The guy to blame for MOOCs

by | 21 Mar, 2017 | 0 comments

Heard about MOOCs but don’t know if you should care? Read on! This is the first part in a series on MOOCs.

What does ‘MOOC’ stand for?

Dave Cormier: "I invented the word MOOC and all I got was this lousy meme"

Dave Cormier (Image source)

Massive, Open, Online, Course. You can thank – or blame – Dave Cormier, a self-described “educational activist” from the University of Prince Edward Island, for this one. According to Dave, a MOOC is an online course that is open to anyone without restriction and it is also massive, meaning it can accommodate as many students as you can count with a calculator. The largest enrolment on record was for Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests, which attracted around 440,000 people. Imagine teaching a classroom with nearly half a million students in front of you… you’d need very big slides.

How can MOOCs accommodate so many learners?

In MOOCs, if you are in trouble, no one can hear you scream. At the core of the MOOC is the uncoupling of the teacher from the cohort. Instead of one-to-one support and marked assignments, MOOCs offer discussion boards and automated or peer-marked assessment. These virtual classrooms have no limits in terms of class size and calling the roll is hell. Although quite eye catching, according to one study, there are no clear psychological and educational benefit associated with massiveness.

Who offers MOOCs?

Established universities like Stanford, MIT and Harvard were amongst the first to offer MOOCs. According to one recent report over 700 established universities are now offering MOOCs.

How did MOOCs begin?


The very first MOOC, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, was offered in 2008 and prompted Dave to come up with a catchy name for it. Imagine a totally crowd-sourced course. Well, that’s more or less what this online course was like. It had no set content or structure, just a vast network of learners – around 2,200 of them – connected through the web. It was indeed radical. This was not the MOOC, though, that got everyone excited. In 2011 two Stanford academics put their popular Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course online and opened it up to anyone interested. To their amazement around 160,000 people enrolled and of these around 20,000 passed. It was this MOOC that triggered an avalanche of MOOCs being offered on platforms such as Coursera, edx and Udacity.

Do MOOCs matter?


MOOCs have been offered for only half a decade but in that time more than 78 million people have signed up for one. That is not insignificant. They are a force for lifelong learning without a doubt, but in terms of their value as a vehicle for formal credentialed learning, the jury is still out. MOOCs started out offering certificates of achievement for free, which largely meant nothing in the educational and workplace landscape, but it seems that this may be changing. Nowadays some MOOC platforms are starting to offer mini-degrees for a relatively low fee by stitching related MOOCs together. This may be signalling that MOOCs are gaining credibility. Also, MOOCs are continuing to attract significant venture capital. So, the people with money believe they have a future. Only time will tell of course.

Adrian Norman is a learning technologist at UTS and a research student at the Science of Learning Research Centre.

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