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Independent Digital Learning: paradoxes, problems and potential in classroom practice

Written by: Ashley Hern
11 min read

For nearly all of history, people’s lives have been governed primarily by ignorance… But sometime over the last several decades… science has filled in enough knowledge to make ineptitude as much our struggle as ignorance. (Gawande, 2010, p. 8)

My 15-year history teaching experience has been paradoxical: a subjective feeling that my workload has increased while my students appear to be less productive. This reflection has been catalysed by preparing students for competitive university entrance. Many have not fully internalised key concepts such as the analysis of primary source material. These are a central part of the curriculum, yet students still appear to prioritise accumulation of knowledge over understanding. This is supported by my experiences marking A-level papers. Research literature suggests that higher education can fail to develop independent learners, with students prioritising ‘surface’ over ‘deep’ learning (Gow and Kember, 1990). At a time when technology has made information more accessible, why are we failing to fully develop students’ critical faculties and autonomous skills?

One solution is to develop more effective opportunities for students to learn ‘independently’. This term itself involves competing definitions, ranging from student autonomy, e.g. ‘the ability to take control of one’s learning’ (Holec, 1981, p. 3), to emphasis on the continued didactic role of the instructor: ‘No act of learning can be self-directed if we understand self-direction as meaning the absence of external sources of assistance.’ (Brookfield, 1985) However, these approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive and can be resolved through the intelligent and critical use of technology.

What are MOOCs and where did they originate?

MOOCs have emerged into public consciousness during the last decade. These massive (large numbers of participants) open (accessible to a range of people without prerequisites) online (all materials being available on the internet) courses (a syllabus with an instructor, lectures, readings and assessments) were first developed publically in 2008, with the ‘Connectivism and connective knowledge’ MOOC created by University of Manitoba. This connective MOOC (cMOOC) involved networks of distributed online resources and provided a highly interactive and collaborative learning environment, which emphasised the construction and sharing of contents. Projects of collaborative learning had been developed within institutions since the advent of computer networks and email in the 1970s (Harasim, 2017). The next key milestone was the ‘Introduction to artificial intelligence’ extended MOOC (xMOOC) run by academics Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun at Stanford University in 2011. Norvig and Thrun anticipated 10,000 students enrolling but 160,000 signed up from 209 countries. The success of their course made them evangelists for MOOCs, arguing that they represented a revolutionary development in higher education (Norvig, 2012). Subsequently, a variety of different companies providing MOOCs have emerged, often working in co-operation with universities who provide course material. Edx is an ope- source platform that hosts a range of different university courses from over 100 institutions worldwide, blending paid and free courses. FutureLearn is a commercial platform owned by the Open University, which offers courses developed for its platform specifically by a range of universities in the UK and abroad.

As has been already outlined, MOOCs generally follow two basic structures, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: The two basic structures of MOOCs
Learner role Active Passive
Instructor role Co-learner Sage on video stage
Learning theory Connectivism Behaviourism
Primary pedagogy Knowledge integration Knowledge duplication
Metaphor ‘We link movies’ ‘We watch movies’
Development approach Learning design Instructional design
Primary type of assessment Self-assessment External and/or peer assessment
Funding source Seat of the pants funding Large external funding

MOOCs evaluated

Thrun’s evangelism ensured considerable interest, excited by the increased accessibility to higher education afforded by technology and the promise of new methods of teaching. Administrators were attracted by the solution that MOOCs seemed to provide to increasing costs for higher education. However, the phenomenon has stalled in the face of several major structural problems. xMOOCs vary in quality. Many courses merely replicate traditional lectures. Some have very high production values, with well-conceived assessment questions and high-quality interaction, while others are poorly executed, based on a series of videos and limited tasks. The xMOOC follows traditional behavioural-cognitivist ideas of knowledge transfer, which means that although there is some collaboration between participants through forum discussion, this is not central to the concept (Ubell, 2017). The passive learning model of xMOOCs prioritises knowledge duplication assessed through quizzes. One consequence is abysmal completion rates: a study of Harvard and MITx online course participation rates showed that there was only a 5.5 per cent completion rate. In broad numbers, that was 245,000 out of 4.5 million participants, which is still an impressive number but indicative of significant methodological issues (Veletsianos et al., 2015). Participation is also a major issue. The vast majority of those who complete already hold some form of advanced qualification. From my own experience, it is clear when participating on courses that most of those who contribute are adults, many of whom are retired, and who possess the necessary skills (digital fluency, information literacy, contribution, motivation, collaboration and leadership) for engagement with the platforms.

MOOCs for the classroom

A recent development is the use of MOOCs in adult education and professional training (Egloffstein, 2018). Knowles’s identification of the characteristics of adult learners (andragogy), particularly their readiness and motivation to learn, means that they are better equipped than students to handle the pitfalls (Knowles, 1970). I have participated on a range of training and further education MOOCs, structured around the cMOOC model, as well as a large range of xMOOCs, and found considerable value in collaborative learning as well as the facility of convenient accessibility to relevant materials.

The use of online learning in secondary schools has been much discussed but produced little qualitative research. In my history department we developed online materials, but these were largely information storage, and attempts at collaborative online learning had repeatedly failed due to a lack of enthusiasm from students. Within our school there had been attempts to encourage participation in xMOOCs independently or in timetabled lessons, all of which had mixed results. The limited research in this area has emphasised the importance of an institutional framework if online learning is to have a positive impact on student outcomes. Students’ digital skills vary widely and some may find it difficult to transfer these skills into academic practice (Beetham and White, 2013). It has been persuasively argued that disciplinary context is important and that students respond most favourably to authentic and meaningful digital activities that are directly linked to, and embedded in, their programmes of learning and assessment and that are relevant to their future employment ambitions (Killen and Chatterton, 2015).

