MOOCs: the What, the How, and the Why

This is my first blog on a topic that has become very much central to my interests in the field of technology enhanced learning, initially from an academic perspective and then from a professional one. Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.

Say “MOOC”… by Audrey Watters @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

Say “MOOC”… by Audrey Watters @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

Anyone with even a passing interest in e-learning should be familiar with the phenomenon of MOOCs by now, but in the next few blogs I’m going to discuss some aspects of them that may not be so familiar to all and detail the developments of MOOCs and open learning that have informed and influenced the decisions I’ve made in the development of my own MOOC

In this first blog on the subject, I’m going to discuss what a MOOC is, how MOOCs developed, and why……though not necessarily in that order.

Digitisation meets education

From a broader perspective, in light of the growing number of people studying and intending to study and the finite space available in traditional bricks and mortar educational establishments and increasing access to technology across the globe, the implementation of making education available online has been a topic of debate in both academic and business circles for some time.

School by CollegeDegrees360 @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

School by CollegeDegrees360 @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

Imagine your days in school or college, the endless photocopied handouts, the shelves and shelves of books in the library, the notebook you’d write your homework in before handing it in to be marked, the teacher’s lectures and question and answer sessions, and even the very building you were sat in. Now imagine whether or not all of those elements can be reproduced digitally.

Handouts – all documents can be downloaded or viewed via a central hub or disseminated by email

Books – all books that have been digitised can be downloaded as a pdf or in ebook form at the click of a button from your institution’s library or your course’s list of resources

Homework – assignments can be written at home as Word documents (amongst others) and uploaded to the appropriate course / school page or emailed to the relevant educator or administrator

Lectures – the information that is being covered in lectures can take many forms in digital media now such as Prezi presentations or animations or quite simply the physical lecture can be streamed or recorded on video to be viewed synchronously in real time or asynchronous at a later date respectively.

Q&As – the Internet offers a wealth of scenarios where people can share, discuss, debate, and collaborate. There are web forums, chat rooms, webinars, video conferencing software such as Skype or Google Hangouts.

The building – with all of the above, we can see that it is no longer a necessity to physically be in a place of learning. All one needs is a device such as a laptop or a tablet, and an Internet connection.

Cost and OER

As we have learnt in the much publicised areas of the pirating of music and film, once something is digitised, it can be reproduced and redistributed indefinitely for next to no cost. Again, imagine the costs of all of the elements you imagined in regards to your traditional school setting and then compare them with the costs of administrating all of their online counterparts. There is simply no comparison. Now of course, this can, has, and is continuing to have huge ramifications on the way education is organised and administered.

Nowadays, even students who attend traditional bricks and mortar institutions collect a lot of their work online before uploading assignments. Many schools and universities make previously recorded lectures available online for those who may have missed them or for students wishing to review them and digital versions of books and other resources are made available from their online libraries.

As we know, the Internet and this digitisation has made it possible for educational organisations to deliver full curricula online. Organisations such as the Open University who moved from distance learning into this medium now offer all manner of qualifications from foundation courses through to PhDs primarily via the Internet. I should know, I studied with them for six years and got both my First degree and my Masters in Online and Distance Education with them.

OERlogo-png by Jörg Lohrer @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

OERlogo-png by Jörg Lohrer @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

To fund the production of materials, the administration, and educational aspects of these online courses; fees are charged, albeit fees that are generally lower than those you might have to pay in traditional educational settings. However, in the 90s an educational movement arose as a result of the technological and educational developments of open and distance learning as well as the emergence of open source, peer sharing, and collaboration. That movement came to be known as Open Educational Resources, or OER.

In the spirit of openness I’m going to draw on Wikipedia, the online free source of information that has superceded those expensive sets of encyclopaedias that previously sat on the shelves of so many of our homes, and copy and paste (but provide a link) to a definition of Open Educational Resources:

Open Educational Resources are freely accessible, openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes.

