What Exactly is a MOOC?

MOOC = Massive Open Online Course

By Pat Bowden, published May 16, 2017.

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course

Massive because enrolments are unlimited and can run into the hundreds of thousands;

Open because they are open to anyone who has access to the internet on a computer or mobile device;

Online because they are delivered via the internet, and

Course because they are of a finite length with learning materials and assessment items prepared before release of the course.

A MOOC is not simply a series of videos on a topic which you might find on YouTube. There is also the opportunity for assessment, and a certificate of achievement is usually available, often for a fee. Many MOOCs also provide online social contact through discussion boards and social media groups.

In the early days MOOCs were seen as a way to bring education to the uneducated and underprivileged world. With students from both developed and developing countries enrolling, this aim is being realised. Also, many MOOC students are already graduates looking to educate themselves in different fields.

Anyone with access to the internet via a computer or mobile device can join up, whether or not they have finished high school.  MOOCs have truly brought professors from many institutes into living rooms and coffee shops around the world. Some universities have seen MOOCs as an opportunity to raise their profile and attract more students to their campuses.

MOOCs are not only offered by educational institutions

Other entities such as The World Bank, and some professional organisations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), also offer MOOCs.

According to Wikipedia, the term MOOC was invented by David Cormier of Canada’s University of Prince Edward Island in 2008. The year 2012 marked an explosion in the availability of MOOCs and was termed by the New York Times “The year of the MOOC.”

How does a MOOC differ from a standard online university course offered by a university?

  • Student numbers are not limited in MOOCs. More than 100,000 students have enrolled for some MOOCs. Even though completion rates are much lower for MOOCs than in a bricks-and-mortar institution, the actual number of successful students is much higher. Many educators are delighted that the internet has allowed them to provide tuition to more students in one run of a course than they would have been able to reach during their entire face-to-face teaching careers.
  • There is no approval process for potential students. Anyone can enrol whatever their educational level. Someone without basic knowledge of computer science, for instance, may need to spend many more hours on a programming MOOC, but there are no rules saying they are not allowed to enrol. A standard university course may require students to provide proof of prior study in the field before accepting their enrolment.
  • Because of the large numbers of students in MOOCs, there is minimal contact between the instructor and individual students. Assessment is done either automatically by special software or by using fellow students (peers) to assess each other’s work.
  • MOOCs are self-contained, with videos, reading materials, activities, and useful websites available free of charge. No purchase of textbooks is required, although some MOOCs recommend optional texts.
  • There is no need to go to on-campus lectures, study groups or seminars. As well as eliminating transport costs, this is particularly useful for isolated students or those not in large cities. There are no living away from home costs. You can study at Yale from India or an island in the Pacific Ocean, as long as you can connect to the internet.
  • Many MOOCs are available through what are termed MOOC hubs, platforms, or Virtual Learning Environments. Universities and other institutions partner with the platform provider to make the MOOC available.
  • This facility of being able to learn from anywhere also means that the social aspects of being in a community of students and personal contact with the course staff are often missing while studying a MOOC.
  • Instead of the face-to-face interaction at an on-campus course, many MOOCs feature discussion boards or forums and social media contact as well as encouraging students to form their own local study groups.
  • With a MOOC, you don’t have to face bullies or time wasters in class, just ignore any online trolls. Because discussion boards are public, trolls are rare, can be reported easily and are usually dealt with quickly by course staff.
  • Some MOOCs charge a fee for a certificate although this is usually a nominal amount compared to the fee for an equivalent on-campus course.
  • Some MOOCs are self-paced, which is extremely rare for courses offered on-campus. Self-paced courses have their own challenges, particularly as most students have trouble with motivation when there are no deadlines looming.
  • One disadvantage of online learning is that practical work and experiments are often best learned “hands on” rather than via a computer. For instance, handling and testing real rocks can be a quicker and easier way to classify and identify them than looking at pictures and reading about their properties on a computer.
  • Students can choose when they want to study without having to fit their other commitments around a timetable. Instead, they schedule MOOC study around their other commitments. This is called asynchronous learning, when different students access the course materials at different times of the day or week. A physical classroom where everyone assembles to hear a lecture is termed synchronous learning. Synchronous learning also occurs when online students are required to connect to a course and join a chat group or stream a lecture live, without being able to view it at a later time.
  • Certificates in various narrow specialisations are also available through MOOCs, and it is now possible to get a formal MOOC postgraduate degree. A few universities will accept success in particular MOOCs as credit towards a degree. If you want to go down this path then it is vital to check beforehand that your preferred university recognises MOOC qualifications.

The world of MOOCs is constantly changing. Some platforms offer completely free courses, some have optional certificates for a cost and some will not allow you to access assessment items without paying a fee. There is discussion about whether a course that is only available for a cost is really a MOOC, or simply a course delivered via the internet. After all, the original definition of MOOC specifies that it is open to anyone with a device attached to the internet. The providers argue that the educational material (videos and readings) is still free, even though assessments and certificates cost money.

A Final Thought

When considering online study, think about your situation and decide whether a free course will be sufficient or whether paying money for certification is a better option for you.