Grace, R., Stratton, C., & Fonseca, F. (2019). Content matters: How online language content  gives rise to digital divides. Social Science Quarterly, 100(6), 1999-2016. doi:10.1111/ssqu.12691

Haber, J. (2014). MOOCs . Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Lambert, S. (2020). Do MOOCs contribute to student equity and social inclusion? A systematic review 2014–18. Computers & Education145. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103693

Lunden, Ingrid. (April, 2019). Online learning startup Coursera raises $64M at an $800M valuation. TechCrunch. Retrieved from:

Mathews, S., & Landorf, H. (2016). Developing a framework to evaluate the potential of global learning in MOOCs. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 28(4), 3-14. doi:10.1002/nha3.20157

Pappano, L. (2012, November 2). The year of the MOOC. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Rohs, M., & Ganz, M. (2015). MOOCs and the claim of education for all: A disillusion by empirical data. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning16(6), 1–19. doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v16i6.2033

Semenova, T. V., & Rudakova, L. M. (2016). Barriers to taking massive open online courses (MOOCs). Russian Education & Society58(3), 228-245.

‘Full moon’ Leadership

Going through the exercise of assessing leadership traits based on the 20 characteristics that we were provided was an interesting process for me personally as well as engaging with the other three people on my team (Leigha, Lisa and Owen). Our top five traits were similar, just in a different ranking, however the remaining 15 were quite varied from each of our personal perspectives, which wasn’t surprising as the 20 characteristics ran the gambit in terms of their scope so it made sense that we would diverge.

For me personally, when I explored the leadership values that I think are important as they relate to leading in a digital environment, I realized that what I think is important is similar, regardless of the environment. Essentially, for me, a good leader is a person who can ‘suspend’ their ego-needs in favour of leading and supporting others to perform in their roles successfully. To that end, a good leader is open to conversations that are authentic and allow all parties to communicate. From my perspective, that’s the foundation of a leadership style that empowers others by removing barriers to success (when needful, and possible) and then enabling people to…simply, do their job.

In reading the articles for unit 1, I found myself wondering what the literature would present from a corporate learning perspective, rather than the K12/higher education one. As a result, I have not quoted or referenced the readings because nothing really stands out as noteworthy at this point, to be honest. This thought is not meant to be a criticism, rather an observation in a reflective post. That said, I know from past courses, that future readings will expand into other areas to add a deeper context to the initial articles, which I look forward to.

Ultimately, my final thoughts closing out on unit 1 are embodied in the image I chose for this post. It’s a picture I took earlier on my phone (not a very good one, I’m afraid) of the full moon in Leo making its day two debut. It struck me that it could be a full moon rising, OR the sun, setting. Regardless it sheds light by which one can see where they are going. And from my perspective, that is the epitome of what a good leader should strive to do.

Graffiti – abundant content for lifelong learning. Lessons from Anderson, Banksy, and Weller.

Leigh and Sue’s reflection, Activity 5.
(Photos used with permission.)

The history of graffiti stretches all the way back to the days when humans lived in caves. People are constantly making meaning in our everyday lives. Graffiti is often perceived simply as a form of vandalism rather than art or a form of communication about social issues. In choosing this topic, we wanted to provide information that sheds light on the purpose of graffiti, its artists, and possibly, address the stigma associated with it. There is an enormous amount of information available about graffiti, however, the overall interpretation tends to be biased, presenting graffiti in a negative connotation, even as a criminal act, while ignoring the underlying process of communication (Alonso, 1998). Graffiti’s strong association with hip-hop culture in the later part of the 20th century influenced part of this lack of mainstream acceptance  or negative connotations (Thompson, 2009, p. 9).

So. What can graffiti teach us? Basquiat, Haring, and Banksy began their careers ‘writing’ or ‘tagging’ New York City subway cars in the 70s and 80s. The social commentary that graffiti artists, such as Banksy and other engage in, illustrates the power that graffiti as a source of communication that provides a platform for those whose voices could remain unheard is powerful. Questions and debates about graffiti as art or vandalism continue to colour public spaces (Baird & Taylor, 2010; Thompson, 2009). In any event, graffiti and ‘street art’ are free, open, and accessible. Weller and Anderson try to help us as educators make sense of the learning theories and pedagogy to manage and negotiate the open spaces that create at pedagogy of abundance. Banksy is all about accessible art that is open and belongs to the people. Banksy’s picture of “Girl with Balloon”, auctioned by Sothebys for 1.4 million dollars, was  promptly shredded before the horrified eyes of all present at the exclusive art auction. Banksy had a built-in shredder to destroy his work as a statement of taking back control of his street art, where the artist is a medium for the voices of marginalized communities. As Banksy states, “This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count”(Ellsworth-Jones, 2013, para. 3).

