What exactly is a MOOC?

A massive open online course (MOOC) is a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web. MOOCs are a recent development in the area of distance education, and a progression of the kind of open education ideals suggested by open educational resources.

Recent developments in technology for digital education and the rampant emergence of MOOCs are creating the perception of a game-changing, disruptive educational approach that has the potential to transform both access to education as well as the methods we teach our own students and the world.

MOOC Word Cloud

Though the design of and participation in a MOOC may be similar to college or university courses, MOOCs typically do not offer credits to paying students at schools. However, assessment of learning may be done for certification. MOOCs extend an institution’s reach by attaining thousands of students per course, which is achieved by reducing the amount of time the instructor spends with individual students.

Professors teaching MOOCs have gained both global recognition and dedicated followers of their work. The future success of MOOCs may influence significant changes in how higher education credentials are provided toward degree and certificate programs. For example, one institution has agreed to accept full transfer credit for students who complete a free introductory computer-science.

While there is no commonly accepted definition of a MOOC, two key features seem prevalent:

  • Open access. MOOC participants do not need to be a registered student in a school to "take" a MOOC, and are not required to pay a fee to participate in the course.
  • Scalability. Many traditional courses depend upon a small student-to-teacher ratio, but the "massive" in MOOC suggests that the course is designed to support an indefinite number of participants.


How do MOOCs work? 

The traditional online courses that most of us are familiar with operate on learning management systems like Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle, Sakai, etc. These systems work well for the purpose of organizing and delivering learning materials and activities in a closed, time-based environment. By its nature, the "open" online course would not work in a typical Blackboard environment because registered students are generally required to hold an institutional ID and password.

While the venue for MOOCs is continuing to evolve, the primary model at this time offers time-based (start and end on specific dates) or non-time based courses (start anytime) from a variety of institutions hosted on a 3rd party platform designed to manage large numbers of participants in a flexible open environment.  

The faculty and technology innovators who developed the first MOOC courses and platforms have launched profit and not-for-profit companies that are seeking universities to collaborate by offering courses on these new platforms. Examples of such providers like edX, Coursera and Udacity can be found on the MOOCs Resource Page.


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