What Is A MOOC? Why Should You Care?

mooc In January 2013, the Babson Survey Research Group, partnering with Pearson, the Sloan Consortium, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, published their 10th annual survey of online education in Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States (We do have a university license for the Sloan-C website where this article can be referenced, but you will be required to create your own userid/password). One of the key areas the report focused on was MOOCs, their current prevalence, expected growth, institutional plans, and reasons to use them.  But before we explore those issues, it would be helpful to understand what a MOOC is.

 Massive Open Online Course (MOOC – rhymes with Luke) is a term first hinted at in an article Views: Does Class Size Matter? by Daniel W. Barwick in late 2007.  The basic premise of his argument was that reduction in achievement of learning outcomes does not necessarily correlate with an increase in larger class sizes. MOOCs are exactly what the terms mean – they are typically extremely large or massive (many times in the thousands of students) online courses that are open to virtually anyone with an internet connection.  They are normally non-credit courses, although there has been a recent trend towards offering a limited number of them for college credit. Some of the leaders in offering MOOCs include Stanford, MIT, Duke, Brown, and Princeton. Current data suggest, however, there is still doubt on the part of many academic leaders of the feasibility and sustainability of such a model.


And why should I care?

  • First, it is important to understand what is happening in the realm of higher education and the varied delivery methods that are being considered, experimented with, and used.  With the advent of many emerging technologies, e.g., mobile, game-based, augmented reality, and gesture-based, it is imperative as educators to understand what paradigms our students may have been exposed to.
  • Second, in the battle to attract more and better prepared students, MOOCs can be used to attract potential students. A significant minority of chief academic officers (43.5%) believes this to be the case, if for no other reason than the exposure a prospective student would get to the university.
  • Finally, many believe that MOOCs may be a very useful tool in determining if online instruction is appropriate for a student.  There is a misconception by many students as to the work involved in taking an online course and many are not given the tools they need to appropriately handle this different delivery method. A MOOC – a non-threatening and typically non-credit course – would give the student a window into the realm of online learning, the advantages, disadvantages, and the required resources of taking a course in this fashion.

 In a recent Time magazine article (Oct 18, 2012), a poignant story is told of a young Pakistani girl who had enrolled in a physics MOOC attended by 23,000 students from 125 countries.  Due to a political situation, however, her country shut down access to YouTube, a resource that held many short video clips used in the course both for content and assessments. When the shutdown occurred, she was on question #6 of her final exam. Within hours, several of her classmates from around the world helped her find ways around the problem allowing her to complete the test. Although one of the most significant and ironic complaints about MOOCs is the isolationist “feel” that accompanies being in a class with thousands of students, in this case her classmates actually rallied to her side in a show of support.

 Recently two of us at the Delphi Center enrolled in a MOOC to experience first-hand the pros and cons. With 40,000 other students, we began our adventure innocently enough following the prescribed directions.  Within the first hour or so, it became apparent that there were some significant problems with the course structure, and within a few days, the course was actually shut down.  Ironically enough the name of the course was “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.”  For more on this story, see Georgia Tech and Coursera Try to Recover From MOOC Stumble.

For further reading, please consider these articles from Educause, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle, and The New York Times.

 For a nice overview of MOOCs, please see this brief, 3-page pdf from Educause.

To learn how the advent of online teaching and more specifically MOOCs are helping faculty revisit their teaching methods, see the following article from Inside HigherEd.

In a concise article, The Chronicle outlines the essentials of MOOCs but more importantly identifies the key players (companies or organizations) in this movement.

In a November 2012 article from The New York Times, reporter Laura Pappano gives a very detailed look at MOOCs and argues that 2012 was “the year of the MOOC.”

In this balanced article from The Chronicle, a more cautious view of MOOCs is encouraged noting both reasons for its growing popularity and reasons to “remain calm.”

For a very pro-MOOC article by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, see

For a rebuttal of Friedman’s pro-MOOC view, see Dr. Rebecca Shuman’s Chronicle article

11 thoughts on “What Is A MOOC? Why Should You Care?

