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Evaluation of the MOOC Landscape

Extending the MOOC Landscape: Why eMOOCs?

A Cross-cultural Perspective

While there are many ways at looking at MOOCS at a global scale, this study seeks to identify a number of factors according to which MOOCs are considered to be successfully implemented in Europe. The principles behind the US-American MOOC higher education landscape appear to be mainly of financial and reputational relevance and are neither pedagocially nor cross-culturally driven. By analogy, European universities try hard to follow the same path, however, it seems to us, with minor success. For the purposes of this paper, a brief examination of existing MOOCs is undertaken before presenting intercultural factors and learning theory mechanisms that might call for a diversified and thus different approach than the one adopted by the US digital agenda. Without raising any claims of an exhaustive treatment of the topic under investigation, the academic journey undertaken suggests that a re-evaluation of how MOOCs can be successfully implemented in Europe is a pressing issue and that a simple duplication of US models might be doomed to failure in the European higher education landscape. A European lens taking into account culture-sensitive and learning theoretical factors might call for an additional classification of MOOCs. Apart from cMOOCs and xMOOCS it might thus be advisable to consider, what we call, eMOOCS, the European version of MOOCs, as a feasible methodolodical and culture-sensitive learning approach within Europe.


In line with the globalisation efforts around the world the European higher education area has recently been placing particular focus on innovative dissemination and educational tools for a variety of purposes, but, most importantly, for means of competitiveness, that is, not to substantially fall behind in the international race of online learning. Although much effort has been made to catch up with the mainly US-American dominance, Europe can by no means be regarded as being at the forefront of educational technology providers. Given that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) “are the educational buzzword of 2012” (Daniel, 2012), we take an analytical lens to investigate into how and whether MOOCs can simply be translated into a European context by foregrounding intercultural and learning theory perspectives and by claiming that the intersection of culture and technology has been given little, if any, priority. "As a digital phenomenon, a MOOC provides the means for connecting, interacting, and sharing across diverse cultures, attitudes, and skill sets in short order and with low cost." (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens & Courmier, 2010, p. 45). As such, a stance shedding more light on diverse cultures and attitudes will help us to raise awareness for cross-cultural issues among the MOOC community, in general, and for our work in progress, in particular, that we consider as a fascinating on-going journey through a thrilling research area which has mainly been side-lined by most researchers in this field.

Literature Review

In this section the MOOC landscape will be sketched. By taking a closer look at the MOOCversity- as we would like to call it - one might get the impression that a somewhat new and successful way of online learning has emerged. To elaborate on this view, we seek to draw a broader picture of its genesis .

Starting from Canada and America, MOOCs quickly spread all over the world and were implemented in a variety of countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. A fast distinction between MOOCs can be made when emphasizing on xMOOC and cMOOC. It was back in 2008 that the first MOOC started with topics about connectivism (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens & Courmier, 2010). Based on the learning approach of connectivism, learning with cMOOCs has become synonymous with presenting learning materials, connecting people via networks (i.e. Twitter, Blogs etc.) as well as focusing on collaborative learning with Web 2.0 tools. Such an approach is most different to the one taken by the creators of xMOOCs, which were mainly developed by the Ivy League Universities consisting of short video lectures followed by quizzes (Siemens, 2012). As Clarà and Barberà (2013) point out xMOOCs are not pedagogically driven and cMOOCs aim to explore and explain learning in Web 2.0 based on connectivism. As Siemens puts it "cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication" (Siemens, 2012, para.3). To take an xMooc example, we would like to state Coursera which started in 2011 with free online course founded by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng (Pappano, 2012). In 2012 Stanford University offered a free online course about "Artificial Intelligence" run by Sebastian Thrun. Spurred by the success of this online lectures Sebastian Thrun, professor at Stanford University founded Udacity. In cooperation with Harvard and UC Berkeley (Daniel, 2012) the Massachussets Institute of Technology(MIT), in an attempt to jump on the online educational bandwagon, announced their MITx, nowadays known as edX. Whereas the MIT offers free online courses as part of their policy considering a non-profit start-up in line with their educational understanding, Coursera, on the other hand, can be seen as a provider for MOOC with a different motivation starting as a for-profit MOOC-provider (Daniel, 2012, Pappano, 2012). What is worth stressing at this point is that Coursera does not create any courses, they are mere providers for online courses for their partner institutions (Armstrong, 2012). As to the MIT, they seek to advance their own strategic vision and "to learn how to use new technologies to most effectively educate its own on-campus students" (Armstrong, 2012, para.10). There is no doubt that MOOCs are constantly growing, and as Pappano writes "Coursera, Udacity and edX are defining the form as they develop their brands" (Pappano, 2012). Although MOOCs are open and free, Coursera has $43 millions in new investment money (Rivard, 2013) which clearly shows the added value of such an educational form in terms of financial means.

