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 2 October 2015


See also Academic capitalism | Digital classroom | Connectivism | Information technology topics | MMORPGs in Public Health‎ | Open access
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"...the next generation of MOOC research needs to adopt a wider range of research designs with greater attention to causal factors promoting student learning."Reich, 2015
"...the problem with MOOCs [is] they’re massive and open, meaning it can be easy to get lost in them. There are tens or even hundreds of thousands of students in some classes. Often, the students receive no personal acknowledgment or contact to hold them to account. And they can generally drop out the second they’re unhappy, frustrated or overwhelmed. The data suggest, in fact, that the students who succeed in the MOOC environment are those who don’t particularly need MOOCs in the first place: they are the self-motivated, self-directed, and independent individuals who would push to succeed anywhere. ..." — The New Yorker, 2014

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are completely "free to take" open web-based courses specifically designed to support hundreds (if not thousands) of students who learn online with others. Rather than attending live lectures, students watch lecture videos and take quizzes that test their comprehension of material. MOOC students are distributed globally and do activities with their online peers but asynchronously. Activities include: watching videos, reading papers and interacting in discussion groups. To test comprehension some instructors require completion of exams while others ask for essays (often not marked by instructors but peer-reviewed). Badges and certificates are issued for those who complete the course requirements. MOOCs are popular in higher education but some recent research suggests their popularity is waning (see "The MOOC Hype Fades" Chronicle of Higher Education, 2015.") Some institutions and universities are debating MOOCs and focus on problems with accreditation and credential issues, quality standards, assessment, learner motivation, attrition, among other problems.

According to Wikipedia, the MOOC Guide suggests a number of possible challenges for MOOCs:

  • Relying on user-generated content can create a chaotic learning environment
  • Digital literacy is necessary to make use of the online materials
  • The time and effort required from participants may exceed what students are willing to commit to a free online course
  • Once a course is released, content will be reshaped and reinterpreted by the massive student body, making the course trajectory difficult for instructors to control
  • Participants must self-regulate and set their own goals

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 University of Edinburgh MOOC (see #edcMOOC), some students completed the course while others withdrew (or did not complete the course). MOOCs, as a term, was coined by the Canadian educator Dave Cormier of the University of PEI for a class that was 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 Mune C. Massive Open Online Librarianship: emerging practices in response to MOOCs. J Libr Info Serv Dist Learn. 2015;9(1/2):89-100 and The reality is that 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

  • MOOCs are often touted as a way of teaching thousands of students at once, but the reality is that very few students registering for MOOCs complete them. MOOCs seem to be used to mine and repurpose content.
  • Some universities are rushing to join the MOOC world, but it appears that medical schools are being more cautious.
  • According to Subhi et al, 2014, "...the CanMEDS framework describes seven roles in postgraduate training, but training and courses relevant to these roles can be limited. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) - free online courses in which anyone can participate, anywhere - may improve course participation. This study investigates the relevance of MOOCs for postgraduate medical training within the CanMEDS framework. A large number of MOOCs are relevant for postgraduate medical training. A weekly workload of 4.5 hours may enable course participation even for busy clinicians..." Physicians should consider these free and universally available courses as relevant and potentially effective means of education.
  • Compliance and copyright issues are major challenges (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
  • There are many advantages to the MOOC model for online education. The inherent openness and user-friendliness of the format means that incredible educational resources are available to anyone with the time to devote to learning. MOOCs offer real opportunity to people without access to traditional education. However, there are still many issues that remain unresolved. (Hoy, 2014)

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.

Future Learn offers a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life. is a platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs offer unprecedented opportunities for students and professors alike. We believe that open courses can make a difference by enabling students from all over the world to take courses from professors all over the world. Conversely open courses enable professors to extend their reach by teaching tens of thousands of students worldwide.

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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