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What’s all this I hear about MOOCs?

September 23, 2012

MOOC is the acronym for “massive open online course.” Let’s break that down:

  • Massive – dozens, hundreds or even thousands of learners
  • Open – open resources, open discussion, open enrollment
  • Online – videos and social networking replace face-to-face classes
  • Course – structured learning, including start and finish dates

There is typically no charge to participate in a MOOC, nor are there prerequisites, but neither is formal credit offered. In reality, the definition of a MOOC is a moving target. One interpretation is given by MOOC pioneer Dave Cormier in the video below. Notice that Cormier states there are no assignments; I know of one very popular MOOC that has weekly assignments.

Quite a number of universities have sponsored MOOCs. Some courses have been one-offs, but other institutions have followed up with efforts to expand the reach of MOOCs. A notable example is Coursera, which was started by folks at Stanford and now includes Penn, Princeton, and thirty other institutions. MIT and Harvard began a related initiative called edX; Berkeley has joined and the group is looking to expand. At the pre-college level, Khan Academy started as a collection of tutorial videos, but seems to be evolving in a MOOC-ish direction with help from the Gates Foundation and others.


  1. Traditional online course – MOOC students don’t earn credit and there is little or no interaction with the professor
  2. Open Courseware – open content is provided for self-guided study, but OCW does not require interaction with other students.

In a MOOC there may be facilitators who keep watch over discussions and other tasks, but learners are usually expected to organize themselves and take initiative for discussing content with their peers. Some MOOCs include quizzes that give immediate feedback, but there are no grades. The Udacity MOOC site is something of an exception; its students have the option to visit a testing center to certify their skills. In the video below, Bill Gates discusses alternative ways to document skills.

While there may not be much consensus as to the definition of this beast, one thing is certain: MOOCs are all over the education press. Your school may already be involved!

MOOCS to explore

Further reading and viewing

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