The European landscape of MOOCs and the major stakeholders in this field were discussed and identified at the European MOOC Stakeholders` Meeting in Lausanne in June 2013. In his presentation, Dillenbourg (2013) listed 13 European countries that are eagerly involved in establishing and providing MOOCs, thus seeking to unravel, and, as a consequence, further develop the European MOOCversity. When taking a closer look at the different providers of MOOCs in Europe, one can get the impression that the concept of American MOOCs (cMOOCs and xMOOCs) is simply copied. As an example we would like to take the German provider iversity ( Iversity- in its own words- introduces its courses by referring to the slogan "Ivy-League for everyone" ( This bold statement shows that they are eager to take the Ivy-League concept as a role model when it comes to offering MOOCs.

Learning Cultures

Behaviorism and xMOOCs

By taking a closer look at the pedagogical models of existing MOOC platforms it becomes apparent that xMOOCs seem more strongly rooted in the tradition of behaviorism which originated in America while cMOOC are more likely to be associated with constructivism. The founders of behaviorist ideas such as John B.Watson, B.F. Skinner and E.L.Thorndike are all important American representatives of classical and operant conditioning. Skinner's work, well- known for different experiments with animals testing, gave evidence of how behavior can be changed through reinforcement. He is also considered to be the father of programmed instruction. The idea behind his teaching machine was to create learning content in small steps and give immediate feedback to the learner (Vargas, 2005). Nowadays, this form of computer based-learning is known as drill and practice, i.e. presenting learning material, learners respond to quizzes and receive feedback on whether the answer was right and wrong. When taking a closer look at the xMOOCs tradition, most of the features remind us of learning in a behavioristic way falling back on video lectures (the learning material) and self-quizzes (see also Bates, 2012; Clarà & Barberà, 2013).

Connectivism and cMOOCs

The idea behind cMOOCs in general is to cope with the new possibilities offered by the Internet. Being aware of the complexity of this new digital era, Siemens (2004) proposed a new learning theory that he named connectivism. Siemens argued that it was important to know where information can be found and how it might be successfully used. Information will be changed through use, reuse, and connection of nodes of information sources. What is most essential here, is the way of connecting information and persons, yet having an eye on the impact of networks. The issue at stake, however, is that connectivism can, in our view, hardly be labeled a learning theory. Clarà and Barberà (2013) identified three critical issues associated with connectivism as a learning theory. First, connectivism does not address the "learning paradox" which is "how do you recognize a pattern if you do not already know that a specific configuration of connections is a pattern?" (Clarà & Barberà, 2013, p.131). Second, in connectivism interaction and connection are reduced to a static binary form. This is contrary to the understanding of learning as a process and the quality of interaction rather than the simple view of interaction on/off. The third challenge recognized by Clarà and Barberà (2013) is that connectivism does not explain concept development. Every learning theory explains different forms and aspects of human learning and extents the view of knowledge acquisition (Behaviorism), knowledge integration, memory, cognition (Cognitivism) to knowlege creation and collaborative learning (Constructivism).

The fact that knowledge is constantly growing and we are permanently confronted with a huge variety of new information that can be connected or externally stored can not per se be explained as an additional aspect of human learning nor raise a claim of being a new learning theory altogether. Such a new learning concept will have to explain if and how learning changes when new technology and additional possibilities in form of hardware i.e. tablets, smartphones, new user intefaces and interaction (touch instead of clicking) or software developments and the technology behind Web 2.0 (e.g. Ajax) come into play. The increasing possibilities due to the omnipresent and easy use of Internet tools such as Wikis and Weblogs question whether, and if so, how they could be used for learning.

