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Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's)

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are educational “courses,” offered “online”, and historically taught by distinguished professors from well-known, highly respected universities.  They are “massive” because they can have hundreds to over 10,000 students in a single course.


MOOCs are “open” because they evolved from the 20th Century “Open Education Movement” (OEM).  The OEM sought to provide tuition-free classes to anyone who wanted to enroll.  It emphasized people sharing knowledge with one another, in an “open access” environment.


As the Internet evolved, the OEM moved online and, in 2008, the first MOOCs emerged to provide “unlimited learning opportunities” over the web.[1]   MOOCs offer an extraordinary range of courses on topics including the sciences, information technologies, business, humanities, languages, personal development and more.  For the first time, educators can deliver quality education, in an affordable, flexible manner, to many more students than they would normally reach in a lifetime.  For example, if a university has a Nobel laureate teaching, normally that person can teach only 20-30 students at a time or a few thousand in their lifetime.  MOOCs offer a much better use for such an incredible, rare resource.

[1] The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge or “CCK08”. CCK08 consisted of 25 tuition-paying students in Extended Education at the University of Manitoba, as well as over 2200 online students from the general public who paid nothing.  CCK08 was led by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council.

What are MOOC's?

Improvements to homeschooling are recent.

Within the last decade, social interaction is becoming more prevalent in areas that support home schooling, especially for kids who are special needs. Parents are no longer alone for seeking  solutions. Curriculum, feedback, favorite or highly rated classes help guide a parent who seeks supplemental classes for a challenged or gifted area of development or even taking on  homeschooling entirely.

It is easier to home school, tutor, or supplement than ever. Testing accommodates this demographic it’s appeal and ability to provide increasingly favors the wealthy rather than the rural and economically challenged.

One critical educational component MOOC can’t meet is physical education or PE. This stable requirement necessary for effective brain development  including handwriting and reading is not a requirement in all school districts today.

Homeschooling supportive environments provide multiple opportunities per week for a parent fit athletics into their schedule.

But it’s not subsidized like in the public school district.

What this means is that a performance sport like cheer-leading or soccer can be cost prohibitive especially to a large family household.

In 21st Century Education, if you have a child who is behind, advanced, or just bored, it’s easy to access content that’s applicable to their level of advancement or needing improvement to accelerate development or strengths.

We can also specify special topics in the home if we want our child to learn a specialized but relevant language like Chinese. That wasn’t available even 20 years ago.

Distance learning even supports special needs such as blind or deaf physical limitations. For example, now almost  all literature is available or can be easily converted into audio.

You can even find an excellent tutor to teach your child improvement in a subject – online. You can limit access on the computer or be in the same room to ensure a 30 minute allocation is devoted to a child tutorial time with rewards for improvement. Libraries use content tunnels to restrict computer access outside of approved content.

MOOC's Evolution

MOOCs’ unique approach to education has caused some people to call them the “greatest leap in education since the invention of the printing press,” and others to dismiss them as just another fad.

While over 6 million persons have taken these courses in a single decade, the future of MOOCs and their likely impact on 21st Century education remains unknown.

Following are eight observations that have evolved from the MOOCs’ history.  I invite you to make up your own mind about them and to share your experience with them.

  1. Types of MOOCs. MOOCs have historically been divided into two types:  cMOOCs and xMOOCs.

a. cMOOCs are the original MOOC model that emphasize “community, connections, creativity, and collaboration.” Students are organized into groups to collaborate on joint projects and, instead of using textbooks, cMOOCs rely on the students to pull together information on their own and then apply that information to the assigned problems.  cMOOCs are generally “self-paced,” with the participants able to set their own goals and finish assignments when they can.

b.  xMOOCs are structured more like traditional instructor-led university courses, with an established syllabus and firm start and end dates. The professors prerecord their lectures as videos that students can watch online when convenient for them.  The large number of students means that there is basically no faculty-student interaction.  To build community among the students, xMOOCs use social networking and discussion forums.  “Homework” assignments are usually peer-graded exercises and essays, and exams tend to be multiple choice graded by machines.


  1. Provide Options for Learning Goals, Styles and Schedules. The flexibility of both MOOC models makes them interesting to a wide range of students including those who: a) are interested in a subject and “just want to know more about it”, b) want to take a course from a specific professor or university, c) desire enhanced or accelerated curriculum in or out of the classroom – including professional advancement courses, c) are geographically located too far from an organized school to attend, d) are home-schooled, ill or others who do not or cannot attend an organized school, and/or e) have schedules or learning styles needing a more flexible approach to education.


