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Massive open online course (MOOC)


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Whais a massive open online course (MOOC)?
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a form of distance learning. They are massive in the sense they are open and free for anyone to participate in and some MOOCs have thousands of students participating from across the globe. Openness also refers to the open-access philosophy of some of these courses (but by no means all) in which materials are made available under a creative commons license for reuse and adaptation.

Where did MOOCs come from?
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) evolved from the open educational resources (OER) movement as a way to connect open access digital materials to networks of learners and may be considered a continuation in the development of distance education (Daniel 2014).

The term ‘MOOC’ was originally articulated by Dave Cormier (University of Prince Edward Island Canada) to describe a course developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes on ‘Connectivism and Connectivity in Knowledge’ in 2008. This pioneering MOOC and those that immediately followed were based on the connectivist pedagogical principles of learning socially from others within distributed networks. They were loose in structure and built around interaction. Participatory web 2.0 culture and an increasing use of and competency with digital tools had provided an environment for the open model to thrive.

By 2012 universities in the US and UK startled by the disruptive innovation MOOCs indicated for higher education and excited by the possibilities the model created for teaching and learning began to create their own versions. This second phase of MOOCs was dominated by the rise of commercial platforms (Coursera Udacity EdX Udemy) and seeded by Ivy League institutions such as Stanford Harvard and MIT. These xMOOCs (as they were later called to differentiate them from the connectivist or cMOOCs) were conventional in design. Using instructivist pedagogy they relied heavily on short videos and quiz assessments; interaction between learners was minimal. They pushed the notion of ‘massive’ by attracting ever-larger audiences (some had over 200 000 registrants) and prompted the New York Times to call 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’ (New York Times 2012).

In recent years many of the larger platforms have diversified developing MOOCs for the corporate market as leaders seek to maximise the benefits of low-cost scalable delivery for organisational learning and development (Udacity Curatr). As MOOCs came under a barrage of criticism in 2013 and 2014 (due mainly to high drop-out rates and uncertain business models) some universities attempted to shift attention back towards smaller online courses with restricted access. In an attempt to make the distinction clear Harvard labelled these courses ‘small private online courses’ (SPOCs). Some of these bespoke courses have arguably become so far removed from the notions of ‘massive’ and ‘open’ that they cannot be considered MOOCs. Despite this diversification MOOC discourse is still dominated by the cMOOC and xMOOC binary – a division which is no longer accurate or relevant (Bayne and Ross 2014)

Concerns have been raised about low completion rates in MOOCs (around 7% on average) and their lack of ambition to improve pedagogical practice (Parr 2013; Toven-Lindsey et al. 2014). Traditional evaluation practices that value completion over the quality of learning are being challenged as MOOC participants engage in non-traditional ways and according to their personal objectives – often ‘lurking’ rather than actively participating and learning partially in complex patterns that bear little resemblance to traditional learning pathways (Milligan et al. 2013).

MOOCs are a model of learning that are ‘open’ insofar as they offer open enrolment free of cost which can lead to ‘massive’ levels participation in terms of numbers (some have had over 400 000 enrolled participants) and huge diversity (in attracting an international audience). These courses are delivered online with learning activities largely occurring via the Internet. 

On average the shortest MOOCs are two weeks in duration and the longest sixteen weeks. They can be accessed from mobile technology providing flexibility for participants in terms of when and where they access course material or interact with other learners.

Most MOOC providers offer learners recognition for the attainment of skills and knowledge by awarding badges or other micro-credentials (usually at cost). Credentialing in online spaces is an emerging phenomenon but open systems are available which enable learners to combine awards from different issuers and share them online as a demonstration of achievement (Mozilla 2015).

The video below describes how connectivist MOOCs provide opportunities for learning in an online world.



What is a MOOC? Via Youtube

Sector Snapshot

Where are MOOCs currently being used and how?
MOOCs are provided at hundreds of higher education institutions (HEIs) globally and cover subject matter as diverse as ‘Midwifery’ (Open2Study) ‘Human-Computer Interaction Design’ (Coursera) ‘Financial Analysis and Decision Making’ (edX) and ‘Greek and Roman Mythology’ (Coursera).

Each MOOC is contextually different driven by a particular pedagogical approach teaching style(s) and subject matter. The social learning platform FutureLearn (a subsidiary of the Open University) was launched in October 2013 and has since generated 3.2 million course registrations and is currently running the largest MOOC to date with over 400 000 learners enrolled on an English Language Course (FutureLearn 2015).

