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massive open online course (MOOC)

What is a massive open online course (MOOC)?

A massive open online course (MOOC) is a typically free web-based distance learning program that's designed for large numbers of geographically dispersed students.

A MOOC might be patterned on a college or university course, or it can be less structured. Although they don't always offer academic credits, these courses often offer a certification, enhance employment opportunities or further studies. Typically, MOOCs are used for higher education, upskilling and career advancement.

How do MOOCs work?

MOOCs are online learning courses that a student accesses through the internet. Typically, these courses use cloud computing platforms for course delivery. The course content is created with course authoring tools and is subsequently hosted on a learning management systems (LMS) platform.

The course provider, which is often a university, supplies the course materials and instructors. The LMS platform, such as EdX, Canvas, Coursera or Udacity, provides the technological infrastructure for course modules, user access and other learning resources.

MOOCs consist of traditional class materials and can include the following:

  • Filmed or recorded video lectures.
  • Assessments.
  • Readings.
  • Problem sets.
  • Online quizzes and examinations.
  • Interactive learning modules.
  • Interaction with other students via discussion forums.

The course materials typically consist of prerecorded short video lectures that usually range from five to 20 minutes.

History of MOOCs

MOOC -- which rhymes with kook -- was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada for an online course offered by the University of Manitoba. There were 25 tuition-paying students from the university and 2,300 nonpaying students from the general public who took the course "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge" online. There were RSS feeds for material, and participation was facilitated through a variety of venues, including the Moodle LMS, blog posts, the Second Life online virtual world and real-time online meetings.

In 2011, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) OpenCourseWare became the first large collection of MOOC resources made available by a university. In 2012, MIT and Harvard University spearheaded the EdX initiative for the promotion of MOOCs.

As the demand for technology jobs increases, so does the popularity of online courses. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, MOOCs are becoming the new standard of education and specialization at all levels -- from elementary education through bachelor's and master's degree programs -- as part of remote learning plans. Enrollment in MOOCs surged during the pandemic, and many new MOOCs have been launched since then.

What to consider before taking a MOOC

It's important to consider a few factors before enrolling in a MOOC. Key points to consider include the following:

  • Define the purpose. Before picking a specific MOOC, it's important to clarify the reason for taking the course. For example, is the person hoping to switch careers, improve job prospects, be promoted or learn new skills?
  • Select the course. Spend time thinking about which course to select. This process can be accomplished by perusing different courses on the desired topic and assessing the course content and necessary prerequisites to ensure they're in line with the intended objectives.
  • Evaluate the time commitment. The individual should evaluate how much time they can realistically dedicate to the course every week. Since MOOCs can vary from a few hours per week to more intensive commitments, it's important to select a course that accommodates the schedule.
  • Determine the course level. The individual should determine whether they're seeking an introductory, intermediate or advanced course. They should evaluate their current knowledge and skills in the subject area to ensure they choose a course that corresponds with their proficiency level.
  • Research course reviews and feedback. The individual should search for reviews or feedback from past students who have completed the course. This can offer insights into the quality of the course, the effectiveness of the instructor and the overall learning experience.

Finding MOOCs

Providers of MOOCs are mostly universities but can also be corporate entities. Top universities and educational institutions, such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford, are leading MOOC providers. Corporations such as Microsoft and Accenture also provide publicly available online courses.

Popular MOOC hosting platforms and websites include the following:

  • EdX. EdX offers courses on a range of subjects from prestigious universities and institutions worldwide.
  • Coursera. Coursera partners with universities and organizations, and most of their courses are taught by professors from well-known universities.
  • Udacity. Udacity offers niche courses in technology-related fields, such as programming, data science and artificial intelligence. It provides both paid and free courses, and some nanodegree programs are also available for individuals who desire more in-depth study.
  • FutureLearn. FutureLearn offers courses from universities and institutions around the world. It encompasses a broad spectrum of subjects, including but not limited to business, healthcare and social sciences.

MOOC costs, enrollment and pacing

MOOCs come with different price structures, enrollment policies and pacing options for students, including the following:

  • Cost. Costs can range significantly both in price and structure. Many MOOCs are completely free, whereas online degree programs that contain a bundle of courses can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some MOOC platforms also provide students with the option to apply for financial aid or scholarships.
  • Enrollment. This generally varies by the type of course or program. For example, courses that aren't for university credit are typically available to the general public. Enrollment for online degree programs, however, often requires students to go through a traditional admissions process.
  • Pacing. Courses offered for university credit and as part of online degrees generally follow a traditional semester schedule, while certification MOOCs can be self-paced or follow an abridged schedule, sometimes only taking eight weeks to complete. Courses that require live attendance and adherence to a course schedule are called synchronous courses, whereas flexible, self-paced courses are called asynchronous courses.
A chart showing different learning types, including synchronous and asynchronous
There are several differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Credentials and MOOC-based degrees

