What are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

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Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been one of the biggest educational technology stories of the past three years. What started as an experiment – when Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig put their artificial intelligence course online for anyone to take -- has turned into a major revolution, both in education and in corporate training.

There are now thousands of MOOCs available on topics ranging from public speaking to advanced physics. MOOCs are offered by hundreds of universities and other organizations around the world, including Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, and millions of students participate in the courses.

But despite their widespread popularity among people in the know, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding MOOCs. This post attempts to clear up that confusion by answering the question:

What is a MOOC?

MOOC stands for massive open online course, a description that is pretty spot on. Let’s look at each of those words individually to gain a greater understanding of what they mean in this context:

  • Massive. A MOOC is called massive because it is scalable in terms of the number of students who can take the course. Some MOOCs have garnered enrollments of 100,000 students or more. However, this term doesn’t mean that there has to be a huge number of students, merely that there can be. Some MOOCs have 2,000 students, some have 20,000, and some have significantly more than that. The key point is that there is no upper limit on the number of students – anyone who wants to can sign up and take the course.
  • Open. This is probably the least well-understood term of the four, and that is because it is used in two distinct ways. Some consider open to mean that the courses don’t require any prior knowledge or qualifications, for example, a person with no previous experience in physics could sign up to take an advance physics MOOC. Others consider open to mean “free,” as in, the courses are available free of charge. A better way to define open is that there are no barriers to taking the course. This definition encompasses both ideas: no knowledge/experience barriers and no financial barriers.
  • Online. This is the easiest term to understand. A MOOC takes place online, on digital platforms, using digital tools. Students login and learn via their computers, tablets, or smartphones. All content is delivered online (usually in the form of videos and readings) and all activities, exams, and discussions take place online. Some organizations have started incorporating MOOC materials and activities into offline learning experiences, but a defining element of MOOCs is that anyone with an Internet-connected device can take the courses, no matter where they are.
  • Course. Finally, a MOOC is a course. However, just like the open aspect, the term course isn’t as self-explanatory as it seems at first. The digital environment has greatly expanded the idea of what a course can be. Some MOOCs look and feel very much like regular online courses – they have defined schedules, and students login to a platform called a learning management system (LMS) to access the content and participate in the activities. Other MOOCs look much less like regular courses – many are self-scheduled, and some don’t rely on an LMS at all, but rather take place in distributed locations across the web, using blogs, social media sites, virtual collaboration spaces, and other tools.

Perhaps the best way to understand what is a MOOC is to think about the courses not as a thing, but as an idea. In practice, a MOOC can be large or small; it can use a variety of digital technologies; it can be scheduled or self-paced. But the idea behind all massive open online courses is that they are learning experiences in which anyone can participate. When you think about it, that’s a pretty amazing idea.

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