massive open online course

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have become a significant force in modern education, providing accessible and flexible learning opportunities to people around the world. As the name suggests, MOOCs are characterized by their scale, accessibility, and online nature. In this article, we will explore the three key characteristics that define MOOCs and explain why they have gained such prominence in the field of education.

1. Massive Scale

The first and most prominent characteristic of MOOCs is their massive scale. Unlike traditional classroom-based courses, MOOCs can accommodate an exceptionally large number of learners. This scalability is made possible by leveraging technology and the internet to deliver course content to a global audience. MOOCs can attract tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of participants, making them a powerful tool for reaching a diverse and geographically dispersed learner base. This scale is a defining feature of MOOCs, enabling them to democratize education and provide opportunities to people who might not have access to traditional educational institutions.

2. Open Access

The second characteristic of MOOCs is their open access. MOOCs are designed to be accessible to anyone with an internet connection. They are typically free of charge, although some platforms offer paid options with additional features or certificates. This open access model is a fundamental departure from the traditional educational system, where admission to educational institutions often involves rigorous selection processes, high tuition fees, and geographic constraints. MOOCs break down these barriers, allowing individuals from various backgrounds and locations to engage with high-quality educational content. Open access is not just about affordability but also about inclusivity and accessibility.

3. Online Delivery

The third key characteristic of MOOCs is their online delivery. MOOCs are entirely web-based, with all course materials, lectures, assessments, and discussions taking place in a virtual environment. This online delivery offers learners the flexibility to study at their own pace and on their own schedule, which is especially valuable for working professionals, parents, or anyone with time constraints. It also allows for a wide range of multimedia content, interactive elements, and peer-to-peer collaboration, enhancing the learning experience. The online nature of MOOCs has proven particularly advantageous during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic when traditional educational institutions faced challenges in delivering in-person classes.

What are the Four Characteristics of Massive Open Online Courses?

In addition to the three primary characteristics mentioned above, MOOCs exhibit four additional defining features that shape the way they operate and differentiate them from traditional courses. These characteristics encompass self-paced learning, diverse course offerings, various assessment methods, and often, the absence of formal credit.

1. Self-Paced Learning

One of the key features of MOOCs is the flexibility they offer in terms of pacing. Learners in MOOCs can often progress through course content at their own speed, completing assignments and assessments on a schedule that suits their individual needs. This adaptability is particularly beneficial for students with varied learning styles, commitments, and abilities. It empowers learners to control their own educational journey, promoting a more personalized and effective learning experience.

2. Diverse Course Offerings

MOOCs are known for their vast and diverse array of course offerings. They cover an extensive range of subjects, from computer science and business to art and philosophy. This diversity allows learners to explore a broad spectrum of topics, often with no prerequisites required. MOOC platforms collaborate with universities and institutions from around the world to provide access to a wide variety of academic disciplines, helping to meet the diverse educational needs and interests of a global audience.

3. Various Assessment Methods

MOOCs often employ a range of assessment methods, including quizzes, assignments, peer grading, and discussion forum participation. These varied assessment techniques accommodate different learning preferences and objectives. Learners can choose courses that align with their preferred evaluation methods and explore different ways of demonstrating their knowledge and skills. The use of peer grading, in particular, fosters collaborative learning and exposes students to diverse perspectives and feedback.

4. No Formal Credit

While MOOCs offer certificates of completion or achievement for a fee, they generally do not provide formal academic credit. This is a significant distinction from traditional courses offered by accredited institutions, which may lead to degrees or diplomas. However, the lack of formal credit doesn’t diminish the value of MOOCs. Many learners take MOOCs for personal or professional development rather than for formal credentials, and employers often recognize the skills and knowledge gained through MOOCs.

What are the Two Main Types of MOOCs?

MOOCs come in two primary formats, which differ in their approach to content delivery, interaction, and learning objectives. These two main types of MOOCs are cMOOCs (Connectivist MOOCs) and xMOOCs (Extension MOOCs).

1. cMOOCs (Connectivist MOOCs)

Connectivist MOOCs, often referred to as cMOOCs, are rooted in the principles of connectivism, a learning theory that emphasizes the importance of connections, networks, and the capacity to acquire and use knowledge through those connections. In cMOOCs, the emphasis is not solely on content delivery but on creating a networked learning environment. Key characteristics of cMOOCs include:

  • Connectivity: Learners are encouraged to connect with one another, share knowledge, and create a networked learning community.
  • User-Generated Content: Participants often contribute to the content and direction of the course, and learning is collaborative and emergent.
  • Informal Assessment: cMOOCs often lack formal assessments or grades, focusing instead on the process of learning and community-building.
  • Diverse Resources: Content is not limited to traditional lectures; cMOOCs may incorporate a wide range of resources, such as blog posts, discussions, and multimedia.