MOOCs can also be used for continuing education certifications and degree programs. MOOC certification levels typically fall into the following six general categories:

  1. Free. These courses are completely free but usually only for audit. However, students still have the option to pay for an official certificate of completion at the end of the course.
  2. Certificate. Professional certificates for completing individual courses range from about $20 at the lower end to around $300, with the average being $50-$100.
  3. Microcredential. Microcredential programs typically consist of three to six courses. Typically, these series of courses are narrow in focus and provide a specific skill or competency. The pricing for microcourses depends on the complexity and category of the course. These courses aren't intended to replace traditional college degrees, but are typically used for providing low-cost, on-the-job skills upgrades.
  4. University credit. Courses in this tier are university-accredited and comparable to online courses at institutions that provide degrees. Individual courses at this level can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
  5. Online degree. Online degree programs are equivalent to master's or continuing education degree programs at universities and offer comparable volume and depth of coursework. Online degree programs generally follow a traditional application and admissions process and range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
  6. Corporate training. Corporate training MOOCs are deployed on an enterprise level. This pricing option is typically structured as a per-user cost for access.

Benefits of MOOCs

MOOCs have both benefits and drawbacks. The widespread adoption and use of online courses provides the following benefits:

  • No dependence on a physical location. This can improve collaboration efforts and save time by eliminating a student's commute. Online education also enables social distancing.
  • Improved access to higher education. Not only is this a function of convenience, but access to high-quality education in developing countries can ultimately increase quality of life and contribute to sustainable professional development efforts by providing a high-quality, accessible learning infrastructure.
  • Affordability of higher education. Scalability makes these types of courses more cost-effective than in-person courses of comparable scope.
  • Flexible learning schedule. Many courses are self-paced, which can accommodate student work schedules. Even if course completion isn't self-paced, as with online degree programs, prerecorded lectures can offer more flexibility on a daily and weekly basis.
  • Collaboration opportunities. MOOCs frequently feature a broad and diverse community of learners from across the globe, which facilitates networking, collaboration and the sharing of ideas with peers who have similar interests and objectives.
  • Preview of college-level courses. Before fully committing to a degree program, learners can use MOOCs to get a taste of college-level courses and improve their comprehension of the subjects.
  • Easy performance evaluation and monitoring. Online courses provide an easy and automated way to monitor student performance and scores because all the data is captured through the entirety of the course.

Drawbacks of MOOCs

Common drawbacks of MOOCs include the following:

  • No structure. Flexibility can make the course more difficult to manage, as some students require the structure of in-person learning.
  • Level of commitment. Some students might not feel as committed to attending a free online course as they would an in-person course that requires them to pay tuition.
  • Inaccessibility of instructors. Because most instructors are online, they don't have a physical office, making them less accessible.
  • Digital literacy required for effective use. Learners must be able to effectively communicate across digital platforms.
  • Fewer opportunities for networking. Students are less likely to form relationships with instructors and other students.
  • Limited accommodation for disabilities. Students with visual or auditory disabilities might not be accommodated.
  • Lack of reliable internet connections. Courses require strong internet connections, which can be an issue in developing countries and underprivileged communities.
  • Too many choices. When searching for the right course, large amounts of similar courses for saturated areas, such as computer science, can hinder the decision-making process for students.

Popular MOOCs

Thousands of MOOCs are available online, but many are offered on popular platforms and by institutions that have invested in making their courses accessible online.

The following are several popular professional education MOOCs by subject:

The following are several of the most popular courses across all MOOCs:

  • "Introduction to Computer Science" from Harvard University.
  • "The Science of Well-Being" from Yale University.
  • "Programming for Everybody (Getting Started with Python)" from the University of Michigan.
  • "English for Career Development" from the University of Pennsylvania.
  • "Machine Learning" from Stanford University.
  • "Cryptography I" from Stanford University.
  • "Foundations: Data, Data, Everywhere" from Google.

Example MOOC course structure

MOOC courses typically follow a general structure. Though the coursework and progression are the same as with regular in-person classes, courses are typically organized into modules. A module contains a lesson or unit for a class. Each module typically includes a combination of lectures, readings, interactive graphics and diagrams, problem sets and a quiz or test at the end. A typical module might include a course syllabus, assigned readings, video lectures, a problem set and a quiz that's automatically graded once it's submitted.

Module length and depth vary by course. Some courses require a larger time commitment per week and move through a large amount of content at a fast pace. Others only require a few hours a week and are more self-paced.

The demand for remote learning has grown due to the convenience and flexibility it provides to learners. Discover budget-friendly and notable e-learning content providers for your organization.

This was last updated in December 2023

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