In 2001, the watershed moment for the OER movement from a global perspective occurred when one of the most prestigious universities in the world, MIT, put its entire course catalogue online as a part of the MIT OpenCourseWare project. Consider that in the minds of so many people in the world, these types of educational resources in the past had always been a part of the traditional, costly, relatively inaccessible sphere of the elite higher education sphere. This decision to make them all freely accessible was a huge turning point in education. This openness would shape pedagogy, the administration, and the business of education.


So, the world had Open Educational Resources, disparate educational resources available to all and sundry, but they were disorganised. The education came from their provision in an organised way that might scaffold learning; where each resource might complement, build upon, or contradict that which had come before to enhance someone’s knowledge and expertise on a specific topic and their ability to think in a particular field.

Many of us appreciate that the human mind is disinclined to the chaos inherent in this scenario, and nature, we are also told, abhors a vacuum. So into the open content fray stepped Massive Open Online Courses.

MOOC: Every letter is negotiable by Mathieu Plourde @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

MOOC: Every letter is negotiable by Mathieu Plourde @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

MOOC is a term coined by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in 2008. The course that Cormier was referring to initially was Connectivism and Connective Knowledge at the University of Manitoba where 25 students who attended the university paid fees while 2200 online students from the general public studied for free.

A MOOC therefore can be defined as an online course that is open access and available to unlimited numbers of learners. Generally, there are no prerequisites, fees, or required levels of participation with learners taking part on a voluntary basis

Universities, with US based institutions leading the way, have begun offering MOOCs in the last few years. A non-profit learning platform named edX was launched in May 2012 by MIT and Harvard before being joined by other universities from countries including China, Mongolia, and India. edX offers university level courses in a variety of subjects. A rival platform Coursera, founded by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, was started with Stanford University, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The incentives for providing MOOCs

So, in light of the obvious fact that the implementation of these courses costs money, what incentives are there for offering these free courses?  One reason these institutions initially started making MOOCs available was to research them. How students use resources, who those students are and how their background and capabilities relate to their achievement and persistence as well as how their interactions with courses’ curricular and pedagogical components contribute to their level of success in the course may provide valuable actionable insights for paid courses and guide future course development.

Another major motivation in the development and provision of these courses is linked to the current social and economic educational paradigm. Colleges and universities are having to come to terms with shrinking budgets, rising costs and the disharmony that this creates with students suffering from the resultant increases in tuition fees and student debt. Grasping the opportunities of lower costs provided by online learning while significantly expanding access to higher education and creating that larger potential customer base may engender technological innovation and economic growth.

Moreover, organisations like UNESCO who coined the term “open educational resources” in 2002 have promoted their use in the belief that wider access to education globally can enhance equity and equality in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Though not everyone involved with the digitisation and implementation of a more open approach to the provision of education have such altruistic and egalitarian motivations. The implementation of MOOCs can be funded by a number of profitable means.

Money by GotCredit @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

Money by GotCredit @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

For instance, there’s the collation of data that can be used by headhunters and companies to identify potential employees. There’s also advertising and sponsorship. Imagine your Certificate in Food, Nutrition, and Health….sponsored by Pepsi. Another way that MOOCs are being monetised is charging for end of course examinations that garner learners qualifications.

These factors have resulted in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs injecting cash into new projects spurred on by the new-found legitimacy afforded MOOCs by the involvement of prestigious educational institutions Stanford, MIT, and Harvard.

The trends in 2015 according to this great summative article here were that a number of MOOC providers were creating their own credentials. With Udacity, you can study towards Nanodegrees, Coursera offer Specializations, and edX have their Xseries. These credentials have become major sources of revenue for Udacity and Coursera. edX, on the other hand is attempting to create ways for their learners to earn university credit.

Whatever further developments we see, it is a probability that education may follow in the footsteps of other industries such as travel, books, and music to be the next area of our lives for Silicon Valley to revolutionize.


In my next blog I’ll discuss the divergent pedagogies we’ve seen and are seeing in the differing MOOC courses available today.