Constructivism and Web 2.0

More recent pedagogicial approaches emphasize learning in both groups and  authentic and real situations. Constructivist learning suggests inquiry and problem-based learning (e.g. Savery & Duffy, 2001), situated cognition (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989) and a number of pedagogical methods to facilitate knowledge building rather than simple knowledge acquisition. In this context, knowledge building as proposed by Scardamelia & Bereiter (1996) means focusing on problems rather than on topics of knowledge. By doing so, students should be encouraged to discuss contrary ideas, enquire about causes and principles and explore relevant issues. Learning should take place through social interaction, negotiation with others and work in small groups. Such a reasoning suggests opening the knowledge community to experts and other contributors outside of the class and to provide private and public discourse (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996).

Trialogical Learning and eMOOCs

Clarà and Barberà (2013) stress a variety of learning concepts based on cultural psychology i.e. cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to address MOOCs with some fresh pedagogical approaches. By combining the ideas of connectivism and principles of CHAT Clarà and Barberà (2013) distinguish two principles: "the visualization of objects and the enabling of dialogic and sustained joint activity" (p. 134). Representations, i.e. knowledge, are psychological tools that mediate between the subject and the object. Further, they are distributed in communities, used, reused and transformed. Such psychological tools in the sense of Vygotsky can either be maps or mathematical signs (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006).

In addition, learning takes place in a way in which learners internalize representation in relation to an object. For learning in MOOCs Clarà and Barberà (2013) suggest visualizing an object to guide and focus on what should be learned to enable opportunities for joint activity and collaboration to use a representation as a common object for internalization. Based on cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT), the work of Engeström (expansive learning, 2001), Nonaka and Takeuchis's model of knowedge creation (1995) and the theoretical considerations of Scardamelia and Bereiter (knowledge building, 1996), Paavola, Lipponen and Hakkarainen (2004) conceptualized, what they call, the trialogical learning approach. They distinguish between three metaphors of learning: the acquisition metaphor, the participation metaphor and the knowledge-creation metaphor. The acquisition metaphor refers to the monological approach which means individual learning emphasizing conceptual knowledge. The participation metaphor, on the other hand, refers to the dialogical approach which stands for collaboration and interaction with others emphasizing situated cognition. Finally, the knowledge-creation metaphor defined by „interaction through these common objects (or artifacts) of activity, is not just applicable between people, or between people and environment” (Paavola et al., 2004, S. 545). This means that the interaction between people is extended beyond its rigid boundaries, it is interaction through shared objects. Such objects can be conceptual or material artefacts, practices ore ideas, mainly developed collaboratively (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2009). In other words, the trialogical approach emphasizes "developing something new collaboratively, not repeating existing knowledge" (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2009, p.84). Trialogical learning takes place in present situations of knowlege-centered work which is more open-ended, dynamic, reflective and creative (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2009).

When taking account of the concepts of trialogical learning and the issues pointed out by Clarà and Barberà (2013) one might deduct that learning with xMOOCs which is predominantly concerned with simple knowledge acquisition, requires an additional lens, one that incorporates a cultural psychology approach in the sense of knowledge-creation and transforming practices by using shared objects.

In analogy with the trialogical learning approach learning with and in MOOCs knowledge acquisition is covered by xMOOCs, whereas cMOOCs relate to knowledge participation. A predominant part, however, which seems to be lacking is the cultural perspective, so to say, the people in the Internet shaped by different cultures using different tools and collaborating through shared objects. Most essential, at this point, is that during collaborating social practices and shared objects are transformed through mediated tools. This process is visualised in Figure 1. To state an example, the object can be a specific assignment which has to be carried out collaboratively. Each member states their own perspective, knowledge, expertise and falls back on their cultural background. Figure 1 reflects a three-level transformation of team collaboration. The arrows symbolize the on-going transformation process of social practices, the one of shared objects and of the usage of the tools. Similarly, Paavola and Hakkarainen (2009)provided an example such as writing a research article where the article is the shared object, one agent is the main organizer of the paper, all other stakeholders write  the paper, highlight the ideas, point out some arguments etc.

Figure 1. Trialogical Learning in MOOCs (T=Tools, S.O.=Shared Object)

Additionally, the following features identified by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1996)  can be easily adjusted to MOOCs: Turn-taking with asynchronous discussion, comments and notification by peers, open learning environment for every student (i.e. less knowledgeable, younger students, with different abilities), provide different communication modes so that students can choose whether they want to include videos, audios and animation. Students require more time to reflect in a virtual learning environment than in a face-to-face situation. As a result, it is most vital to give them sufficient time for reflection periods.

