A brief overview of MOOCs


“What is new is not true, and what is true is not new”. Hans Eysenck on Freudianism


The saying well describes the nature of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which is the heated topic of numerous discussions in the field of education and technology. Despite being formed years ago, apparently, it has only gained significant public attention since last year and become the buzzword of this year (Daniel, 2012). The emerging nature of this new phenomenon has so far been generating remarkable efforts both in its conceptualization and application (Friend, 2012). 


What are MOOCs?


MOOCs is an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses. The term refers to classes (courses) that use e-platforms (online) and can be freely accessed (including tools, educational assets and all generated content under licenses permitting reusing and sharing) (open) by a high number of participants (massive) regardless of location, backgrounds, or previous experiences. Generally, they are the gatherings of people willing to jointly exchange knowledge and experiences related to a particular topic for each of them to build upon (de Waard, 2008). More specific description of MOOCs is illustrated in the diagram Massive Open Online Courses by Mak (2012e)


Nevertheless, Wiley (2012) notes that some MOOCs do not follow all of the points in the acronym by pointing at Udacity’s MOOCs (not open), Learning and Knowledge Analytics 2011 (not massive), Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 (not courses) as examples and concludes that “almost every so-called MOOC violates at least one letter in the acronym” (Wiley, 2012, para. 3). This might explain Watters’ (2012a) criticism of the term "MOOC" as a failure of acronyms when questioning the meanings of each element of MOOCs. According to her, it is hard to define what could be considered as “Massive” means and there is no specific standard to refer to as “massive”. And yet, massiveness does not always nor necessary lend itself to participation of this sort. “Open” is also open to various interpretations such as open enrolment, openly licensed content, open-source technology platforms, open-ended classes, open transparency on the university (or startup) offering it to communicate their mission and trajectory. Most of the time, it is misunderstood as merely free while the key pedagogical value in openness is the possibility to create a dialogic learning community. “Online” is what sets MOOC apart from traditional classrooms but there are also offline versions of the official, for-credit courses on campus (for example, DS106) or informal study groups. The word seems to be a misnomer as some believe that learning is what happens online why in fact, a successful MOOC is a hybrid course that confronts individuals online but engages them in their real world. Finally, C in MOOC should not merely stand for “Course” but imply connection, connectivism, community, credit, and/or certificate, which might be defined by organizers and/or participants in shaping their MOOCs. To maximize the potential of MOOCs, they should not be restricted to the concept of a course. 


For those reasons, while MOOCs are mostly used, other acronyms are offered. Holton’s (2012) suggests MOOLE, Massive Open Online Learning Environment and points to MMORPG, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, as an alternative to how MOOCs can be framed.


To date, no single definition of MOOCs has been widely accepted; however, two common characteristics of openness and scalability seem to be consistently agreed upon. First, neither registration nor fee is required for attending MOOCs. Second, unlike traditional courses depending on a small ratio of students to teacher, MOOCs are designed to support an indefinite number of participants. 


How have MOOCs evolved and developed?


The concept of free education can be traced back to Socrates, who refused payment for his instruction. In fact, the analog version of massively open courses (MOCs) such as those by Foucault, have been around since the late 18th century (Stewart, 2012; Davidson, 2012b). The following century experienced a MOC strong movement and there have been a number of variations throughout the 20th century (Davidson, 2012b). Nonetheless, the term MOOCs, seen as the modern or present digital version of distance education (Stewart, 2012; Davidson, 2012b), was only coined by Cormier and Alexander (Siemens, 2012d) in the context of a course of that genre called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” (CCK08) by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, which is regarded as the watershed moment for MOOCs (Downes, 2012b). This explains the common belief that MOOCs derived from within the open educational resources movement and connectivist roots (Conole, 2012a). More recent development of MOOCs has resulted in a new generation of xMOOCs, which have been credited for earning enormous momentum led by elite universities, and unique relationships and affiliations, notably Coursera, edX, and Udacity. These xMOOCs supported by such big names as Standford, Havard, MIT have attracted spotlights from mass media; and hence, dominate the mainstream narrative surrounding MOOCs. This rising phenomenon is explained by Schroeder’s  (2012) argument of the rationales for xMOOCs.  In his opinion, the maturing growth of the Internet, the recession in the past a few years, and the rate of recent increase in college tuition and related fees have led to the development and demand of such xMOOCs (Schroeder, 2012).































     What is a MOOC by Forsythe (2012a)



The MOOC! the movie by Forsythe (2012c)


The following diagram by Hill (2012) offers a short timeline of MOOC development and distinction:


What are cMOOCs and xMOOCs?