Critics have been sceptical about the level of ‘disruption’ that MOOCs actually pose to HE (Allen and Seaman 2013; Daniel 2014). Indeed they present a spectrum of innovation – at the conventional end of the spectrum learning designed for an offline environment is shifted wholesale into a MOOC at the other end faculty are experimenting with creative pedagogy that pushes the boundaries of online learning and challenges traditional notions of education. An example of innovative practice is the Data Analytics and Learning MOOC which offered a duality of instructional design by providing a conventional structured pathway through the material alongside a learner-directed experience. The latter used social competency software (ProSolo) to provide learners with the opportunity to identify and manage their learning goals and create their own recognition pathways.

What are the potential benefits of MOOCs?
MOOCs provide learners with a flexible means of studying (asynchronously via mobile devices and at their own pace) and provide access to international experts and diverse communities of learners. cMOOCs in particular foster self-directed learners who are able to use digital tools learn within networks and develop a mind-set of continuous learning. They present teachers with the opportunity to explore digital pedagogy and experiment with new learning designs.

The rise of MOOCs and the general shift towards informal learning in digital spaces has prompted HEIs to think about their long-term teaching and learning strategies. As a result of this increased digital awareness organisations are beginning to implement digital strategies that include the development of digital literacies and bring your own device (BYOD) approaches (Universities UK 2013). MOOCs also provide HEIs with the opportunity to reach new audiences widen participation raise their profile and expand digitally into new markets.

The video below explains the democratisation of access to higher education through MOOCs.



Democratization of access to Higher Education through MOOCs: Ro Khanna at TEDxLivermore via Youtube

Getting started

Step one: walk in the learner’s shoes
The best way to understand MOOCs is to experience them first hand as a learner. Experiment with a diversity of MOOCs and evaluate them according to their technological infrastructure pedagogical design and interactive environments (Grover et al. 2013).

Step two: read The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: The UK View.
This report published in 2013 analyses the MOOC landscape in the UK. Pay special attention to the ‘snapshots’ section which explores five MOOCs from the perspective of the teachers involved in their design and delivery.

Step three: think about how your academic programme might be designed as a MOOC
There is some useful guidance on MOOC design principles and patterns available from the University of Surrey and the University of London’s Centre for Distance Education. Their year-long project (2014-15) considered the variability in MOOC design processes and delivery mechanisms and formulated a series of sharable design solutions. The outputs of the project include design pattern cards available for download and a collection of design narratives.

See: MOOC design patterns project.

What should I expect if I try this approach?
Until recently the debate on the rise of MOOCs has been dominated by issues around technology and platforms the impact on traditional models of education drop-out rates and learner outcomes. Pedagogy and teaching in MOOCs has been largely ignored.

Recent research has begun to focus on the educator’s experience which provides a useful insight into the rewards and challenges of teaching in MOOCs. It challenges the idea of minimal involvement and reframes the role of the teacher as a facilitator with a central and key position within the MOOC. Time and resource are important considerations – up to 30 days of faculty time for a five to six week MOOC with administrative and technical support an additional consideration. As a leading faculty member on the ‘AI Planning’ MOOC (University of Edinburgh) commented:

It was a bit too intense what we did too heavy a workload as well. We really were very actively there … [it was] challenging in terms of time management … I’m still getting complaints about the six months we didn’t get on holiday!

Others characterised the process as energising and hugely stimulating (Bayne and Ross 2014).

Next steps

Where can I learn more about MOOCs?
Explore a MOOC-finder service such as which has a MOOC tracker to enable users to build a catalogue of courses and receive regular notifications.

Listen to and join the MOOC conversation by following these hashtags:



You can view the HEA's knowledge hub for further research and resources about MOOCs.

How else can the HEA support my professional development?
The HEA provides support for disciplines and common themes where MOOCs are involved. You may find these under Employability Assessment Flexible learning etc. Investigate the Frameworks for ways to develop your practices policies processes and partnerships. See

Attend an appropriate HEA event to share your MOOC teaching and learning experiences with others.

The UKPSF offers opportunities to capture your teaching innovations within your practice at many levels from Fellowship to Principal Fellowship. Many other organisations have developed specific guidance around digital practice including topics like MOOCs.

What HEA resources should I take a look at?
Bayne S and Ross J (2014) The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view York: HEA


The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.