Ten things you need to know about MOOCs


What is it?

‘A Massive Open Online course (MOOC) is a model for delivering learning content online to virtually any person, with no limit on attendance (hence the word massive), that want to attend the course’.


Where has the idea of MOOCs come from?

The MOOC is a response to the challenges faced by universities and distributed disciplines at a time of information overload. A MOOC is built for a world where information is everywhere, where social networks obsessed is a click away in a digital world.

How does a MOOC work?

As has been discussed by elearnspace, ‘the most valuable aspect of MOOCs is that the large number of learners enables the formation of sub-networks based on interested, geography, language, or some other attribute that draws individuals together. With 20 students in a class, limited options exist for forming sub-networks but when you have over 1,000 students new configurations are possible’.

Who does it benefit?

Primarily MOOCs are aimed at provision of open access and large scale participation. This represents a pedagogical approach called connectivism which is ideally suited to the network age. It began in 2008 when George Siemens and Stephen Downes co-taught a class thought to be the first to use the term MOOC. A recent MOOC at Stanford university, ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,’ taught by AI experts, drew a worldwide open enrollment well in excess of 100,000 students (Educause, 2011)

What’s the pedagogical perspective?

At a recent ELESIG symposium on MOOCs, Professor Alison Littlejohn contended that MOOCs represent an important new pedagogical approach that is ideally suited to the network age. However, little is known about how the learning experience afforded by MOOCs is suited to learners with different skills, motivations and dispositions. A recent study led by Alison at the Caledonian Academy into self regulated learning behaviours of students participating in a MOOC identified a number of key factors affecting engagement, including, confidence, prior experience, and motivation. These findings are gaining attention from course designers in a number of UK universities who want to tailor courses to suit the diverse range of hundreds or thousands of learners that participate in a MOOC. For more information view the storify data from the symposium here

What learning approaches are used in MOOCs?

  1. Acquisition learning; typically sequenced tasks with limited interaction with other learners
  2. Participatory model; blended learning cMOOC example is a Coventry photography course creating knowledge and then feeding that back so typically a structure provided by the instructor but the community then drives the work
  3. Knowledge creation; this type afforded by networked technologies. Examples are research or work based learning degrees so each learner maps their learning through planning, implementing and reflecting on learning goals

What’s the difference between cMOOC and xMOOC?

John Daniels in his report on “Making Sense of MOOCs” suggests that udacitycoursera and edX are examples of xMOOCs. These type of MOOCs focus on short videos rather than full-length lectures to wade through and use automated testing to check students’ understanding as they work through the content. Whilst they may include discussion forums, and allow people to bounce ideas around and discuss learning together, the centre of the course is the instructor-guided lesson. Learning goals are defined by instructor, learning pathways structured by the environment and there is limited iteration with other learners.

The other type of MOOC is based on connectivism. These are the cMOOCS. For details on how MOOCs might be one way to provide learning in a networked world please go to this video.

Participants here set their own learning goals and type of engagement. Participants don’t walk away with a set of specific skills or competencies, or knowledge of a set body of content. cMOOCs are discursive communities creating knowledge together. A list of cMOOCs has been made in an attempt to help people keep track of the different courses that are going on.

Why is this important in Universities?

This is significant because MOOCs invite anyone to enter resulting in a new learning dynamic, one that offers remarkable collaborative and conversational opportunities for students to gather and discuss the course content. The MOOC is an emerging model that presents an intriguing set of challenges and opportunities for both instructors and students. Because these open classes allow prospective students to sample what a sponsoring university has to offer, MOOCs may be used as outreach tools to boost future enrollment. This is how Michael Sandel at Harvard offering a MOOC affords the university unlimited potential!

Now if we take the ‘massive’ out of MOOC and call them OOCs then there could be a load of reasons for developing these courses. Some of these were brainstormed at the ELESIG symposium. These included preparation for postgraduates study, personal & professional development, outreach work, staff development, bringing together different sectors i.e private, public and third sector, experimental courses,piloting a course idea,recruitment, global citizenship and PhD students.

What are the implications for learning and teaching?