  1. Completion Rates and Value. Both MOOC models typically provide a certificate to students upon successful completion of each course – but rarely school credit.  However, statistics show that fewer MOOC students complete the free courses than the students who pay for the courses and receive school credit or professional credentials — even if the tuition is under $100.


  1. One Student’s Experience. To explore the phenomenon of MOOCs, A. J. Jacobs, Journalist, Author, and an Editor-at-large at Esquire Magazine, registered for 11 MOOC classes, completed two, and wrote about his experience in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2013[1].  He rated his overall experience as a solid “B”.


Jacobs gave his highest rating (“A”) to the schedule flexibility — his ability to watch the classes’ videotaped lectures at any time. Concerning his professors, he rated them collectively as ‘”B+” noting that, despite “a couple of clunkers”, most were “A-list celebrity professors” and even “rock stars.”  However, he rated teacher-to-student interaction as a “D” since he had almost no contact with the professors. He stated that each course began with a warning to the students NOT to e-mail the professors, “friend” them on Facebook, or try to contact them via campus mail, phones, or office hours.

For student-to-student interaction, Jacobs gave a “B-“ rating noting the relative slowness of online conversations compared to personal conversations in a traditional class.   He found that the study groups didn’t meet, and most messages on the message boards were unhelpful.

Assignments also received “B-” since they included mainly essays and projects that were peer-graded, which Jacobs found painful.   He reported that exams were usually multiple-choice quizzes, that were either machine-graded or peer-graded. He found them stressful and the grading uneven.

This relatively positive review of MOOCs is supported by industry statistics that show that over 70% of students who take a first online course (free or not), return to take a second course, often paying for it.[2]


  1. Faculty Concerns/Lack of Rigor.  While I have never taught a MOOC, I have taught on-line university courses.  They are different, exciting, and raise some concerns for faculty.  For example, while many supporters hail MOOCs as an intriguing, low-cost alternative to traditional classes, others view MOOCs as lacking academic rigor because they are “nearly impossible to fail.”


  1. Participation. Second, as an online instructor, I know that active participation in class improves students’ experience and grades.  MOOCs try to supplement this with discussion forums, but students uniformly report that such forums are inadequate.


  1. Difficult to Assess. Third, the MOOCs’ use of group work, peer-graded exercises, and multiple-choice exams fails to provide a valid way for professors to assess the progress of individual students.


  1. Difficult to Monitor. Fourth, MOOCs are difficult to monitor.   Everyone knows that peer-grading is not likely to catch plagiarism in students’ essays, and students taking exams alone can easily “Google” the answers.  While software exists to check for plagiarism and companies provide online proctoring, with employees to watch students over a video feed while they take an exam, both can be expensive – especially if thousands of students are enrolled in a course.  The cost clashes with the objective of providing “free to low cost” educational opportunities.  Even if the students are not seeking “credit” for a course, educators are concerned that the structure of MOOCs may cause such behavior to become “the norm.”

MOOC Providers

The major MOOC providers operating today can be divided into two groups: the “non-profits” and the “for-profits.” While hundreds of MOOC providers exist, the largest are described below.

1. The “non-profits” include, but are not limited to: edX, Khan Academy, Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), Stanford Online, and the Pacific Open Learning Health Network (POLHN) – a division of the World Health Organization (

a. edX was founded in 2012 by MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley. Since then, the group has added numerous other U.S. and international universities as partners, and corporations and organizations as contributor members. edX charges a minimum required payment from course providers for use of its resources and course support. Most students pay only a small amount and financial aid is available. edX provides college and professional credit for its courses.

b. Khan Academy was founded by Salman Khan, an MIT and Harvard graduate. It began in 2006 when Mr. Khan made a series of short instructional videos for his cousins. He placed them in an online library where they could be viewed for free on YouTube. The videos were so good that various individuals, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Google, provided funding to create over 3,000 videos. Most of the content is geared toward high school students, but some universities find them of such high-quality that they have added automated practice exercises, and a curriculum of computer-science courses.

