A Massive open online course (MOOC) is a course where the participants are distributed and course materials also are dispersed across the web. This is possible only if the course is open, and works significantly better if the course is large. The course is not a gathering, but rather a way of connecting distributed instructors and learners across a common topic or field of discourse. MOOCs are a more recent form of online course development, departing from formats that rely on posted resources, Learning Management Systems, and structures that mix the LMS with more open web resources.
MOOCs are founded on the theory of connectivism and an open pedagogy based on networked learning. Typically, participation in a MOOC is free; however, some MOOCs may charge a fee in the form of tuition if the participant seeks some form of accreditation. Although the courses generally do not have specific requirements all MOOCs provide rough timelines in the form of weekly topics to focus discussion. The rest of the structure can be minimal – often consisting of a weekly presentation on the current topic, discussion questions, and suggested resources. In recognition that those attending a MOOC are expected to make the course their own, guidance tends to focus on allowing curriculum and structure to emerge from the exchange between participants. Posting in discussions, reflecting on topical ideas, and sharing resources using a variety of social media are at the core of the MOOC learning process.
While the history behind the physical establishment of Massive Open Online Courses is relatively shallow, the idea for such an educational outlet has a rather extensive background, one that in fact predates the Digital Age. Ideas for such an educational tool as the MOOC can be accurately traced as far back as the early 1960s. In 1962 American inventor and intellectual innovator Douglas Engelbart proposed a research agenda titled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework to the Stanford Research Institute in which he emphasizes the possibilities of utilizing the computer as a collaborative tool for intellectual accession. In this proposal, Engelbart advocates for the widespread personalization of computers and explains how the Personal Computer in coordination with an “interconnected network of computers” could potentially result in a massive, worldwide effect of information sharing. Since then many computer enthusiasts and educational revolutionaries such as Ivan Illich have produced numerous academic journals, manifestos and research proposals that advocate for openness in the educational process and for the use of computing technology into the learning process as a means of reforming a “broken educational system.” In one of Ivan Illich’s critical discourses entitled Deschooling Society(ca. 1971), Illich argues that our contemporary educational layout is intellectually stifling due to such forces as non-flexible curriculum and lecture style “learning”. In his critique, Illich mentions the idea of incorporating advanced technology into our school system so as to create what he labels, “decentralized learning webs.” Illich affirms that the establishment of such “learning webs” would in turn connect and involve more students in the learning process, thus creating a more efficient and engaging style of learning. Illich feels that overall “A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”
While a large number of educators felt that this particular stance on the learning process was overly radical, utopic and unachievable, there were many individuals who came to adopt and support the views of people like Illich. It was these individuals who would continue to propel this push for educational revolution forward. Although the concept behind MOOCs has a lengthy history, the actual idea and physical structure of a Massive Open Online Course is relatively new. The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in response to an open online course designed and lead by George Siemens, associate director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University and Stephen Downes, Senior Researcherat The National Research Council (Canada). The course was called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” and was presented to 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba in addition to 2,300 other students from the general public who took the online class free of charge. All course content was available through RSS feeds, and learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life, and synchronous online meetings. Since then a number of educators including Professor Jim Groom from The University of Mary Washington and Professor Michael Branson Smith of York College, City University of New York, have adopted this course structure and successfully hosted their own MOOCs through various universities across the globe.
Principles of MOOC organization
- The first principle is aggregation. The whole point of a MOOC is to provide a starting point for a massive amount of content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated as a newsletter or a web page accessible to participants on a regular basis. This is in contrast to traditional courses, where the content is prepared ahead of time.
- The second principle is remixing, that is, associating materials created within the course with each other and with materials elsewhere.
- The third principle is re-purposing of aggregated and remixed materials to suit goals of each participant.
- The fourth principle is feeding forward, that is, sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with other participants and the rest of the world.
An earlier list (2005) of Connectivist principles from Siemens also informs the pedagogy behind MOOCs:
- 1. Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
- 2. Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources.
- 3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- 4. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
- 5. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
- 6. Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
- 7. Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
- 8. Decision making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
MOOCs attract large numbers of participants, sometimes several thousands, most of whom participate peripherally (“lurk”). For example, the first MOOC in 2008 had 2200 registered members, of whom 150 were actively interacting at various times. Learners can control where, what, how, with whom they learn, but different learners choose to exercise more or less of that control. The goal is to re-define the very idea of a “course,” creating an open network of learners with emergent and shared content and interactions. A MOOC allows participants to form connections through autonomous, diverse, open, and interactive discourse.
Most MOOCs that have featured “Massive” participation have been courses emphasizing learning on the web. “Students” have been educators, business people, researchers and others interested in internet culture.
Principals of openness inform the creation, structure and operation of MOOCs. The extent to which practices of Open Design in educational technology are applied to a particular MOOC seem to vary with the planners involved. Research by Kop and Fournier  highlighted as major challenges for novice learners on MOOCs the lack of social presence and the high level of autonomy required to operate in such a learning environment. According to some comments in MOOC discussion forums, features that are normally associated with an educational activity can appear to be completely missing. Structure, direction, purpose seem sometime lost in the scattering of discussions and this messiness, although it also creates a buzz, can make following a line of discussion or creating meaning challenging.
Potential Benefits of MOOCs
There are many benefits to adopting MOOCs as a source for knowledge augmentation, among which include:
- Learning occurs in an informal setting/manner rather than in a classroom setting where a strict curriculum may be present.
- All work, thoughts and instruction can be shared, critiqued and viewed by all participants.
- All that is needed to participate is an internet connection.