  1. MOOCs have been all the rage of late. With proper moderation and automated assessments, I could see some even meriting credit. My own experience in large lecture hall face-to-face classes as a student (oh so many years ago!) left me feeling cold and impersonal about my school. If we are going to use MOOCs to attract students, they had better do a better job than that. Some of the best examples certainly seem to have created an engaging experience for the students, even if not from direct contact with the instructors. Perhaps, the presence of MOOCs will push us to create better experiences for our students here on campus. We’ll have to be able to differentiate the benefits our students are receiving over just sitting in on a variety of MOOCs. If we can’t do that, maybe we really are vulnerable to the disruptive change Christensen has been talking about…

  2. Ok, so I just read Shuman’s piece about “oligarchy” and I’m still smarting from the online attacks post the Steubenville Rape Case (see http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/03/19/174728448/two-steubenville-girls-arrested-after-allegedly-threatening-rape-victim) so I’m not sure where I stand on the freedom of knowledge and the capacity for deep, meaningful learning to happen in MOOC’s – I guess I’m not sure if there’s enough quality control in the content, delivery, and learning that actually happens in open learning online – at present… will continue to read these links and articles to gain some more perspective

  3. I remember students at Delphi U citing isolation as a minus in online classes, and I’m kind of interested in seeing how a class of 23,000 could build community. I can see it happening – but you would almost need to create an environment in which students were sub categorized in groups. With that in mind you might get creative and create Harry Potter-esque “house of _____” groups. If they felt they were in teams it might help create a sense of belonging.

  4. Someone who left a comment about the Shuman article claimed that Friedman, Sandel, and Khan “advance the argument that universities and MOOC’s are mutually exclusive learning environments” wherein “the MOOC must be the victorious learning environment that leaves all others in ruin.” I haven’t read enough to know whether the reader is accrately representing those overall perspectives, but I can say that the notion that these environments are not mutually exclusive did strike a chord for me. MOOCs are an opportunity, like many others we’ve discussed, to enhance what’s happening in the traditional classroom and to make learning more accessible to a wider audience. I’ve searched Khan Academy (and YouTube) for a quick how-to or clarification, and my own conversations with students and colleagues reveal that regardless of the topic (personal and professional) with increasing frequency these videos are used as resources for our learning. That said, I can’t see MOOCs effectively replacing the university— for traditional students, learning and development happen as the curriculum and co-curriculum intersect in meaningful (and sometimes not so “meaningful”) ways. Even as quality online learning becomes more prevalent and perhaps grows its market share, I believe there will always be a market for the quality face-to-face learning on campus.

  5. I think the discussion here is amazing! I look forward to even more responses. MOOCs, like so many other tools or concepts, have both pros and cons. It’ll be the careful and thoughtful responsibility of each institution to determine its usefulness and/or its appropriateness. My suspicion is that there will be institutions that are birthed from this tool and who will offer it exclusively while there will be others who completely shy away from it. The bottom-line, in my opinion, lies somewhere in-between. Besides some of the challenges that you mention Christy, there’s also the very practical challenge of finding an appropriate financial model. With state and federal budget cuts occuring every year, we simply can’t continue riding on the backs of our students (UK just announced a few days ago another 3% tuition hike). How all of this plays out will be interesting to watch.

  6. What I think is interesting is that there are two different kinds of MOOCs – the connectivist MOOC (“cMOOC”) and the “xMOOC,” which is more like what Coursera and MITx are, etc. The cMOOC is built on the connectivist learning theory of George Siemens and Stephen Downes (listen to a short interview with George Siemens and the Chronicle from fall 2011, right before the hype: http://chronicle.com/blogs/techtherapy/2011/10/06/episode-88-why-universities-should-experiment-with-massive-open-courses/).

    From Inside Higher Ed:

    “Highly social in format, these courses [cMOOCs] tend to be experimental, non-linear, and deeply dialogic and participatory. Contributions from participants frequently direct the course of discussion, and the connections and ideas built between learners can be considered as valuable as the knowledge expounded by the facilitator.

    On the other hand, the MOOC models offered by the big universities tend towards formalized curricula, content delivery, and verification of completed learning objectives.

    Far more embedded in traditional paradigms of knowledge and teaching, these courses only harness the connectivity of social media insofar as they enable masses of people to link themselves to the prestige of a big-name institution. They offer discussion boards, but their purpose is content-focused, not connection-focused.”

    Read more at Inside Higher Ed: http://bit.ly/J7uwOh.

    I am not faculty so not sure how instructors here feel about these two apparently different formats, but it’s definitely information for a lively conversation.

    • Hi Kristen,

      Thank you for the wonderful distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. I believe many faculty strive for connections among classmates to build a positive learning environment, as described by your quote about cMOOCs. I know that is a cornerstone of how I design my online courses, which ideally I would limit to 20 students so that they remain engaged and do not feel overwhelmed by the number of replies they read for their weekly discussion assignments.

      Connection-focused and content-focused course design is a great distinction, and I agree that both are useful.

  7. A couple of thoughts as someone who has tried to take a MOOC and relevant to some of the comments above, especially the issue of discussion quality! Last semester, I enrolled in Harvard’s xED course on epidemiology. I seriously underestimated the amount of time that would be necessary for the course, which had a text, manuscripts posted each week, and problem sets in statistics each week- easily 10-15 hours per week. I was a dropout by the end of the first month! This has made me very cautious about trying again as being a drop out is not part of my self image.

