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MOOCs are so unambitious: introducing the MOOPhD

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By Jon Dron April 22, 2013 - 3:31am Comments (13)

Massive Open Online PhDs

During my recent visit to Curtin University, Torsten Reiners, Lincoln Wood and I started brainstorming what we think might be an interesting idea. In brief, it is to build and design what should eventually become a massive, open, online PhD program. Well, nearly. This is a work in progress, but we thought it might be worth sharing the idea to help spark other ideas, get feedback and maybe gather a few people around us who might be interested in it.
The starting point for this was thinking about ways of arranging crowd funding for PhD students, which evolved into thinking about other crowd-based/funded research support tools and systems to support that. For example, we looked at possible ways to not only crowd-fund research projects but to provide structures and tools to assist the process: forming and setting up project teams, connecting with others, providing project management support, proposal writing assistance, presenting and sharing results, helping with the process of writing reports and papers for publication, and so on. Before long, what we were designing began to look a little like a research program. And hence, the MOOPhD (or MOOD - massive open online doctorate).
A MOOPhD is a somewhat different kind of animal from a MOOC. It is much longer and much bigger, for a start - more of a program than a course. For many students it might, amongst other things, encapsulate a variety of MOOCs that would help them to gain knowledge of the research process, including a range of research methods courses and perhaps some more specific subject-related courses.  This is quite apart from the central process of supporting the conduct of original research that would form the 'course' itself.
A MOOPhD will also attract a very different kind of learner from those found in most MOOCs, notwithstanding the fact that, so far, a lot of MOOC-takers already have at least a first degree, not uncommonly in the same subject area as the MOOC.
Perhaps the biggest difference between a MOOPhD and a MOOC, at least of the xMOOC variety, is the inevitable lack of certainty about the path to the destination. MOOCs usually have a fairly fixed and clear trajectory, as well as moderately fixed content and coverage.  Even cMOOCs that largely lack specified resources, outcomes and assessments, have topics and timetables mapped out in advance. While the intended outcomes of a PhD are typically pretty clear (the ability to perform original and rigorous research, to write academically sound papers and reports, to design a methodology, review literature, etc), and there are commonalities in the process and landmarks along the way, the paths to reaching those goals are anything but determined. A PhD, to a far greater degree than most courses and lower level programs, specifies a method and processes, but not the content or pathways that will be taken along the way. This raises some very interesting and challenging questions about what we mean by 'course' and the wisdom and validity of MOOCs in general, but discussion of that can wait for another post. Suffice to say, it is a bit different from what we have seen so far.
There are many existing sites and systems that provide at least some of the tools and methods needed. I have had peripheral involvement with a support network for students investigating learning analytics, for example, and have helped to set up a site to provide resources for graduate students and their supervisors. There are commercial sites like and ResearchGate that connect academics, including graduate students. There are some existing MOOCs on research methods and crowd-funding sites to help with fees and kick-starting projects such as or  And, of course, there is the complete system of journal and conference reviewing that provides invaluable feedback for nascent researchers. Like all technologies, what we are thinking about involves very little if anything that is radically new, but is mostly an assembly of existing pieces. 
It is likely that, for many, a PhD or other doctorate would not be the final outcome. People would pick and choose the parts that are of value, helping them to set up projects, write papers or form networks. Others might treat it as a useful resource for a more traditional doctoral learning journey.

So what might a MOOPhD look like? 

A MOOPhD would, of necessity, be highly modular, offering student-controlled support for all parts of the research process, from research process teaching, through initial proposals, through project management, through community support, through paper writing etc. Students would choose the parts that would be of value to them at different times. Different students would have different needs and interests, and would need different support at different points along the journey. For some, they might just need a bit of help with writing papers. For others, the need might be for gaining specific skills such as statistical analysis or learning how to do reviews.  More broadly, the role of a supervisory team in modelling practice and attitudes would be embedded throughout.
Importantly, apart from badges and certificates of 'attendance', a MOOPhD would not be concerned with accreditation. We would normally expect existing processes for PhDs by publication that are available at many institutions to provide the summary assessment, so the program itself would simply be preparation for that. As a result of this process, students would accrue a body of research publications that could be used as evidence of a sustained research journey, and a set of skills that would prepare them for viva voces and other more formal assessment methods. This would be good for universities as they would be able to award more PhDs without the immense resources that are normally needed, and good for students who would need to invest less money (and maybe be surrounded by a bigger learning community).