In exploring graffiti, the abundance of information on the Internet made learning about the topic very accessible. Even overwhelming. As a team of two, we decided before we started our  research that we would stay focused on three subtopics: history, culture, and graffiti as a form of communication and education. Weller states that educators “firstly [need to decide] how they can best take advantage of abundance in their own teaching practice, and secondly how do we best equip learners to make use of it?”(Weller, 2011). Anderson (2016) agree that the second challenge, is the most pressing and central to theories for learning and for teaching in the digital era. Anderson posits that “as important as scaling content is the power of effective search and retrieval methods” (2016, p.41).

Lessons from Weller (2011) and Anderson (2016) armed us with strategies to negotiate the wealth of information on graffiti and to contemplate how we would best equip learners to make use of the information on the topic. Graffiti, like technology, is everywhere and a powerful communication and learning tool. According to Banksy, “As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars” (Ellsworth-Jones, 2013, para. 5). With such power, comes responsibility, which leads to discussion on the objectivity and reliability of sources. This is something that is pertinent to educators and learners alike: how do we discern what we are reading on the Internet, as we research any given topic, is reliable? “Exploring pedagogies of abundance will be essential for educators to meet this challenge and equip their learners with the skills they need in an age of digital abundance”(Weller, 2011).


Alonso, A. (1998). Urban scribblings on the city landscape. Retrieved from

Anderson, T. (2016). Chapter 3: Theories for Learning with Emerging Technologies. In Veletsianos, G. (Ed). Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from

Baird, J., & Taylor, C. (Eds.). (2010). Ancient graffiti in context. Retrieved from

Banksy (nd). Girl with balloon [digital image]. Retrieved from

Banky (nd). Extinction and rebellion [digital image]. Retrieved from

Ellsworth-Jones, W. (2013). The Story Behind Banksy. Retrieved from

Weller, M. (2011). A pedagogy of abundance. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy, 249, pp. 223-236. Retrieved from


Learner-Centric Design

In a lot of my work as an instructional designer I have naturally been drawn to using a layered approach. By layered, I mean that I layer the different levels of a particular topic by starting with something that is simple and building up to more complex exploration until the topic, or task has been explored. Through reading Merrill’s article, I discovered that the layered approach I use is similar to the “problem progression” he describes (2002, p. 46). He provides several examples, including Reigeluth’s “elaboration theory”, which prompted me to do some research. I found David’s (2014) description as, “…an instructional design theory that argues that content to be learned should be organized from simple to complex order, while providing a meaningful context in which subsequent ideas can be integrated” (para. 1). aligned with my ‘layered’ approach

I also use another approach that I describe as a theoretical/application methodology. For instance, at the organization I work at currently, the curriculum would include educating the learner on what a pension is (theoretical) and then explore the various pension options a member could select (application).

Combining the layered approach with regards to complexity, in conjunction with the theoretical /application methodology enables the learner to learn what a topic is about or what the task is as the theoretical component, and then applying the theory in the application component. This approach is usually supported in my work because learners are able to practice in a test environment that duplicates the production (real) environment. The gives learners the opportunity to learn from their mistakes without risk.

Building on my observations and the ideas explored in both articles it was clear to me that Merrill (2002) resonated the most with my work. In particular I learned about the idea of showing learners the completed task, first (p. 46). As David (2014) describes, “It values a sequence of instruction that is as holistic as possible, to foster meaning-making and motivation” (para.3). I think this idea has tremendous possibilities if the learner is a ‘big picture’ thinker like myself. The question would then be if I can design curriculum that provides big picture thinkers with what they need, while also providing more detailed thinkers what THEY need. Could I design curriculum that is truly learner-centric, offering learners options so they can choose what appeals to them?

It’s a very intriguing idea because learner-centric learning starts with identifying your audience needs first. And then, designing curriculum that effectively uses instructional theories and models that address the learning objectives. In my experience, there’s been a lot of ‘talk’ about learner-centric curriculum for some time. However, the final result is typically driven by other factors, such as organizational goals/strategy, budget constraints, project deliverables and so on, rather than meeting the needs of learners. Instead, learner-centric curriculum should not only put the needs of learners as the foundation of its design, but also be adaptable to learner’s needs as well as organizational objectives as they evolve over time and various iterations.


David, L. (2014). Learning Theories. Elaboration Theory (Reigeluth). Retrieved from

Ertmer, P., & Newby, T. (2013). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.


An understated powerhouse of a person…in 249 words!

As is typical of my serendipitous encounters, through a combination of following my head, my heart, my intuition, and luck. I was led to: Anne-Marie Scott.

I’ll be honest in that I only just ‘met’ Anne-Marie yesterday so I’m still getting to know her. But what I’ve discovered thus far has me fascinated. A self described edtech lady leader and follower of #femedtech who works as the Deputy Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services at the University of Edinburgh (UofE), Anne-Marie is closely involved in all things ed tech, as well as marginalized communities. She’s one of the leadership team for Girl Geek Scotland and also a Certified Member of the Association for Learning Technology (CMALT). She offers access to her CMALT portfolio and I can hardly wait!