- Students are often afforded a wide variety of assignments to choose from (In contrast with contemporary education systems which require all students to submit the same assignment at the same time.
- MOOCs are free for all who are interested.
- A MOOC can be established by educators at a low cost, using free tools to aid in constructing a course.
- Participants do not have to be enrolled in the institution which hosts the MOOC.
- Language barriers are not an issue due to the availability of website translation.
- A MOOC’s course flexibility allows for the student to “attend” when he/she has the time availability.
- MOOC’s allow for the connection across all professional disciplines as well as across corporation/institution boundaries as well.
- Direct immersion and engagement within the topic at hand.
- Digital skill development.
Potential Challenges of MOOCs
Because the whole concept behind Massive Open Online Courses is a relatively new one, there are also some potential challenges which students “enrolled” may face, among which include:
- The need for basic digital literacy.
- A feeling of confusion and disorientation for students who are used to strict, syllabus directed, lecture courses.
- The students’ need for self-regulation of learning.
- The possibility for the course to take on its own course direction due to the organic and free flowing nature of MOOCs.
- The potential for minor interaction with the course instructor (unless formally enrolled through the institution).
- The lack of in person, real world socializing, presenting and practical experience.
- The increased likelihood of academic dishonesty, particularly with online examinations, due to a lack of regulation and supervision.
- Technical difficulties associated with the complete reliance on computers and internet connectivity.
Examples of MOOCs
Academic Room - Over 1,000 full-length lecture videos of courses curated from Harvard, MIT, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Berkley, Duke and Carnegie Mellon, accompanied by course materials such as books, journal articles and syllabi for self-paced learning.
Crypt4you - Aula Virtual de Criptografía y Seguridad de la Información. Technical University of Madrid – Spain. First MOOC in Spanish. March 2012
- Week 1: Orientation
- Week 2: Connectivism
- Week 3: PLE
- Week 4: Transliteracy and Metaliteracy: Emerging Literacy Frameworks for Social Media
- Week 5: Synthesizing and Refining Creativity
- Week 6: Upshifting Innovation
- Week 7: CPS
- Week 8: Designing Online Immersive Environments for Higher Education: Current theories and practice
- Week 9: Global Communication
- Week 10: ds106
- Week 11: TIM Education Model
- Week 12: HP Catalyst
- Week 13: Diversity and Inclusiveness
EpCoPMOOC - e-Porfolio / Community of Practice MOOC! (August 2011) https://sites.google.com/site/eportfoliocommunity/epcop-mooc
MobiMOOC - Mobile Learning (Spring 2011)
- Week 1: Introduction to Learning and Knowledge Analytics
- Week 2: Rise of “Big Data” and Data Scientists
- Week 3: Semantic Web, Linked Data, & Intelligent Curriculum
- Week 4: Visualization: Tools for, and examples of, Analytics
- Week 5: Organizational implementation
- Week 6: What’s next for Learning & Knowledge Analytics?
EdFutures - Futures thinking in Education (Spring 2010)
PLENK 2010 - Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge (Fall 2010) Facilitated by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Rita Kop ”How this Course Works: PLENK2010 is an unusual course. It does not consist of a body of content you are supposed to remember. Rather, the learning in the course results from the activities you undertake, and will be different for each person.”
- A tour of PLEs and PLNs
- Contrasting PLEs with LMSs
- The neXt/eXtended Web
- PLE/PLN and learning theories
- Evaluating Learning in PLE/Ns
- Using PLEs successfully
- PLE/N Tools
- Personal knowledge management
- PLE/Ns in the classroom
- Critical perspectives on PLE/PLN
Connect! Your PLN Lab (Fall 2009)
Connectivism (Fall 2008) - the first MOOC (also offered Fall 2009 and 2011)
Taught by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, this MOOC had a for-credit component for a limited number of students through the University of Manitoba. The term “MOOC” was coined in association with this course offering.Participants were primarily adult, lifelong learners who were not inordinately concerned about course completion. Tools for this course included an instructor blog, Moodle forums, learner’s own blogs, and a weekly newsletter. Despite the establishment of their own learning tools to manage the course, many preferred the weekly newsletters offered by one of the instructors to active participation in the blogs and forums created for the class.
Topics from CCK11:
- Week 1: Connectivism?
- Week 2: Patterns
- Week 3: Knowledge
- Week 4: Unique?
- Week 5: Groups, Networks
- Week 6: PLENK
- Week 7: Adaptive Systems
- Week 8: Power & Authority
- Week 9: Openness
- Week 10: Net Pedagogy
- Week 11: Research & Analytics
- Week 12: Changing views
EC&I 831 - Social Media & Open Education (January 2008)
Taught by Alec Couros at the University of Regina, this open, graduate-level course was entitled Education, Curriculum, and Instruction (EC&I) 831: Open, Connected, Social. The pedagogy was based on an array of open theory from the social constructivism to connectivism. The primary tool was Wikispaces, and students work was assessed on “the development of a personal blog/digital portfolio, the collaborative development of an educational technology wiki resource, and the completion of a student-chosen, major digital project”.
INST 7150 - Intro to Open Education (August – December, 2007)
Taught by David Wiley of Utah State University, this was a graduate course in open education that was opened to participation by anyone around the world. What would otherwise have been a class of only five graduate students became a group of over 50 people in eight countries. The proto-MOOC had most of the characteristics associated with MOOCs today, and other features current MOOCs don’t incorporate. For example, the syllabus for the course resides in a publicly editable wiki. All courses readings are freely available on the public web. Students are encouraged to post their work on publicly readable blogs. Finally students are strongly encouraged to read, connect, and comment on one another’s work and other relevant materials.