2. xMOOCs (Extension MOOCs)

Extension MOOCs, or xMOOCs, are a more structured and traditional approach to online education. They are typically associated with well-known educational institutions and are characterized by a more formal and content-driven style of teaching. Key characteristics of xMOOCs include:

  • Structured Content: xMOOCs often follow a traditional course structure, with lectures, assignments, quizzes, and a specific timeline.
  • Formal Assessment: Assessment methods are more formal, often including graded quizzes, assignments, and final exams.
  • Large Enrollment: xMOOCs tend to attract a massive number of participants and are often associated with universities and institutions.
  • **Certification: xMOOCs typically offer certificates of completion or achievement, which may have value in the job market or as proof of skill acquisition.

Both cMOOCs and xMOOCs have their unique strengths and appeal to different types of learners. cMOOCs emphasize networked and social learning, while xMOOCs offer a more structured and content-focused educational experience.

What are the Four Quadrants of MOOCs?

MOOCs can be categorized into four distinct quadrants based on two key attributes: the degree of openness and the structure of the course. These quadrants help illustrate the wide variety of MOOCs available and how they can differ significantly in terms of their educational approach.

1. Traditional MOOCs

Traditional MOOCs are characterized by a structured format and limited openness. These MOOCs are typically offered by well-established universities and educational institutions and follow a fixed schedule. Key features of Traditional MOOCs include:

  • High Structure: These MOOCs often follow a rigid course structure with set timelines for lectures, assignments, and exams.
  • Limited Openness: While they are accessible to a global audience, they may have prerequisites or restrictions on enrollment.
  • Formal Certification: Traditional MOOCs usually offer certificates upon successful completion, which may have value in the job market or for academic credit.
  • Strong Institutional Involvement: Universities and institutions play a central role in designing and delivering the content.

2. Emergent MOOCs

Emergent MOOCs are characterized by a structured format but a high degree of openness. They are designed to be more participatory and allow learners to shape the course content and direction. Key features of Emergent MOOCs include:

  • Structured Format: Like Traditional MOOCs, they follow a course structure with lectures and assignments, but they allow for more flexibility.
  • High Openness: These MOOCs often have fewer restrictions on enrollment and encourage participation from a global community.
  • User-Generated Content: Learners may contribute to the content, discussions, and activities, making the learning experience more dynamic.
  • Informal Assessment: The focus is on learning and collaboration, and formal assessment is often limited.

3. Minicourses

Minicourses are characterized by a lack of structure and limited openness. They are shorter, self-contained courses that may not have a fixed schedule. Key features of Minicourses include:

  • Lack of Structure: These MOOCs do not follow a traditional course format and may lack defined timelines.
  • Limited Openness: They may have prerequisites or restrictions on enrollment, making them less open to the global community.
  • Focused Topics: Minicourses often concentrate on specific topics or skills, providing targeted learning experiences.
  • Variable Certification: While some Minicourses offer certificates, others may not provide any formal recognition.

4. Networked MOOCs

Networked MOOCs combine a high degree of openness with a lack of structure. They emphasize networked learning, collaboration, and knowledge creation among participants. Key features of Networked MOOCs include:

  • High Openness: These MOOCs are open to a global audience without many enrollment restrictions.
  • Lack of Structure: They do not follow a traditional course format with set timelines for assignments and assessments.
  • User-Generated Content: Learners actively contribute to the course content and shape the direction of the MOOC.
  • Informal Assessment: Assessment is often informal, with a focus on the process of learning and community-building.

In summary, the four quadrants of MOOCs provide a framework for understanding the diverse landscape of massive open online courses. This framework helps learners and educators identify the type of MOOC that aligns with their preferences and learning goals, ranging from highly structured Traditional MOOCs to more open and emergent Networked MOOCs.

In conclusion, Massive Open Online Courses have revolutionized education by offering massive scale, open access, and online delivery. They come in various formats, including cMOOCs and xMOOCs, each catering to different learning preferences. Additionally, MOOCs can be categorized into four quadrants based on their degree of openness and course structure. Whether you’re seeking a structured, certificate-driven learning experience or a more open and collaborative approach, MOOCs have something to offer, making them a significant force in modern education.

A massive open online course (MOOC) is a free web-based distance learning program that is designed for large numbers of geographically dispersed students. 

A MOOC may be patterned on a college or university course or be less structured. Although they do not always offer academic credits, these courses may offer a certification, enhance employment opportunities or further studies. Typically, MOOCs are used for higher education and career advancement. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, many public school districts and undergraduate degree programs have implemented MOOCs as the new standard. 

How do MOOCs work?

MOOCs are online courses that a student accesses through the internet. Typically, these courses consist of traditional class materials made accessible online, which may include the following: 

  • filmed or recorded video lectures;
  • readings;
  • problem sets;
  • online quizzes and examinations;
  • interactive learning modules; and
  • interaction with other students via forums.

Typically, each MOOC will include a course provider and a course platform. A course provider is often a university, which supplies the course materials and instructors. The platform — such as EdX, Canvas, Coursera or Udacity — provides the technological infrastructure for course modules, user access and other learning resources.

Finding MOOCs

Providers of MOOCs are mostly universities but may also be corporate entities. Top educational institutions and universities, such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford, are leading providers of online courses. Corporations such as Microsoft and Accenture also provide publicly available online courses. When searching for a MOOC to take, it is important to make sure that the course aligns with the student’s education and career goals.