You’ve likely heard that phrase: “an open book” and that’s what first struck me about Anne-Marie’s online presence. What you see is what you get, and she’s VERY open to freely sharing her ideas, data and her expertise. For example, here’s a blog post about her WordPress site, helpful for those like me, who are new to the software.

Through Twitter, her blog, the UofE blog and Instagram, Anne-Marie’s work is refreshingly honest, informed, diverse, inclusive, and cheeky. There’s clearly a lot I can learn from someone like her and I’m looking forward to it!

For more, here’s a studio visit (3:06-47:15) where she discusses the Internet and, her other, numerous interests with a group of students. Great food for thought!


Scott, A.-M. (n.d). [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from

Scott, A.-M. (April 28, 2019). Setting up my own WordPress site – what was I thinking? [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Networked Narratives. (February, 12, 2019). Studio Visit with Anne-Marie Scott. Retrieved from–rkw

The history of ed tech is…the future!

As noted in the assignment, we were asked to research the topic before reading the unit readings, which I thought was an interesting way to explore a subject that I thought I knew quite a lot about. I was surprised to learn that there was an invention called an epidiascope, which I had never heard of! According to Parkin’s article it was used in classrooms as the first projector (2019, para. 16). The article doesn’t give dates, but I was interested enough to find out more. I learned that it was used in the early years of the 20th century. (“What is an epidiascope?”, n.d., para. 1)  The epidiascope was used to display a transparent, or opaque image through the illumination of a large lamp, which used mirrors to reflect the image onto a wall, or a screen. It sounds a bit ethereal, but if you look at the picture below, it looked more like a cross between a camera and a rather ugly, wood burning stove.

After getting over my unexpected fascination with the epidiascope, I then discovered this short video which manages to capture some of the technological highlights while also illustrating how much education has evolved. The video is a concise snapshot of the remarkable leaps that have been made in educational technology and ends with the statement, “This is just the beginning” (Scott-Bellow, 2009, 1:20). I think most of us would agree that the upcoming possibilities of ed tech are numerous and exciting.

As exciting as the future may look, it became apparent to me during my research that the beginning of ed tech did not ‘start’ on a specific date because there were a lot of differing opinions on that subject. That said, the general direction that emerged is that there will be many new technologies that will be available. Additionally, there seemed to be general agreement that ed tech should not be about the newest, fanciest tool, rather it should focus on the effectiveness of the learning. And if that is the future ‘take’ on education, I AM IN!


Parkin, T. (2019). A personal history of educational technology – one teacher’s view on the 20 items that changed life in the classroom over the last 50 years [Blog post]. Retrieved from

What is an epidiascope? (n.d.) Retrieved from

Scott-Bellow, A. (2009). A brief history of technology in education [Video file]. Retrieved from



Reflection on my digital presence and plan for my future digital identity

In order for me to outline a plan for my future digital presence I first had to reflect upon my digital presence in the past. Looking back at my experience in the early days of Facebook, followed by Twitter, LinkedIn, and then Instagram. It’s clear to me that my involvement stemmed primarily from a sense of curiosity about the people who inhabited these virtual spaces with me. Specifically: Why did they choose a particular platform? What is it they do when they’re there? What did they ‘like’ or ‘comment’ on? Who did they follow? Which are all very interesting behaviours that I enjoyed observing and participating in, in varying degrees. (Hargittai & Walejko, 2008, para. 3). Ultimately, my interest and involvement typically began with a spike of activity, followed by a period of consistent engagement, ending in a slow decline over time as my curiosity was satisfied.

Now that I’m enrolled in the MALAT program, however, that curiosity has been awakened. As a result, I’m keen to experience social media platforms from the perspective of an educator who is interested in creating online learning solutions that engage learners while also, simultaneously immersing myself in the experience as a student in a blended learning program.

To that end, I intend to maintain my daily involvement with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram while increasing my activity on LinkedIn and also, researching other platforms to experiment with. One of the ways I intend to measure my effectiveness is by evaluating Twitter analytics more fully than I have in the past, such as: tweet impressions, top tweets, profile visits, and mentions.

Additionally, I plan to address gaps in my knowledge in the technical aspects of social media, as I continue building my WordPress site, while exploring other virtual spaces throughout the MALAT program, and beyond.


Boyd, D. (2011). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self (p. 39–58). New York, NY: Rutledge.

Campbell, G. (2009). A personal cyberinfrastructure. Educause Review (p. 58-59).

Hargittai, E & Walejko, G (2008) THE PARTICIPATION DIVIDE: Content creation and sharing in the digital age, Information, Communication & Society (p. 239-256).