Though sharing similar features of openly availability to a large population of participants with an Internet connection, taking the advantage of distributed networks to reflect changing educational practice (Siemens, 2012d), cMOOCs and xMOOCs are two distinct MOOC genres. The first version, known as connectivist MOOCs or cMOOCs, heavily reliant on social media and syndication to decentralize the learning process, emphasize on social learning and participation wherein students are considered as equal contributors to the learning experience. On the contrary, the latter version of MOOCs, with the “x” (extension) adapted from MITx or EDx (Davidson, 2012b), position the instructor as the major source of expertise with a main focus on knowledge mastery Roscaria (2012). In this sense, xMOOCs, which primarily rely on the “talking heads” or "the sage on the stage" with the main aim to deliver content, are likely to replicate the conventional teaching experience and are comparable to a modern version of traditional online course; and thus, could hardly be seen as equal to an educational paradigm shift (Davidson, 2012a; Vaidhyanathan, 2012). Notwithstanding, cMOOCs go beyond knowledge provision to enable the paradigm shift to happen through the pattern of communication that is multi-directional rather than one-directional.


In terms of instructional design approach, both types of MOOCs require a model that facilitates large-scale feedback and interaction. cMOOCs utilise the community for peer-review or group discussion as source of feedback and interaction by leveraging the network whilst xMOOCs tend to employ automated grading and feedback tools to check students’ understanding (Carson, 2012; Lugton, 2012a). Theoretical links associated to each type of MOOCs will be further discussed in the following section.


In short, cMOOCs highlight knowledge creation and generation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning whereas xMOOCs embrace a more traditional learning approach focusing on knowledge duplication through video presentations and short quizzes and tests (Siemens, 2012). A more distinctions between these two different formats of MOOCs are detailed in Siemens’ (2012b) presentation.


Beside the widely accepted way to mainstream MOOCs into cMOOCs and xMOOCs, a different classification system proposed by Lane (2012) suggest three kinds as bellows:


Another interesting and critical classification of MOOCs  as “open in door” and “open in heart” is put forward by Kernohan (2012). As Lugton (2012a) reminds, “it may be too early to adopt such a rigid classification system that distinguishes between xMOOCs and cMOOCs” (para. 8) for the unpredicted and ever-changing nature of online education.  


What do MOOCs do?


Like any other medium, a MOOC can be well or poorly done. In Davidson’s (2012a) words, “some online learning is so smart, really brilliantly researched and designed. Some stinks” (para. 6).  Hence, it is worth discussing what MOOCs are capable of, whether good, bad, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, or some combination thereof.


MOOCs offer free education for the public through websites where a course or a number of courses are made available and accessible to a wide range of people. Typically, in a MOOC, students can watch video lectures and/or read suggested documents, share their thoughts and ideas, and complete assignments individually or collaboratively, which can be either graded by machines or evaluated by their peers. As such, MOOCs allow the participants and organizers to modify the information provided according to their needs and to construct their own ideas (de Waard, 2008). Also, MOOC takers can decide where, what, how, with whom they learn, and the degree of control varies among learners.


However, what cMOOCs and xMOOCs do is considerably different. The connectivist ones utilize the latest Internet technologies to the learning process with the ultimate goal of creating an open network of learners as environment for the practice of learning and reflection with emergent and shared content and interactions (Downes, 2012a). Perhaps, this is best expressed by a MOOC founder:


What we are trying to do with a MOOC is to create an environment where people who are more advanced reasoners, thinkers, motivators, arguers, and educators can practice their skills in a public way by interacting with each other. In such an environment, people can learn by watching and joining in (Downes, 2012a, para. 19).


In other words, cMOOCs enable participants to form connections through autonomous, diverse, open, and interactive discourse (Kop & Fournier, 2010). On the other hand, xMOOCs use similar technologies to widely broadcast educational content as an alternative form for distance learning (Davidson, 2012a). 


What do MOOCs not do?


Despite different features MOOCs may have, a typical MOOC does not offer credits awarded to participants though their learning may be assessed for certification (Hobbes, 2012; Lugton, 2012a)


N.B.: To have a quick and clear idea of MOOCs, look at this great video by Cormier (2010c):




What is the future of MOOCs?


While a growing number of educational organizations, especially such prestigious universities as Standford, Havard, MIT, seeing huge potential of MOOCs, are increasing their investment into this playground, it is hard to foresee how MOOCs will be like tomorrow as they are still in their infancy (Hobbes, 2012). However, Mak (2012b) envisions the future of MOOCs by drawing the pattern, shown in the figure below, out of this current trend and predicts that “disruptive innovations (MOOCs) would soon out-perform the higher education institutions in a number of respects, especially in terms of the number of registrations of the students to MOOCs on a global basis, the attraction of global learners to those higher education institutions, and the branding in an international market, in the adoption of innovations in education and online education” (para. 7).

     The future of MOOC by Mak (2012b)


Mak (2012b) also implies the fading future of MOOCs as he refers to the product life cycle. Nevetheless, it still is too soon to conclude that MOOCs will be future form of education (particularly higher and further education). And yet, the rapid development of today technology allows higher expectation of MOOC future. As D’Antoni, S. (2008) reports, participants “wish to develop together a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity” and “hope that this open resource for the future mobilizes the whole of the worldwide community of educators”(p. 7).


--> Examples of MOOCs