Massive open online courses (MOOCs)

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Skills or competencies gained in a MOOC (See Kop, 2011)
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 14 October 2014


See also Academic capitalism | Digital classroom | Connectivism | Information technology topics | MMORPGs in Public Health‎ | Open access
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"...a MOOC is an example of rhizomatic learning, where students are expected to operate in a networked, open manner and offer peer-to-peer support ..." — Innovating Pedagogy

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are free, web-based courses that are specifically designed to support very high numbers of students who work closely with their peers online. MOOC students are usually geographically-distributed around the world and complete activities asynchronously. Typical activities in MOOCs include watching video lectures, reading materials and interacting in discussion groups. To test the comprehension of concepts, some instructors require their MOOC students to take online exams while others ask for essays (which are then peer-reviewed). At the end of a MOOC course, certificates are distributed to students to acknowledge their completion of activities and quizzes. The current wave of online learning has made MOOCs popular and many institutions of higher learning are debating the implications of MOOCs; these include discussions about accreditation, credentialing, quality standards, innovative assessments, learner motivation and attrition, among other concerns.

Characteristics of MOOCs

MOOCs are open to anyone, anywhere and allow people to interact with each other (including subject experts) in a content management system. There are no constraints on class size in MOOCs and "learning is built around learning communities & interaction, extending access beyond the bounds of time and space, but offering the promise of efficiency and widening access." In a 2013 University of Edinburgh MOOC (see #edcMOOC), some students completed the course while others withdrew (or did not complete the course). The term MOOCs was coined by Dave Cormier of the University of PEI in 2008 for a class taught by Siemens and Downes. Over time, through negotiation of distance, flipped and blended learning, librarians can respond to MOOCs by offering online services such as email reference, discussion and research support.

Librarians and MOOCs

For a general discussion of librarian involvement in MOOCs, see

MOOCs give librarians new opportunities to help shape the direction of higher education by being embedded with students and instructors in the online environment. To assume some of the newer roles related to MOOCs, academic librarians should take steps to understand the context for the popularity of MOOCs. Numerous stakeholders will have an interest in the massive intellectual property that resides in libraries' owned and licensed digital repositories. Studying and adopting technologies to manage and monitor MOOC usage of library resources will be essential in the control of and access to resources.

Networked, rhizomatic learning

MOOCs typically use networked learning methods but within a conventional structure of online courses. The first MOOC was delivered in 2008 and entitled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge which was a massive online event that invited learners from around the world to discuss a range of topics. Each week was facilitated by an expert on the topic, relying on learning networks to assist those learning the course concepts. George Siemens at Athabasca's Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute is known for developing a pedagogical model of networked learning called Connectivism. He and Stephen Downes pioneered massive open courses where students study in open and networked contexts.

For those in the health arena, the Health Informatics Forum Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is a course comprised of 16 components each with a number of narrated Flash lectures and a series of online class discussions. The course is completely free to access and but there are no certificates of completion. The course was developed by Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Oregon Health and Science University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Some researchers have used networked learning methods to collaborate and support research. An example of this philosophy is the Wikiversity page for Doctor of Philosophy which supports a group of learners pursuing a PhD informally, called an OpenPhD or Open and Networked PhD. Here, for example, are the instructions for the dissertation or thesis. To see some current blogposts related to MOOC matters, see eLearn Space and by Stephen Downes.

Challenges of MOOCs

  • Compliance and copyright issues are major challenges (see Thomson, 2013)
  • The global nature of MOOCs makes copyright difficult because copyright laws operate on the assumption that the university delivering the course is governed by the copyright of that country; MOOCs represent both challenges and opportunities for universities
  • MOOCs have potential but fail to offer a good educational experience due to their lack of personalization and low completion rates
  • three key elements for the democratizing education via MOOCs are accreditation, financial accessibility and pedagogies
  • reference support tools such as LibGuides can provide students with reference and research materials developed cooperatively by librarians
  • As MOOC Debate Simmers at San Jose State, American U. Calls a Halt. May 9, 2013

Who offers MOOCs?

The Canvas Network is "...a gathering place for open online courses, communities and collections that millions of people more will be able to use to meet their learning goals..."

A for-profit company founded by two computer-science professors from Stanford. The company’s model is to sign contracts with colleges that agree to use the platform to offer free courses and to get a percentage of revenues. More than a dozen institutions, including Princeton and the U. of Virginia, have joined.

A nonprofit effort run jointly by MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley. Leaders of the group say they intend to slowly add other university partners over time. edX plans to freely give away the software platform it is building to offer the free courses, so that anyone can use it to run MOOC’s.

A non-profit organization founded by MIT and Harvard graduate Salman Khan. Khan Academy began in 2006 as an online library of short instructional videos that Mr. Khan made for his cousins. The library—which has received financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, as well as from individuals—now hosts more than 3,000 videos on YouTube. Khan Academy does not provide content from universities, but it does offer automated practice exercises, and it recently debuted a curriculum of computer science courses. Much of the content is geared toward secondary-education students.

Another for-profit company founded by a Stanford computer-science professor. The company, which works with individual professors rather than institutions, has attracted a range of well-known scholars. Unlike other providers of MOOC’s, it has said it will focus all of its courses on computer science and related fields.

A for-profit platform that lets anyone set up a course. The company encourages its instructors to charge a small fee, with the revenue split between instructor and company. Authors themselves, more than a few of them with no academic affiliation, teach many of the courses.

The University of the People (UoPeople) is the world’s tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally.

Examples of MOOCs

Early examples of online courses using networked learning methods:

Key websites & journals

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011 is a massive open online course that explores the concepts of connectivism and connective knowledge in an open freely-accessible forum for learners, anywhere. It explores the application of these learning concepts as a framework for the theories of teaching and learning. Participation is open to everyone and there are no fees or subscriptions required. Howard Rheingold is influential in his views on the social impact of technology (see Smart Mobs). He discusses how social media is influencing learning interviews George Siemens about massive open online courses (MOOCs). Siemens explains what a MOOC is, how it works, and the educational philosophy behind it.


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