What’s Up with MOOCs? 20 Burning Questions Answered

Submitted by: Brendan Cournoyer, Director of Content Marketing, Brainshark

April 15, 2014 09:56 AM

moocs-burning-questionsMOOCs have been a trending topic in learning and development circles over the past few years, but not everyone has been in on the conversation.

If you have no idea what all the MOOC talk is about and how it fits into the world of online learning, here’s a short Q&A that will hopefully help clear things up.

So… what exactly does MOOC stand for?

MOOC is an acronym for “massive open online course”, and it’s pronounced exactly how it looks. They’ve become an increasingly popular learning format among higher education institutions.

Are these courses really “massive”?

Yes, they are designed to support hundreds and thousands of students – and sometimes even tens of thousands.

Are they really “open”?

Listen, if you’re going to ask me about each word in the acronym this is going to take all day. But yes, the idea is that anyone who’s interested can enroll in a course (at no – or very low – cost). All of the resources are intended to be free as well, so students don’t need to buy text books or learning programs or anything like that. And before you ask, yes they take place “online” and yes they are in fact “courses.”

How long have MOOCs been around?

The seeds were planted quite a while ago; Wikipedia traces the precursors of MOOCs all the way back to distance learning initiatives (dubbed “correspondence courses”) from the 1890s.

But there was no Internet back then. Wouldn’t that make them more MOCs than MOOCs?

Very funny! But yes, that is correct. I was merely pointing out that mass distance learning programs have been a topic of interest long before Al Gore came around to grant us the Internet. In reality, MOOCs as we know them today didn’t start taking shape until around 2008, when two chaps named Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander coined the term. This was reportedly in response to a University of Manitoba online course that was made up of 25 students who paid tuition, and an additional 2,200 online students who enrolled for free.

That doesn’t seem fair. Were the 25 students who had to pay angry that everyone else got to take the course for free?

I can’t say for sure, but I’d assume they were at least mildly agitated.

Where is the University of Manitoba?

It’s in Canada, but that’s not really relevant to this discussion.

Would you say that 2008 was the “year of the MOOC”?

No, the New York Times declared 2012 to be the year of the MOOC. While MOOCs had existed somewhat informally in the years prior, 2012 was when actual online learning organizations like Coursera and edX began to partner with higher ed institutions and really take off.

OK enough history. How are MOOCs different than other types of on-demand eLearning?

Because MOOCs are geared toward such a large number of people, no one single instructor can possibly manage the entire course. In fact, there’s really no direct interaction between the instructors and students at all. For this reason, MOOCs need to be uniquely designed specifically for distance learners to progress through a course on their own – at their own pace – with carefully planned content segments, interactivity, gamification and community forums.

So wait – if there’s no actual instructor, how are students graded?

In some cases, grades are given by fellow students.

Wait, seriously?

Well not always, but that was the original idea. MOOCs were conceived around a concept called “connectivism”, where the idea is that learning and sharing information from multiple people and resources leads to a stronger understanding than learning from a singular source (like a professor).  Under this format, the MOOC becomes a living thing, where the learners themselves contribute content that expands the curriculum and would ultimately assess their peers.

Connectivism sounds pretty ambitious. Is that how most MOOCs work?

Not really. I’m sure you can see the challenges of this approach, and many have spoken out against the reliability of peer assessments in this type of format. These days, many MOOCs are much more structured with pre-determined course completion criteria, while still maintaining the spirit of social learning.

What are some other challenges of MOOCs?

The biggest one is completion. There have been studies showing that only about 1 out of every 10 higher ed MOOC students that register for a course actually completes it, which is… not super high. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Some students simply lose interest and quit. Others may just be looking for some free education with no desire to actually complete the courses to begin with. Keep in mind, however, that MOOCs are still in their infancy, and finding ways to improve the register/completion ratio is a high priority for MOOC proponents.

What type of learning content is used in MOOCs?

All kinds, though online video is especially popular, as it provides a much higher level of engagement then say, reading a 140-page PDF document. Again, since students are learning on their own, interesting and engaging content is pretty critical to the process. Video presentation content can be prepared specifically for distance learners, or “normal” class lectures can be recorded and shared online, giving students the feeling of observing a course from the back of the room. There are a lot of options.

What else can you tell me about the content?

Well, another key here is interactivity (as it is with mobile eLearning programs). Sticking with video, you wouldn’t want to just slap a 50-minute lecture online and call it a MOOC resource. For distance learners, shorter content works best, and 10-minute segments (give or take) are more typically found in MOOC courses. Those clips can be further broken up by interactive quiz questions pertaining to the lecture at hand to better reinforce what the students are learning.

OK this sounds interesting. What are some of the top MOOCs available today?

Well having never completed a MOOC myself, I can’t really tell you which ones are “best.” I can say that many of the top higher ed institutions in the country now offer free MOOCs, including Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford and Duke.

Do businesses offer MOOCs as well? Or is it just a new form of higher education?

Many of the most prominent MOOCs have been embraced by higher ed universities, but enterprises have begun to explore MOOCs for corporate training and customer education as well.  For example, McAfee used a MOOC-like model to successfully streamline its employee onboarding program. Other companies like Yahoo! and Deloitte encourage team members to participate in Coursera courses as vehicle for employee development.

This is interesting – I want to know more.

Really? Because this post is already pretty long.

OK, well then where else can I go to learn more about MOOCs?

Here are some great resources that help paint a picture of the latest trends involving MOOCs for both higher education and business purposes:

Did you know that if I ask one more question it will make for an even 20 in this post?

I did not realize that, but thanks for keeping count for me.

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