MOOC costs, enrollment and pacing

How much do MOOCs cost? Costs can range significantly both in price and structure. Many MOOCs are completely free, whereas online degree programs that contain a bundle of courses can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Enrollment and pacing. This generally varies by the type of course or program. For example, courses that are not for university credit are typically available to the general public. Enrollment for online degree programs, however, often requires a traditional admissions process. Courses offered for university credit and as part of online degrees generally tend to follow a traditional semester schedule, while certification MOOCs may be self-paced or follow an abridged schedule, sometimes only taking eight weeks to complete.

Courses that require live attendance and adherence to a course schedule are called synchronous courses, whereas flexible, self-paced courses are called asynchronous courses.

table comparing synchronous and asynchronous learning
Comparing synchronous and asynchronous learning

Credentials and MOOC-based degrees

MOOCs can also be used for continuing education certifications and degree programs. MOOC certification levels typically fall into the following six general categories:

  • Free. These courses are completely free, but usually only to audit. However, students still have the option to pay for an official certificate of completion at the end of the course.
  • Certificates. Certificates for completing individual courses range from about $20 at the lower end, to around $300, with the average being between $50 to $100.
  • Micro credential. Micro credential programs typically consist of three to six courses. According to EdX, a popular platform for MOOCs, the median price for micro credential programs is $946. Typically, they are narrow in focus and provide a specific skill or competency.
  • University credit. Courses in this tier are university accredited and comparable to online courses at institutions that provide degrees. Individual courses at this level can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
  • Online degree. Online degree programs are equivalent to master’s or continuing education degree programs at universities and offer comparable volume and depth of coursework. Online degree programs generally follow a traditional application and admissions process and range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Corporate training. Corporate training MOOCs are deployed on an enterprise level. This pricing option is typically structured as a per-user cost for access.

Benefits of MOOCs

The widespread adoption and use of online courses provides the following benefits:

  • No physical location dependence. This can improve collaboration efforts and save time by eliminating a student’s daily commute. Online education also enables social distancing.
  • Improved access to higher education. Not only is this a function of convenience, but access to high-quality education in developing countries can ultimately increase quality of life and contribute to sustainable development efforts by providing a high-quality, accessible learning infrastructure.
  • Affordability of higher education. Scalability makes these types of courses more cost-effective than in-person courses of comparable scope.
  • Flexible learning schedule. Many courses are self-paced, which can accommodate student work schedules. Even if course completion is not self-paced, as with online degree programs, prerecorded lectures can offer more flexibility on a daily and weekly basis.

Drawbacks of MOOCs

Though MOOCs have numerous benefits, there are the following associated drawbacks:

  • Flexibility can make the course more difficult to manage, as some students require the structure of in-person learning.
  • A University of Texas study of online course completion rates found that MOOC completion rates are just 6.8%, significantly lower than in-person courses. Students may not feel as committed to attend a free online course as they would an in-person course that requires tuition.
  • Instructors are less accessible.
  • Digital literacy is required for effective use.
  • Students are less likely to form relationships with instructors and other students.
  • Students with visual or auditory disabilities may not be accommodated.
  • Courses require strong internet connections, which can be an issue in developing countries and underprivileged communities.
  • When searching for the right course, large amounts of similar courses for saturated areas, such as computer science, may lead to a paradox of choice.

Popular MOOCs

Thousands of MOOCs are available online, but many are offered on popular platforms, and by institutions that have invested in making their courses accessible online. The following are several popular professional education MOOCs by subject:

Example MOOC course structure

MOOC courses typically follow a general structure. Though the coursework and progression is the same as with regular in-person classes, courses are typically organized into modules. A module contains a lesson or a unit for a class. Each module typically includes a combination of lectures, readings, interactive graphics and diagrams, problem sets and a quiz or test at the end. A typical module might include a course syllabus, assigned readings, video lectures, a problem set and a quiz that is automatically graded once it is submitted.

Module length and depth varies by course. Some courses may require a larger time commitment per week and move through a large amount of content at a fast pace. Others may only require a few hours a week and be more self-paced.

History of MOOCs

The word was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier, from the University of Prince Edward Island, for an online course offered by the University of Manitoba, “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.” There were 25 tuition-paying students from the university and 2,300 non-paying students from the general public who took the course online. There were RSS feeds for material and participation was facilitated through a variety of venues, including the Moodle learning management system, blog posts, the Second Life online virtual world and real-time online meetings.

In 2011, MIT OpenCourseWare became the first large collections of MOOC resources made available by a university. In 2012, MIT and Harvard spearheaded the EdX initiative for the promotion of MOOCs. 

The acronym is pronounced with a long oo sound, to rhyme with kook rather than book. The Oxford Dictionaries Online added “mooc” in August 2013.

As technology jobs have grown in demand, online courses have grown in popularity as a means for students to gain technical skills. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, MOOCs are being implemented as the new standard of education at all levels — from elementary education through undergraduate degree programs as part of remote learning plans.

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