    Perhaps more problematic, however, was the level of discussion among my “classmates” (about 7,000 or so individuals scattered literally around the world). One problem was simply language- the course was given in English and the discussions/posts were in English, but of wildly varying English competence. This often made it difficult to understand the posts, let alone have a coherent, critical thinking type of discussion. The second problem was not language specific, but rather of a very general nature- the comments often varied from the banal to the rude. Truly, some of the discussion comments were so superficial, self-centered, and unrelated to the actual content that it was shocking. Apparently, this tendency for discussions to get “derailed” is fairly common as evidenced by the recent request from another Harvard xEd course to get volunteers who had taken the course on campus to serve as moderators of the MOOC discussion [see: http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/harvard-asks-alumni-for-help-with-humanities-mooc?cid=pm&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en This will be a very interesting experiment and critical, I think, for the success of MOOCs.

    All of that written, I’m eager to try again. My wife is taking an xED course on “justice” (ethics, philosophy combo) which she is thoroughly enjoying. The lectures (some of which I’ve watched) are well-crafted, engaging, and designed to move students from simple to complex concepts over the course- reading is minimal. However, once again discussions have been surprisingly poor— indeed, poor enough so that by the third week of the class, TAs had been assigned to post comments about how to discuss and what to discuss, as well as to monitor the discussions and jump in as facilitators. I suspect the MOOC is turning into far more work for the organizers than they ever expected. It would be very informative to hear from the organizers of some of these early MOOCs about their experiences.

    My impression so far- MOOCs are great for self-motivated folks to try something exciting and different, even if they end up as drop outs! However, as a legitimate vehicle for education (at least as we generally think of education today), there are major problems to be tackled. If, as some are starting to suggest, MOOCs become a source of courses for which colleges/universities give credit, I think we are on a slippery slope of complete devaluation of education. MOOCs look like they provide a cost-efficient way of providing courses for financially strapped institutions, but I think in their current form would only provide the appearance of education, not the substance of education.

    Steve, be careful what you ask for :)

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed your comments Rich! You pointed out several of the flaws with MOOCs as they are currently being delivered — the retention issue, the lack of meaningful discussions, and the possible devaluation of higher education. All are of the utmost concern. I think they have quite a ways to go before they become a viable option for the delivery of education. It’s my hope that as more vested parties become involved it’ll become a place for richer and more meaningful engagement. It seems that what’s lacking in some of this (and subsequently the ‘failure’ of some of these courses) is that the use of technology is not being effectively deployed. One can’t simply throw out a discussion board without proper rubrics or expectations and then be surprised by the lack of depth by the respondents. Likewise, one can’t simply use limited engagement techniques (such as a discussion board only), and expect retention rates to remain high. It seems to me there needs to be a think-tank or at least some concerted effort to build rich courses with solid content, effective means of engagement, techniques to facilitate critical thinking, and a ‘real’ effort at making this not a sandbox for the adventurous but rather a virtual place for active learning. It’ll be interesting to watch how this evolves. Thanks again for your comments Rich. It’s always good to hear from someone who has actually experienced this first-hand.

    • Steve,

      Perhaps one of the issues is the sheer number of students allowed in any given course. “Open” doesn’t have to be equated with “unlimited”. Virtually everyone with whom I’ve talked about DE agrees that enrollment must be capped. This obviously protects the sanity of the instructor, but also improves the odds that discussion can be meaningful and amenable to instructor intervention and guidance. There are no data to my knowledge that suggest that massive numbers of people can ever engage in critical thinking discourse in person, let alone online. In fact, most of the social psychology literature of which I’m aware documents that as crowd size increases, individual responsibility to the group decreases. If this is equally applicable to “education crowds”, we are faced with an interesting conundrum: how to open courses to increasingly large numbers of students (per class), while counteracting the social deterioration of individual responsibility to the common good (meaningful discussion in the case of MOOCs).

  9. Thanks again Rich. One of the issues I’ve had in teaching online is exactly as you’ve described — another university that I teach for on occasion will NOT cap the course, so I’ve had 40+ students (not a MOOC by any stretch), which is very, very difficult not only to manage but to keep students engaged. I’m not familiar with the literature but from first-hand experience, I have seen that the larger the class size, indeed, the less engagement occurs. A lack of ‘ownership’ pervades and unless one-on-one exchanges occur, then the student distances him/herself. That’s why I’ve argued for capping class sizes — here at U of L, I’ve been fortunate that our chair will cap the size to 20. I think that’s one reason MOOCs currently have such a poor retention rate — it’s easy to slip away unnoticed. It will be very interesting to see where this road leads us.

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