MOOCs – A changing landscape

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Free online courses from world-leading universities: sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, you better start believing, because that’s exactly what MOOCs (massive open online courses) are.

Students can now get a taste of education at some of the world’s top universities without spending a penny, leaving their own home or even going through an application procedure – by taking free online courses offered by an ever-growing selection of institutions.

Unsurprisingly, MOOCs have garnered a lot of attention, and a lot of users. The first MOOC offered by edX (established by MIT and Harvard) attracted an amazing 155,000 students. The platform aims to reach no fewer than one billion users.

What is MOOC?

A massive open online course (MOOC) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as filmed lectures, readings, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive user forums to support community interactions between students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs). MOOCs are a recent and widely researched development in distance education which was first introduced in 2008 and emerged as a popular mode of learning in 2012. Early MOOCs often emphasized open-access features, such as open licensing of content, structure and learning goals, to promote the reuse and remixing of resources. Some later MOOCs use closed licenses for their course materials while maintaining free access for students.

MOOC providers

Provider   Founded
Stanford Online   2006
Khan Academy   2006
NPTEL   2006
WizIQ   2007
Canvas Network   2008
Peer to Peer University   2009
Academic Earth   2009
Udemy   2010
Udacity   2012
Eliademy based on the Open Source MoodleVirtual learning environment.   2012
openHPI   2012
FutureLearn   2012
OpenLearning   2012
Coursera   2012
edX   2012
iversity   2013
One Month   2013
MOOEC   2013
NovoEd   2013
Open2Study   2013

Are MOOCs the future of higher education?

So, are MOOCs the future of higher education? While opinion is divided on just what role MOOCs can or should play, there is widespread agreement that they will continue to grow in importance.

For most, the true value of MOOCs lies in their capacity to open up access to knowledge that was previously the preserve of a small elite. Whether preparing for or supplementing a traditional course, or just learning for the sake of learning, MOOCs offer an incredible and unique opportunity which just five years ago would not have existed.

A spokesperson for edX outlines the MOOC provider’s lofty aims: “By making high quality education available to anyone with internet access, edX hopes to democratize education, transform lives worldwide, and reinvent campus education.”

Challenges and criticisms

The MOOC Guide[147] suggests five possible challenges for cMOOCs:

  1. Relying on user-generated content can create a chaotic learning environment
  2. Digital literacyis necessary to make use of the online materials
  3. The time and effort required from participants may exceed what students are willing to commit to a free online course
  4. Once the course is released, content will be reshaped and reinterpreted by the massive student body, making the course trajectory difficult for instructors to control
  5. Participants must self-regulate and set their own goals

These general challenges in effective MOOC development are accompanied by criticism by journalists and academics.

Some dispute that the “territorial” dimensions of MOOCs have received insufficient discussion or data-backed analysis, namely: 1. the true geographical diversity of enrolls in/completes courses; 2. the implications of courses scaling across country borders, and potential difficulties with relevance and knowledge transfer; and 3. the need for territory-specific study of locally relevant issues and needs.

Other features associated with early MOOCs, such as open licensing of content, open structure and learning goals, and community-centeredness, may not be present in all MOOC projects


It’s early days yet, but the massive impact MOOCs have already had in a short space of time suggests we may well be witnessing something of a revolution in higher education delivery. Whether in the improvement of access worldwide, or the supplementation of programs within existing university communities, it seems MOOCs may well be a leading element in the future of higher education.

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