2. The “for-profits” include, but are not limited to: Coursera, Udacity and Udemy, ALISON (Ireland),, WizIQ, Canvas Network, Moodle/Eliademy, FutureLearn, OpenClassrooms, OpenLearning, Iversity, NovoEd, Coursmos, and Open2Study. These seek to ensure that the credentials they offer are genuinely useful to the students and most complete the courses.

a. Coursera was founded in 2012 by two computer-science professors from Stanford, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The company partners with multiple universities who agree to offer low-tuition courses over its platform and takes a percentage of the revenue generated. Courses are typically priced from $39 to $99 per month.

b. Udacity was founded by a Stanford computer-science professor to provide high-tech skills courses and certifications sponsored by employers who are seeking skilled employees and willing to pay to recruit talented students. Unlike other providers of MOOCs, it focuses all of its courses on computer science and related fields. To attract a range of well-known scholars, Udacity works with individual professors rather than universities. At the end of its courses, the company publishes student resumes and matches students with jobs.

c. Udemy offers over 65,000 online courses and encourages students to “Find the right instructor for you” and “Learn on your schedule.” It charges a small fee for each course and splits the revenue between the instructor and the company. At Udemy, anyone can set up a course, using the company’s online course creation tools, and many instructors have no academic affiliation.

Future of MOOC

MOOCs are extremely popular and growing – yet still have concerns to overcome.  They are evolving and the following items indicate the directions they are expected to take in the future.

  1. Smaller Classes. The proliferation of MOOC courses likely will fragment student volumes, reducing the size of “massive” in each class to more manageable numbers.  Some universities believe that scaling down the size of the classes and increasing the number of instructor assistants will provide a better experience and individualized feedback to students.


  1. More “For Pay” Courses. In the future, most MOOCs likely will no longer be free, but rather will charge either just enough to cover expenses or full tuition.  This is in part because funding has moved elsewhere and in part because experience has shown that completion rates increase when students contribute something.


  1. More “For Credit” Classes. While not all students desire credit for their online coursework, the American Council on Education (ACE) recommended, in February 2013, that its members provide credit for some MOOC courses. [1]  However, 60% of the universities’ faculty, including universities who deliver MOOCs, voted not to adopt the ACE’s recommendation because of the concerns noted above.   The faculty state that if schools are going to provide degree credit for MOOCs, the online courses must ensure that their academic standards align with the academic standards established for most university and professional development instruction.


  1. More Variations for Credit. Among the universities that do provide degree credit, several models are evolving.  First, some universities combine online classes with local face-to-face course meetings.  Second, others allow students to complete much of their coursework via MOOC and then finish the degree on campus.  Third, others focus on competency in the students’ majors, allowing students to complete required courses, that are not in their major, via MOOCs.  With each option, it is hoped that the students can control costs, work on a more flexible schedule, and still demonstrate competency with the material.


  1. More Professional Development Courses. MOOCs are already very popular with both employers and those seeking career opportunities and advancement.  Both employers and professional associations use MOOCs to provide updated training for their existing staff or to find talented new hires.  They increasingly offer financial support to make MOOCs more available.


  1. More International Courses. MOOCs are already popular around the world because of the preference for education from U.S. universities.  But increasingly, classes will be developed in other countries to address the specific issues faced in those countries.


  1. More Sophisticated Course Development and User Experience. Historically, online courses required a steep learning curve for the professors developing them.  However, new editing software, delivery platforms, devices, and media are emerging that make this process much easier and provide greatly improved images, animation, and administration.  These will facilitate the delivery of more affordable, accessible and effective content.   Students no longer accept “talking heads” on screen, outdated videos, or unreadable PowerPoint slides.  They are greatly impacted by TED talks and also demand elegant, easy-to-navigate courses with mobile access capabilities.  This is the direction new MOOC offerings will provide.


While some people think MOOCs are a passing fad and others call them a revolution changing education in the 21st Century, nearly anyone who has watched an instructional video on YouTube understands that online education, including MOOCs, are here to stay.  That said, MOOCs will still need to overcome a number of challenges – evolving in several ways.

Overall, MOOCs connect learners with amazing instructors and provide the opportunity for students to earn credentials from some of the world’s best universities.   The movement has the capacity to democratize education and to change the lives of millions of people.  Keep your Internet links revved!  It will be fun to watch what happens to MOOCs and where they will lead us.

[1] Jacobs, A.J., “Two Cheers for Web U!”, New York Times, Sunday Review Opinion Page, Aril 21, 2013.

[2] Lewin, Tamar, Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit. 23 January 2013.

[3] Lewin, Tamar, Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit. 23 January 2013.

[4] Korn, Melissa, “Big MOOC Coursera Moves Closer to Academic Acceptance,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7, 2013.

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