Comparing MOOCs: DS106 and Coursera

This blog is actually an activity in #H817 Openness and Innovation in eLearning, this week we have been considering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). For this activity we are asked to compare either DS106 or Rhizomatic 15 with offerings from FutureLearn or Coursera.

I’m comparing DS106 and Coursera. I recently completed a Coursera course (Instructional Design Foundations and Applications) so am familiar with it as a learner and user.

Before looking at both and comparing them in terms of technology, pedagogy, and general approach and philosophy let’s just remind ourselves on the backbone of what a MOOC is.

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses and refers to online courses which are open access (via the internet) to an unlimited number of participants. MOOCs came out of the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement to offer scalable, open and affordable solutions to offering, sharing and collaborating learning experience.

Let me hand the explanation over to Dave Cromier, who coined the acronym MOOC, for a far better explanation!

Dave Cromier introduces us to what a MOOC is.

Heading back to comparing DS106 and Coursera – why the need or interest to compare, I mean a MOOC is a MOOC is MOOC, right?! Well no, as the MOOC movement has developed we can see emerging differences to some of the finer points not least the pedagogical approach the MOOC author(s), or participants, take. We now see individual MOOCs dedicated to one area or topic to large scale enterprises using the MOOC model to offer a huge array of topics, from non-profit altruistic investment to for profit, capital backed endeavours.

It’s a really crude analogy but in my mind MOOCs are like bread, some are artisan loaves and others are sliced white but they are both bread and want you to have a nice sandwich at the end of the day.

DS106 describes itself as:

“Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington… but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster”

Coursera tells their story as:

“Coursera was founded in 2012 by two Stanford Computer Science professors who wanted to share their knowledge and skills with the world. Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng put their courses online for anyone to take – and taught more learners in a few months than they could have in an entire lifetime in the classroom. Since then, we’ve built a platform where anyone, anywhere can learn and earn credentials from the world’s top universities and education providers”

Whilst Coursera is a multi-course platform I am only going to think about the individual course I took which I mentioned before, a course which follows Coursera’s technical and pedagogical design we are going to delve in to now.


As with all MOOCs, both DS106 and Coursera are harnessing the internet and web connectivity to deliver their courses, both with online platforms.

Coursera’s technological approach may be considered more polished and commercial, with a purposely design platform specifically tailored to their requirements and wants. It uses best practices of web page and user interface design. . It is designed for both computer and mobile usage, with a free mobile app available. This makes the platform very accessible in terms of mobility and gives learners the opportunity to access and use their MOOC across a wide range of devices and therefore, across a range of physical areas meaning they are not required to be tied to a given place. As a for profit, capital backed MOOC, it clear to see that there has been a financial commitment to the engineering of the site.

It is a largely self-contained platform with robust search functions. As such, there is a dedicated communication channel for users having technical issues and little reliance on third-party applications. The system incorporates and hosts its own content such as video and asynchronous forums.

DS106’s technological approach echoes their roots in the open movement. As a non-profit site, were funding for the server has been in the past provided by a kickstarter campaign, DS106 has utilised free and open source technology, third-party technology and an altruistic and participatory community to create their online presence. The main site is in the style of a blog, with participants needing to have access to their own blog to fully participate. The site has no robust search function and is organised in a relatively simple, blog style hierarchy. Whilst the site can be accessed on a mobile browser and displays well, there is no specific mobile app or technology to further enable mobile access.

The use of technology, and trouble shooting, is supported by the community. As the site links out to, and uses, many third party applications, much of the DS106 handbook actually refers to using and troubleshooting such technology such as WordPress, Audacity, GIMP, Flickr etc. The use of third-party can be seen as an issue given the possibility of failure of that third-party. For example, DS106 notes they have a downloaded archive but that much work curated on Storify was lost when that service was pulled. This means participants must have some technological knowledge and awareness to ensure their work is backed up. Of course, it can be argued that a MOOC such as Coursera is at risk of market changes and ‘going under’ but I would argue this is less of a risk than reliance on open third-party applications.


