What is a MOOC?

Infographic outlining MOOCS

Infographic outlining MOOCs (Click picture  to enlarge)

This is part of a regular series of articles exploring some of the terms used in e-learning (view other articles in the series).  We’ll do our best to break down the jargon and explain what things are from a basic perspective.

MOOC‘ stands for ‘Massive Open Online Course‘ (Course here meaning the same thing as Module). The name encapsulates the key features of a MOOC:

  • Massive – There are often thousands of students  enrolled on a MOOC.
  • Open – They are free for anyone to enrol onto – though some offer university credit for a fee. There are also usually no knowledge or experience prerequisites other than an interest in the subject.
  • Online – Anyone with internet access can join in.
  • Course – They offer a structured learning experience, just like a traditional module.

There are two main types of MOOCs and they each take a different approach and make use of different types of materials:

  • xMOOCs – Most MOOCs follow this model with learners watching video lecturers, reading resources and taking traditional assessments and quizzes. They are lecturer-focused, closely model the traditional university experience and make use of consistent, high-quality materials. The main platforms for xMOOCs are provided by for-profit companies such as Coursera, Udacity and the non-profit edX.
  • cMOOCs – This is the original vision behind MOOCs. It aims to create a collaborative community of learners who find and create resources and share their knowledge and learning with each other. This is a student-focused approach with materials coming from across the web and the lecturer acting as a guide and moderator. In cMOOCs assessment is less rigid – some may not have any formal assessment at all – and is likely to be based around  peer review and active engagement with blogs and other informal tools.

MOOCs have become a regular topic in both the general and the education press, with opinions ranging from MOOCs being hailed as the saviour of universities through to them being a potential bubble with little lasting impact. This wide range of views reflects the newness of MOOCs – they’ve only started to become popular since mid-2012 – and the perspective of the commentator. The majority of news articles and commentators focus on the viability of (usually x-)MOOCs as a new revenue stream, with several different ways to ‘monetise’ the interest in these courses being suggested, including:

  • Charging for university credit
  • Marketing lecturers and existing programmes
  • Encouraging MOOC ‘graduates’ to start a full degree (sometimes by offering discounted fees)

MOOCs clearly have the potential to change the public’s view of Higher Education – if only by allowing more people to experience it as a ‘Widening Participation’ activity – however, the way in which they develop over the next few years will be critical in determining their long-term impact and could influence the general view of the purpose and format of education. If xMOOCs continue to dominate then the educational model of learners receiving knowledge from an expert with assessments confirming the accuracy with which it has been received will grow; whereas, if cMOOCs stage a comeback then it will likely lead to a view of education that is based on students learning collaboratively and building on their collective experience and knowledge to create new insights. Of course, these two scenarios assume that MOOCs will have a major impact – something that is unlikely to become clear for a few years.

briefing paper is available for Sheffield Hallam University staff and contains more information about MOOCs, including the possible impact on the institution. The Vice Chancellor published a blog post with his thoughts on MOOCs in September [SHU staff only].

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