At Oxford Brookes, results of a MOOC that has been aimed at new lecturers in Higher Education(H.E) in 24 different countries reveals that the MOOC has been seen as a threshold concept/opening portal and that interestingly the experienced MOOCers were an instrumental piece in the successful transformation for new learners.New learners did feel overwhelmed with the technology aspects, the various multitasking needed and making sense of the course but what came out also was that experienced MOOCers made it easier for new MOOcers.

For the self-regulated,digital literate and lifelong learner, the MOOC presents a new opportunity to be part of a learning community, often led by key voices in education (Bonk, 2013; Littlejohn et al 2009,2011 and 2012; Roberts et al 2013). Its proving that learning happens beyond the traditional school age and classroom. It may also offer opportunities for those who cannot afford more traditional university opportunities by providing a non-risk option. More importantly MOOcers are likely to discover learning at its most open, but also to participate and collaborate.

Will MOOCs be a mainstream approach to learning in universities?

It is too early to tell whether this will be a fad or a mainstream approach. Currently we know that MOOCs may not lend themselves well to suit all learning styles. We also know that there is a question as to the longevity of them as these courses tend to have low completion rates. With this in mind, MOOCs may not be particularly applicable for undergraduates. However MOOCs could be seen as a bridge between formal and informal learning and for many a way of improving the global learner experience as well as fulfilling the university’s social, global and community mission.


Bonk, C. (2013) Taking Leadership in Mystery of MOOCs and the Mass Movement toward Open Education. Presented at the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Aston University, Birmingham: The Centre for Learning Innovation and Professional Practice.

Educause, 2011 7 Things You should know about MOOCs [available online] http://www.educause.edu/library/resources/7-things-you-should-know-about-moocs [Accessed on] 11.3.13

LITTLEJOHN, A., Milligan, C., & Margaryan, A. (2012). Charting collective knowledge: Supporting self-regulated learning in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 24(3). [impact factor expected 2012]

Margaryan, A., LITTLEJOHN, A., & Vojt. G. (2011). Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies. Computers and Education, 56(2), 429-440. [impact factor 2.059] http://tinyurl.com/6x92brf

LITTLEJOHN, A, Margaryan, A and Vojt,G. (2009) “Exploring Students’ use of ICT and Expectations of Learning Methods” Electronic Journal of e-Learning (EJeL), Volume 8 Issue 1, 13 – 20

Roberts, G., Mackness, J., Waite,M., & Lovegrove, E. (2012). What is necessary and what is contingent in design for a MOOC? In Open Horizons: Sharing the Future. Aston University, Birmingjam: Higher Education Academcy. Retrieved from http://slideshare.net/georgeroberts/what-is-necessary-and-what-is-contingent-in-mooc-design

Roberts, George (2013, 11 March). ‘OOCs for the rest of us’, ELESIG Symposium: Researching Learners’ Experiences of New Technologies. University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/georgeroberts/oocs-for-the-rest-of-us [11/3/13]



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9 Responses

  1. Matt Lingard

    March 15, 2013 3:33 pm

    Many thanks for this useful summary Rae. I’d like to flag up a couple of related things.

    Firstly the forthcoming UK MOOC platform. While the big names you’ve highlighted (Coursera etc) have international partners as well as their US core, there is very little UK presence (Edinburgh & Uni of London only). However, in December the OU announced FutureLearn, a private venture lead by the OU with 17 partners (16 other UK universities & the BL). There are more unknowns than knowns at the present, but OU VC Martin Bean has said it will offer quality not quantity & be uniquely British. One to watch: http://futurelearn.com/

    Secondly, a report out this week from IPPR “An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead” which talks a lot about both MOOCs & the ‘unbundling of education’. With two US universities already piloting credits for MOOCs (taught by other universities thru’ Coursera/Udacity platforms!) the implications for HE should perhaps not be underestimated & certainly not ignored.

    • Rae Bowdler

      March 18, 2013 9:40 am

      Thanks for the additions. From the ELESIG symposium I got the sense that the US are driving this agenda forward however many institutions in the UK also seem to be considering MOOCs and in Southampton in particular, their VC is very keen, so yes I agree, its most worth following where it goes.
      Thanks also for the additional links which will be help understand future directions.

  2. Venkata Reddy

    June 30, 2020 7:01 am

    Great Article. It has very informative knowledge about MOOC
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