What is a MOOC?

Chapter One

Massive Open Online Courses, or as they are more commonly known ‘MOOCs’, are large scale content driven entities delivered online, usually in a structured format over a set number of weeks, with the number of weeks varying greatly between courses.

‘Massive’ refers to the number of participants – much like the number of weeks, this varies between MOOCs but typically each course engages 1,000 to upwards of 200,000 participants. Each course is designed to be scalable for numbers of learners not before possible in a traditional classroom setting. This design is also crucial to course success – with content being accessed by tens if not hundreds of thousands of learners at any given time, not only must the infrastructure supporting the course be able to deal with demands of high-load, the activities themselves must also be sensitive to the needs of multiple simultaneous users (See “Why Online Courses Fail” , “… Laughably Awry” or an example of student insights from Debbie Morrison)

‘Open’ can have a number of meanings, dependent on the course structure intended, but typically denotes one of two concepts: entry requirements and copyright. At present, the application of ‘open entry’ remains consistent across all MOOCs – there are no minimum pre-requisites for course engagement, so sign-up is available to anyone interested in the course. This also links to the massive component, whereby MOOCs have no upper limit imposed on the number of participants able to engage with any given session – however, it is possible to close a course for further sign-up once the course is live, which can be important for group or peer assignment constraints.

The other interpretation of ‘open’ refers to the physical accessibility of course materials, e.g. online creative commons resources. Not all participants have access to Higher Education resources such as journals, and as a result the MOOC designer/educator must not just consider which resources are best for content delivery but also which are suitable for MOOC engagement methods – open access journals are the preferred option, although it has been known for MOOCs to be structured around a particular book that is not freely accessible and thus participants are strongly recommended to purchase the book, which impacts the outreach potential of the courses. Furthermore, the activities if utilising tools outwith a specific MOOC VLE, must also be sensitive to international participant restrictions, e.g. YouTube is not accessible in all countries, further highlighting the need for audience awareness.

What open is not is free – although it is typical for MOOCs to be freely accessible and thus free to enrol and engage with the content, many developers are considering monetisation strategies, e.g. paid-for certificates, where other MOOC providers require paid-for enrolment.

‘Online’ denotes the method of course delivery. All activities on a MOOC are designed for online engagement, and this also applies to the reading content – although it is not uncommon in some of the more recent MOOCs for courses to suggest purchase of a reading material, it is largely frown upon if this can not also be accessed online, i.e. as an eBook.

‘Course’ is as it suggests – designed to be engaged with in a structured manner, varying on the type of MOOC designed, building a base of knowledge for the participant and often starting and finishing at a set time, over a prescribed time period.

The acronym ‘MOOC’ was coined in 2008; the term was first mentioned during an online course (CCK08) by two separate individuals, Bryan Alexander and Dave Cormier, who posted and discussed the concept as part of their course participation (de Waard, 2013). The CCK08 – Connectivism and Connected Knowledge 2008 – course was delivered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, the founders of connectivism; a pedagogical theory centred around successful learning through network building and connections (Siemens and Downes, 2008, 2009). This was the birth of the connectivist or c-MOOC.

2011 saw the emergence of a new type of MOOC design – the x-MOOC. The University of Stanford Artificial Intelligence course content, already publicly available through the University’s streaming service, was scaffolded into a course and publicised to the world for sign-up. The appetite from the public was overwhelming – over 160,000 individuals enrolled on the course, with over 20,000 completing all assignments set to gain a certificate. This sparked many top institutions world-wide to develop and deliver fully online courses, typically shorter than a semester (11-18 weeks) in length. This enthusiasm for online content creation triggered development of high-load bearing virtual learning environments: Coursera (Stanford), Udacity (Google), MITx and Edx – the latter from which, the x-MOOC takes its name.

xMOOCs follow a very traditional Higher Education structure, replicating the face-to-face ‘lecture, readings, discussion’ format in an online domain. In the beginning, this was as a result of their history – the video content was lecture capturing of in-person lectures, typically used as a student resource for revision purposes, with assessment based on scalable conversions from the course the MOOC mirrored. This design legacy perpetuates in many of the subsequent xMOOCs developed; replicating a familiar structure HE academics recognise but fully online. On the contrary, cMOOCs content was derived from those participating in the course – participant generated – and thus by definition created solely for and in response to the course, with content generated still accessible online after the course duration itself had elapsed.

Since 2011, a number of hybrid MOOCs have developed, utilising elements of both c- and x-MOOC structures as well as tools not typical to either. The E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, a course designed by the Digital Education team at the University of Edinburgh and delivered through the Coursera VLE platform, is one such example of an xMOOC platform being used for constructivist pedagogical methods – participants were encouraged to engage with various types of content and reflect on their learning through online networking tools, feeds of which were aggregated and utilised for further reflection by the participants within the course.

New examples of MOOC designs are developing all around the world and not just through higher education institutions – the function of the MOOC, rather than its origin, is emerging as the most important aspect, questioning the need for c- vs x- distinction, as Donald Clark highlights in his ‘Plan B’ blog. Clark identifies a taxonomy of 8 types of MOOC, though deemed neither an exclusive, nor static list, the summary highlights the importance of functionality and design based on audience need, rather than fixation on the ‘historical’ nature or institutional prestige associated with the course.

MOOCs, like other online technologies and tools, are affecting the scale and nature of information delivery and, as a result, are having an impact on educational contexts (Bouchard 2011). The extent of this impact is yet to be seen, given the infancy of these entities, yet the discussions triggered through development of open online content are suggesting the educational climate is currently responsive to questioning traditional practice and its applicability to and for the future.

These emerging phenomena resulted in a transformative educational paradigm… It is our belief that the MOOC format allows massive participation leading to the creation of possible educational futures.

de Waard et al (2011)


Bouchard, P. (2011). Network promises and their implications. In The Impact of Social Networks on Teaching and Learning [Online monograph]. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), 8(1), 288–302. Retrieved from http://rusc. uoc.edu/ojs/index.php/rusc/article/viewFile/v8n1-bouchard/v8n1-bouchard-eng

Clark, D. – Plan B blog entry “MOOCs: taxonomy of 8 types of MOOC”. http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/moocs-taxonomy-of-8-types-of-mooc.html

Oremus, W. (2013). Online Class on How To Teach Online Classes Goes Laughably Awry – online article. http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/02/05/mooc_meltdown_coursera_course_on_fundamentals_of_online_education_ends_in.html

Morris, S. and Stommel, J. (2013). “Why Online Courses Fail” – http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Why_Online_Programs_Fail.html

Morrison, D. (2013). Online Learning Insights blog entry “How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix it” – http://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/how-not-to-design-a-mooc-the-disaster-at-coursera-and-how-to-fix-it/

Siemens, G., and Downes, S. (2008, 2009). Connectivism and connected knowledge [Online Course]. Retrieved from http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/connectivism/

de Waard, I. (2013). MOOC Yourself – Set up your own MOOC for Business, Non-Profits, and Informal Communities. IgnatiaWebs: http://ignatiawebs.blogspot.ca/2013/04/my-ebook-on-mooc-and-how-to-set-up-mooc.html

de Waard, I., Abajian, S., Gallagher, M., Hogue, R., Keskin, N., Koutropoulos, A. and Rodriguez, O. (2011). Using mLearning and MOOCs to Understand Chaos, Emergence, and Complexity in Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, vol. 12 (7). Available online: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1046/2026



2 responses to “What is a MOOC?

  1. Pingback: Structure | Post-Human MOOCs·

  2. Pingback: A MOOC without Openness is a learning experience half lived | Post-Human MOOCs·

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