Taking all the above mentioned factors into consideration, we feel that focusing on cultural psychology is crucial, however, not enough. It is also essential to shed light on cultural differences per se, because learning in MOOCs seems to deal with students from different cultural backgrounds. As Kuzulin puts it "Each culture has its own set of psychological tools and situations in which these tools are appropriated" (Kuzulin, 2003 p. 16). In line with his statement we strongly feel the need for tailor-made MOOC solutions instead of a global stream-lining.

For these purposes, we seek to add an additional form of MOOC to the MOOCversity, one that we call the European tailor-made MOOC, in short eMOOC. This new form of MOOC places particular emphasis on knowledge creation around a shared object, transforming social practices during learning by providing culture-sensitive material. Those objects and practices are in line with the tradition of cultural psychology given that cultural dynamics constantly trigger social practices, and as a result, permanently change the social setting. Look at Table 1 for relevant factors regarding the learning approaches mentioned above.





Learning Metaphor

Knowledge Acquisition

Knowledge Participation

Knowledge Creation

Learning Approach



Constructivism and  Cultural Psychology


Concepts, Facts


Shared Objects, Mediated Artificats

Learning Environment

Video Lecture

Grading, Discussion Boards

Video Lecture

incl. Web 2.0 i.e. Blogs, Microblogs; Social Media

Diversified and customized learning material;

Culture-sensitive content



epistological culture, in a technical tradition (ICT, mathematics)

more pedagogically driven, in the tradition of the e-learning community


epistologically diverse, both pedagogically and culturally driven, based on psychological theories

low-context and high-context

Table 1: Overview of the MOOCversity

Understanding Cultural Differences

General Reflection on Interface Culture and MOOC

The concept of culture traditionally referred to people living in "other places"; however, in contemporary expressions such as youth culture, gay culture, pop culture the principle of differentiation has shifted entirely to the notion of different "kinds of people" (Goddard, 2005, p 58). This standpoint sheds a different light on cultural concepts altogether, leaving the question open whether one might also talk of a MOOC culture and if so, how such a cultural conceptualisation looks like.

Against this background, and despite the lack of substantial treatment of cultural issues in the MOOC literature, there is a general intention of spreading the Anglo-American MOOC concept within Europe, often, as it seems to us, in an unreflected way in terms of socio-cultural needs of the target groups. With this being said, it may contribute to a reflection process within Europe of whether it might be advisable to look at MOOCs in terms of socio-cultural considerations as well or whether a general differentiation between the MOOC types might suffice.

General Differences in Cultural Behavior

Academic literature in the field of cultural studies identied a range of cultural dimensions, standards and behavioral patterns that are of utmost importance to today`s understanding of how cultural diversity comes about and why internalised frames of reference need to be reflected, filtered or shifted in order to work effectively within cross-border teams (For a general overview of cultural dimensions and standards see Hofstede, 1991, Hall, 1969; Hall 1984; Trompennaars and Hampton-Turner; 1998, House, 1999; Thomas, 2005).

The rationale for this paper, among other things, has been to identify those dimensions that might be of crucial relevance for a successful implementation of the MOOC concept within Europe and a wide-spread acceptance within this particularly diversified setting.

In exploring cultural dimensions and standards of perceived importance for our research, we were drawing on different frameworks so as to ensure a varied picture.

Crucial Cultural Concepts

US-Americans versus Europeans

At first glance one might think there are no or only minor cultural differences between US-Americans and Europeans. Such a perception might be even more true given the globalization efforts we are facing today where cultural fluidities are on the daily agenda. The Western world- as it is frequently referred to- as a clear dichotomy between western and eastern perspectives- is often considered as a monolithic unit, integrally connected and thus seems to comprise Europe and the USA alike.

  1. Individualism versus Collectivism

The first dimensions worth drawing upon is the individualism versus collectivism pattern identified by the Dutch researcher Hofstede (1991). He states that "Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family.

Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onward are integrated into strong and cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetimes continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty" (p.76).

US-Americans are per se most individualistic and "highly mobile geographically, socially, and economically and by necessity have developed strategies for interacting with strangers" (Hall, 1990, p 37). This melting pot society where already young children are socialised with a highly individualist mindset seems to be unitied by this common feature that acts like an invisible glue.