Open pedagogy is often referred to as requiring open and free access, and the 4Rs of reuse, revise, remix, redistribute as the backbone. In MOOCs we see that content is open and free to access as a pedagogical constant thought the 4Rs may not be. Whilst some MOOCs will allow, and actively encourage, the reuse, revise, remix and redistribute aspect of content, others may provide content under closed licence but ensuring access is open and free.

For the two MOOCs I am comparing there are some distinct pedagogical differences.

DS106 stays pedagogically close to the ideas as laid out by Cromier in the previous video. As an open ended course, or as they themselves state “course experience”, DS106 is a non-linear, ‘pick and mix’ approach to content and activity. It relies heavily on the pedagogical approach of social learning, encouraging peer-to-peer interaction and even peer devised assignments. With no ‘teacher’, DS106 moves away from the expert led approach and towards a much more participatory model where learners rather find their answers as opposed to ‘learn’ a correct answer. Content is continuously being produced by the community however, this means it must also be actively assessed and policed by the community (as I looked at it today there were a lot of spam posts). There is no specific end goal or rather, the end goals are specific to the individual learning and their interpretation of their success. The site is very open about this approach and explains it fully in their verbiage.

The Coursera pedagogical approach is much more didactic in nature, mirroring the traditional expert-led model often experienced in offline education and training. Content and activities are presented in a linear fashion, with assessment and an end point. Whilst Coursera has flexible deadlines, these are deadlines nevertheless.

Courses are presented are specific units with a beginning, middle and end. The content is set and presented in the form of readings and videos. However, Coursera does employ some participatory methods with the use of interactive quizzing and social learning through the use of asynchronous forums though again, this is largely directed as part of the linear course plan. Whether users go ‘off piste’ and begin other conversations or develop other communication lines is neither encouraged nor prohibited. One area Coursera is using the power of the community is in the use of peer assessed assignments, where users are given assignments to produce (usually in the form of short essays or posts) which are then scored by fellow students following a rubric and they are encouraged to comment on their scores and reasoning. Coursera, like many of the mainstream MOOCs, does offer certification to show completion of a course and its assessment for a fee.

Like DS106, Coursera is also open in its pedagogical approach and has an open blog which includes insight into their pedagogical research and implementations such as the post “How A/B Testing Powers Pedagogy on Coursera

So whilst they have some pedagogical differences, both DS106 and Coursera use an open and free access approach and are adopting social learning, though to differing degrees.

General Approach and Philosophy

It would be very easy to try and spar DS106 and Coursera against one another as the happy hippie versus the corporate line puller but this would be both disingenuous, lazy and missing the point by a few thousand miles. Neither one is better or worse than the other but are examples of what can be done in the MOOC model, what can be offered and also, warn us of what pitfalls there may be. Both are dedicated to open and free access to learning. Is one at risk of too heavy-a reliance on altruism and open/free source? Yes? Could another be at risk of being influenced by the market and this reflected in an almost ‘colonisation’ of knowledge or bias? Yes. But, they also represent the many arms to the MOOC model, a model which is scalable, affordable and hugely adaptable.

One area which I did notice though which isn’t asked for in this activity but I would like to address is the issue of accessibility in terms of learners with disabilities.

DS106 has a very distinct visual look, grey background with white and fuschia text, which made me wonder if this was deliberate for accessibility. Personally, I found it very difficult to read and would have to alter several aspects of my monitor. Colour contrast for text is one aspect of ensuring accessibility for visually impaired users. I put the frontpage of DS106 through the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool and it came back with 34 instances of poor colour contrast on the page, making it very difficult to read. This compares to 1 instance of poor colour contrast when we put Coursera through the same tool. I cannot find any reference to accessibility on the DS106 page so must assume the look is a design choice. Other accessibility issue included videos without closed captions or transcripts.

As a commercially backed site it is unsurprising that Coursera has a dedicated accessibility section and aims to comply with WCAG guidelines. They have a dedicated communication channel for accessibility issues to be raised.

For open resources such as DS106, accessibility will and should be a topic for discussion and I think it actually opens a further door and exciting conversation around using the open movement to support and solve accessibility issues.

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