Some features and tools

A MOOPhD might contain (amongst other things):
  • A community of other research students, with opportunities to build and sustain networks of both peers (other students) and established researchers
  • MOOCs to help cover research methods, subject specialisms, etc
  • A great deal of scaffolding: resources to help explain the process, information about everything from ethics to citation, means and criteria to self-assess such as wizards, forms and questionnaires, guidelines for reviewing papers, etc
  • Mentors (not exactly supervisors - too tricky to deal with the numbers)  including both experienced academics and others further on in the PhD process. Mentors might provide input to a group/action learning set of students rather than to individuals, and thus allow students to observe behaviours that the academics model.
  • Exemplars - e.g. marked-up reviews of papers. This is vital as one of the ways of allowing established academics to provide role models and show what it means to be an academic
  • Plentiful resources and links relevant to the field (crowd-generated)
  • A filtering and search system to help identify people and things 
  • A means to provide peer review to others (akin to an online journal submission system)
  • A means to have one's own ideas and papers reviewed by peers
  • Tutorial support - most likely a variant on action learning sets to support the process. This would cover the whole process from brainstorming, to literature review, to methodology design, to conduct and analysis of research, to evaluation etc. Ideally, each set would be facilitated by a professional academic or at least an experienced peer.
  • A professionally peer reviewed journal system, with experienced academic editorial committees and reviewers (who would only see papers already ranked highly in peer review), leading to publication
  • Support for gaining funding - including crowd funding - for the research, particularly with regard to projects needing resources not already available
  • Support for finding collaborators
  • Support for managing the process - both of the whole venture as well as specific projects
  • Non-academic support - counselling and advice
  • Tools and resources to find accreditors - this is not about providing qualifications but preparing students so that they can easily get them

Some issues

There are some complex and significant problems to solve before this becomes a reality, including:


The main idea behind this is to prepare students for a PhD by publication, not to award doctorates. It is essentially about managing a research learning process and helping students to publish results. However, sustaining motivation over a long period without the promise of accreditation might be an issue.

Access to resources

One of the biggest benefits of an institution for a PhD student is access to closed journals and libraries. While it is possible to pay for such access separately from a course, and a system would certainly contain links to ways of discovering open articles, this could be an obstacle. Of course, while we would not and could not condone the use of the community to share closed articles, it is hard to see how we could police such sharing. 


Without an institutional backdrop, there would be no easy way to ensure ethical research. Resources could be provided, action learning sets could be used to discuss such concerns, and counselling might be available (perhaps at a price) to help ensure that a process would be followed that wouldn't pose an obstacle to gaining accreditation, but it would be difficult to ensure an ethically sound process was followed. This is an area where different countries, regions and universities follow different procedures anyway, and there is only broad uniformity around the world, so some flexibility would be needed.


Beyond issues of ethics, there is a need to find solutions to disputes, grievances, allegations of cheating etc. This might be highly distributed and enabled through crowd-based processes. A similar issue relates to 'approvals' of research projects: there would probably need to be something akin to the typical review processes that determine whether a student's progress and/or proposed path are sufficient. It is likely that action learning sets could play a big role in assisting this process.

Subject specificity

The skills (and resources) needed for different types of PhD can vary enormously - the skills and resources needed by a mathematician are worlds away from those needed by someone engaged in literary criticism, which are worlds away from those needed by a physicist, astronomer or biologist. It would probably be too big a task to cater for all, and some might be all but impossible (e.g. if they require access to large hadron colliders or telescopes, or are performing dangerous, large scale or simply complex experiments). To some extent this is not the huge problem it first appears to be. It is likely that most of those interested in pursuing this process would already be either working in a relevant field (and thus have resources to call upon) or already be enrolled in an academic program, which would reduce some of the problem, but the chances are that the most likely areas where this process could successfully be applied would be those requiring few resources beyond a good brain, commitment and a computer. There are opportunities for multiple instances of this process across multiple subject areas and disciplines. Given our interests and constraints, we would probably aim in the first instance for people interested in education, technology, business, or some combination of these. However, there is scope for a much broader diversity of systems, probably linked in some ways to gain the benefits of common shared resources and a larger community.

Cold start

As the point of this is to leverage the crowd, it will be of little value if there is not already a crowd involved. The availability of high-quality resources, links and MOOCs might be sufficient to provide an initial boost to draw people to the system, as would a team of interesting mentors and participants, but it would still take a while to pick up steam.


In some fields, students are already reluctant to share information about their research, so this might be especially tricky in an open PhD process. Building sufficient trust in action learning sets and across the broader community may be problematic. Already, the openness needed for many MOOCs poses a challenge for some, but this process would require more disclosure an an ongoing basis than normal. This might be the price to be paid for an otherwise free program. However, the anticipated high drop-out rate would make it difficult to sustain tight-knit research groups/action learning sets over a prolonged period, and we would probably need to think more about cooperative than collaborative processes, so this may be difficult to manage. 

Start-up costs and maintenance

This will not be a cheap system to build, though development might be staggered. Resources would be needed for building and maintaining the server(s), creating content, managing the editing process for the journal, and so on. Potential funding models include start-up grants, company sponsorship (the value to organizations of a process like this could be immense), crowd-funding, subscription, advertising/marketing, etc. Selling lists of participants bothers me, ethically, but a voluntary entry onto a register that might be passed on to interested companies for a fee might have high value. While we might not award doctorates, those who could stay the course would clearly be very desirable potential employees or research team members.