In contrast, the European mindset is much more diversified, where collectivistic communities play a crucial role in the Mediterranean area as much as in many parts of Eastern Europe.

Community building, in-group feelings and social networks are critical factors that might-if ignored-lead to a lack of acceptance of whatever concept to be introduced. If we are to frame the Anglo-American MOOC concept in this context and shed a light on it from a collectivistic perspective, there seems to be ample room for reconsideration and improvement.

2) High Context versus Low-Context

Context is generally defined by the information that surrounds an event. A high context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part in the message. A low context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e; the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code (Hall, 1984). Cultures that have extensive information networks and are engaged in close personal relationships are per definition high-context cultures.

Low-context cultures include US-Americans and some European countries (Germany, the Scandinavian cluster), however, vast parts of Europe are high in context and therefore seem to need a different information flow and learning concept. As a rule, high context people are apt to become impatient and irrated if provided with too much information (Hall, 1990, p 9).

Taking as a base understanding that MOOCs -as they exist today -are predominantly conceptualized by low-context people that disregard specific requirements embraced by high-context cultures, there is a need for action. On the basis of these considerations, we feel it is of paramount importance to incorporate views that represent high-context values.

3) Considerations of Space

Visible boundaries are always surrounded by invisible ones, the ones that are crucial when it comes to defining one`s personal space or territory. This invisible personal bubble is clearly defined by culture, be it because it communicates power, a compartmental mindset or a strong territorial sense or because it expresses proximity or a longing for intimacy.

With the rapid spread of the Internet and the shift of identities involved, also the notion of space has to be re-evaluated. Digital space, by some refered to as social space "to denote the people populating a space (currently or over some time period) and the practices and procedures that these people use" (Rudström et al, 2005), shifts previously relatively static boundaries and bubbles and as such challenges the notion of space altogether.

Reflection and Discussion

Despite the huge number of MOOC providers, it seems to us that most countries seek to copy mainly the xMOOC or cMOOC concept from America.

In line with our arguments we feel that an additional form of MOOCs, namely the eMOOCs generate added value to the MOOCversity in general, and the European landscape in particular. By adding culture-sensitive factors and focusing on a trialogical learning approach, we seek to bring together ethnical, professional and learning cultures under a single umbrella.

In this context, we consider it vital not to give any preferance or priority to any form of the MOOCs described. Instead, different MOOCs offer both advantages and disadvantages. The xMOOcs in line with the behaviorstic tradition have the potential to present learning material for beginners and can be used as tutorials for learners who want to repeat certain topics or get further explanation from a different point of view. They mainly encourage the users to "lean back" and passively receive input from experts without taking any active participation. From a cultural perspective such an approach facilitates collectivistic cultures as the activities within this form of MOOC are highly face saving. In contrast to individualistic cultures where people are culturally socialized in a way that losing one`s face (be it during individual tutoring, question-answer sessions at school..) is a previously learned pattern most Westerners can cope with. Stepping out of one`s collectivistic comfort zone is a face threating situation which might not be favored by communitarian societies. Therefore, the xMOOC concept seems to be most appropriate for those who shy away from pro-active and individualistic online-behavior.

The cMOOCs with their focus on collaborative work via Web 2.0 already seem to be more challenging for learners, because they require advanced skills with online tools such as blogs, microblogs and others. Participating in a cMOOC course means more active behavior and more proficiency with Web 2.0 tools i.e. set up posts in different tools, contribute to discussion etc. We strongly feel that the cMOOC concept is more compatible with individualistic cultures given the pro-active set of activities where one has to stand out from the crowd individually.

Due to the lack of a comprehensive model that bridges both approaches an additional form of a MOOC concept is introduced in this paper. The European MOOC, in short, eMOOC, combines cultural psychology with trialogical learning. Learning with eMOOCs means to collaboratively develop shared objects in a culturally-sensitive setting in line with the knowledge building and knowledge creation tradition. Each learner in each learning setting brings their own cultural background, knowledge, socialization, social practices and ideas to each collaborative learning phase. As a result, those shared objects (practices, ideas, artefacts etc.) get transformed during the collaborative process.


Although this model of eMOOC is clearly work in progress, we feel that this approach might be a promising alley of research for the future. The focus on an additional MOOC concept has been guided by the researchers`desire to add and incorporate factors that have so far been side-lined by the existing MOOC forms to gain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of how a MOOCversity in future might look like.


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