Research project

I created two discrete experimental courses using the school virtual learning environment (VLE), hosted by Moodle, which were directly related to a very focused learning objective within the curriculum. There is nothing remarkable about this. Moodle is very intuitive to use and I hold very basic computing skills, typical of someone educated in the 1980s and 1990s.

My qualitative project was to aid a small group of sixth form students interested in studying archaeology at university. A recent science paper had re-examined a skeleton found in a medieval grave in Birsa, Sweden (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al., 2017). The original identification had been that the skeleton was a male ‘Viking’ warrior, a conclusion based on the grave goods (including weapons). The paper presented scientific findings suggesting that the skeleton was actually female and she was a warrior. This paper then fed into a wider media discourse about the existence of female Viking warriors in contemporary popular culture, especially in the recent television series Vikings. The issue of how contemporary ideas of gender can shape our perceptions of the past is a complex topic more suited to higher education. Rather than simply present the material in class and explain it myself, I asked students to draw their own opinions through the mini-MOOC I constructed (see Figure 1). This was a reworking of the ‘flipped classroom’ idea, where students learn the key information and bring this into lessons for debate, allowing them to engage with these issues on a ‘deep level’.

Figure 1: Mini-MOOC constructed to investigate perceptions of female Vikings

Figure 1 shows a screenshot of a website, with a navigation bar on the left and the main content on the right. The sections are labelled "Introduction (start here)", "Part 1 A Viking Warrior Queen?", "Part 2 Early reactions to the Viking Queen", "Part 3: Some doubts", "Part 4: what can we say for sure about Bj 581?" and "Part 5: the Viking Warrior Queen and Modern Society".

Each section had a discrete focus and logical development. In the first section, I provided an introduction containing a short film, a voice recording and the original article for students to read, with a short quiz that tested their understanding of its conclusions (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The first section of the Viking MOOC

Figure 2 shows a screenshot of a website with the heading "Part 1 A Viking Warrior Queen?". This contains the instruction "Read the instruction "A Historic Discovery?" and then the article. When you have completed these tasks complete the quiz." and various subsections. Examples for the subsections are: "A Historic Discovery?" and "A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics".

As the course progressed, students were presented with different media reactions, from initial enthusiasm for the study’s implication to subsequent criticisms of the evidence. The article’s conclusions were more tentative than they at first appeared, and by effective organisation and presentation of the debate, students were able to follow the evolving academic and public discourse. In a forum at the end of each section, I proposed some issues that students were invited to comment on. This worked effectively and produced excellent discussion in class about perceptions of gender and the limitations of using material evidence. Students responded enthusiastically and particularly enjoyed spotting how media reports could make confident pronouncements on debatable evidence. By developing their ‘expertise’ in the topic, the quality of discussion was far more rewarding than if we had done this as a class-based exercise. Students’ confidence in handling complex ideas and materials also increased. As a result of this project, I am now developing this approach in my mainstream sixth form teaching as a way of allowing pupils to autonomously explore some more complex issues and debates relating to our medieval history course – e.g. the different interpretations of the Battle of Hastings – which will allow them to understand the complexities of handling contradictory sources more effectively. The plan is that once they bring their acquired expertise to the classroom, we can apply higher order thinking skills to the planning of essays, based on the different interpretations they have looked at.

The quantitative project was a more traditional xMOOC for Year 9 students, based on the assassination of JFK, which was run at the end of the summer term. Students were given a month to finish the course, with at least one lesson in the computer room. Each module looked at a particular aspect of the assassination within a narrative framework, outlining the background to the event and what happened on 22 November 1963, before moving on to the different conspiracy theories that had been suggested (see Figure 3). The main focus was to present the necessity of reliable evidence when judging the viability of the different theories, which students often latch onto with enthusiasm but without sufficient critical acuity.

Figure 3: MOOC to investigate theories surrounding JFK’s assassinationFigure 3 shows a screenshot of a website, with a navigation bar on the left and the main content on the right. The website is headed "HI Who killed JFK?" and displays a list of an introduction and 14 sections.

A series of videos (such as extracts from Oliver Stone’s JFK) and guiding text were used and students were assessed using multiple choice quizzes at the end of each of the 14 sections. There was a completion rate of 58 per cent, which, given that the end of the course collided with the summer holidays, was a good result. Ninety-nine per cent of students had completed at least half of the course. Over 90 per cent of students achieved 70 per cent or more in the quizzes, showing that they had engaged with the material with some care. The class presentations that students gave after finishing the course showed how far many had engaged with the criticisms of conspiracy theories through their ambivalence to them. This was a development from previous years’ presentations.


Creating discrete MOOCs to supplement the curriculum can encourage students to independently engage with ‘deep learning’. Significant thought needs to be put into their organisation and their place in the curriculum, however. The large-scale xMOOC is less useful than teacher-created, discrete, topic-based courses that can be managed over a couple of weeks. The more focused their objectives, the more effective classroom mini-MOOCs can be. I am particularly excited by their potential to allow the delivery of course material in a way that encourages students’ critical engagement with complex and ambivalent issues. By giving them the ability to work at their own pace, their understanding can be deepened and class time can be used to debate the implications of their findings. Significant development time and experimentation, alongside exposure to a variety of MOOCs, is essential for professional development in this field. Software to enhance presentation is easily available and understandable, e.g. Audacity for sound files. The labour investment has significant long-term returns in student productivity and, once completed, teachers have an excellent, easily editable resource available.


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