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 18 March 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

A massive open online course (MOOC) is a free, web-based course specifically designed to support high numbers of learners who work online with their peers. Students enrolled in MOOCs are usually geographically-distributed (across North America but also globally) and complete activities asynchronously. Some activities include watching video lectures, reading materials and interacting in discussions. To test comprehension of concepts, some MOOCs require students to take online tests while others ask for written essays (which are then peer-reviewed). As of 2013, most MOOCs distribute certificates at the end to acknowledge completion of activities and quizzes (if there are any). Along with the current wave of e-learning changes fostered by MOOCs, many institutions and organizations are grappling with the implications of MOOCs such as accreditation, credentialing, quality standards, innovative assessments, learner motivation and attrition, among other concerns.

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 a negotiation of distance, flipped and blended learning, librarians can respond to MOOCs by offering online services such as email reference, discussion and research support.

MOOCs also give librarians new opportunities to help shape changes in higher education and a new way to guide administrators, faculty, and students through these changes. To assume new roles, librarians should take steps to understand the context for the rise of MOOCs. Numerous stakeholders will have an interest in the massive intellectual property that ultimately 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 those 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?

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 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 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.


  • While MOOCs are not widely known, some groups are offering mobile MOOCs called MobiMoocs which focus on mobile learning. These miniMOOCs provide a chance to learn about open courses, how to engaging participants and types of tech that work best online. MOOCs are still experimental but the format ensures educators try out new things pedagogically.
  • See MobiMooc wiki.

Medical MobiMooc

In the field of health and medicine, Drs. Caroline Park and Richard Kenny have partnered with a group for mobile clinical supervision and pedagogy. The areas being studied include:

  • feasibility of using mobile devices in hospitals, clinics and patient’s homes
  • ease of use of technology by nursing students and faculty
  • perceptions of usefulness of technology
  • modeling mobile technology in nursing education on the FRAME (framework for rational analysis of mobile education) model
  • A model of faculty supervision of nurses in clinical practice from a distance (indirect)
  • Returning pedagogy to the clinical practice via mobiile devices
  • Beginning investigation of Mobile Communities of Inquiry (CoI)
  • motivation to engage in mobile learning - self-efficacy
  • appropriate faculty-student interaction via mobile devices


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