Encouraging academics to participate

Altruism and social capital can sustain a relatively brief open course, but this kind of process would (unless a different approach can be discovered) require long term commitment and engagement by professional academics. There may be ways to provide value to academics beyond the pleasure of contributing and learning from students. For instance, students may be expected/required to cite academics as co-authors where those academics have had some input into the process, whether in feedback along the way or in reviewing/completing papers they have written, or may be granted access to data collected by students. This would provide some incentive to academics to help ensure the quality of the research, and help students by seeing an experienced academic's thinking processes in action.


This is a work in progress and there are some big obstacles in the way of making it a reality. We would welcome any ideas, suggestions or expressions of interest!


  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing May 9, 2013 - 1:11pm

    This sounds fabulous to me. I'm looking for a PhD by published works in Political Science or History. My specialty is Jpan and East Asia. It is difficult to find someone to supervise this and that is affordable. I've been looking in the UK. But it's not as easy as one might think. I've taken some MOOC coures at Harvard and University of Hong Kong. But there is no path to a PhD via MOOC but there should be. As you mention above access and affordabilty. This something whose time has come.  


    George Alexander, Philmont, New York USA 


    - George Alexander

  • Jon Dron May 9, 2013 - 1:25pm

    Thanks George - that's encouraging to know! Some of the obstacles are quite large but we can take it a bit at a time. I've started talking with people in the UK about this, where PhD-by-publication is well established, so that might be one of the places we can start the process.

  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing May 9, 2013 - 1:59pm

    Jon: Keep me posted on this. I have papers and books published but no [affordable] university yet. I'm facinated with the MOOCs. What a brilliant idea and use of technology. The UN (and others) has a University of the People that brings education to people who are in either remote locations or can't afford a post secondary education. This a wonderful thing. But no PhD programme (they spell it funny in the UK). If you think about it "Why not a MooPhD program?" The time is a hand. If I can help in any way please let me know.


    - George Alexander

  • Jon Dron May 9, 2013 - 3:20pm

    I think I prefer the British spelling. It's very confusing to be on a program about how to program which has a program of activities.

    George, mail me - jond -at -  - and I'll make sure you're included in the emerging conversation.


  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing June 6, 2013 - 8:08am

    This is a brilliant vision, yes there are a lot of logistics to work out, but it could work. Certainly the first group of early adapters / learners are going to be up to the roller coaster ride. I certainy would be! I think the key piece to ensuring success for the learner is that they have a mentor relationship set-up from the beginning to help navigate the process. 

    - Rob Straby

  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing June 9, 2013 - 4:35am

    Hello Jon! I totally agree with you on the idea that MOOC's are unambitious, I also believe that they are not that disrusptive as many people think. I've based my masters' thesis on that thought, departing from Charles Vest's meta-university concept to create a Drupal based plataform for creating "meta-universities", degrees and programs, you may give it a read here: Let me know if you need any help.


    Tiago Santos

    - Tiago Santos

  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing June 15, 2013 - 5:10am

    Please see the Wikiversity page on PhD

    - leigh blackall

  • Jon Dron June 19, 2013 - 7:55pm

    Thanks Leigh - the Wikiversity idea seems very interesting - it's at for others seeking the information. There's a link there to P2PU's version too -


  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing June 21, 2013 - 4:44am

    It is, of course, possible that some part of a phD could be conducted in this way, using current MOOC methods. However, until the issues of identifiation and ethical research are ironed out or a watertight method of security and accountability is produced, as much as I'd like to have one and think it's an excellent concept, I find it hard to see the quality assurance in a MOOphD.

    - Phil McDonald

  • Jon Dron June 21, 2013 - 9:56am

    @Phil -

    I don't think these are really problems at all, because the actual certification would fall to the usual processes. By-publication PhDs include a (normally oral) defence as usual, and typically involve the writing of a 10-20K statement that binds previous work into a single thesis, so this is not a way to get around the normal process issues. If people used unethical processes or impersonated someone else, then they would simply not get a PhD. A MOOPhD process would have to be designed to help avoid problems of that nature.

    Having said that, I've been thinking a bit about subverting that, using crowd-based methods of accreditation. I haven't quite figured out all the details yet, but this is where I'm heading with the idea: I'm thinking that a combination of reputation metrics (involving things like h-index, OpenBadges, endorsements via things like LinkedIn,, etc, as well as engagement in peer review, conference organization, etc - the same kind of things we normally take into account when hiring or promoting academics) and a peer-based assessment process,  with a public defence via a conference and/or open presentation through webmeeting tools, might be sufficient. The central issue that I have not quite figured out yet is how to ensure that those assessing the work demonstrably have sufficient reputation and lack of bias. PhD certification methods are essentially concerned with people and organizations that already have reputations non-rivally conferring them on others, based on their unbiased evaluations of the value of the candidates' work. It's all one big reputation network, so there ought to be a way to skip the middle-man/woman. 


  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing October 12, 2013 - 4:16pm

    Interesting blog post. We are a startup already doing elements of this and we call this as collaborative learning (CoLearnr). Check us out -


    - Prabhu Subramanian

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