What are Massively Open Online Courses?


Coined in 2008 by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, massively open online courses (MOOC) are conceptualized as the evolution of networked learning. MOOCs have not yet achieved their envisioned potential, but early experiments are promising. The essence of a MOOC is that it is a web course that people can take from anywhere across the world, with potentially thousands of participants. The basis of each MOOC is an expansive and diverse set of content, contributed by a variety of experts, educators, and instructors in a specific field, and then aggregated into a central repository, such as web site. What makes this content set especially unique is that it is “remixed” -- the materials are not necessarily designed to go together but become associated with each other through the MOOC. A key component of the original vision is that all course materials and the course itself are open source and free -- with the door left open for a fee if a participant taking the course wishes university credit be transcripted for the work. A second key element is that the structure of MOOCs be minimalist, so as to allow participants to design their own learning path based upon whatever specific knowledge or skill they want to gain. The point is that participants can control how, where, and when they learn. Typically, the only defined elements of MOOCs are assignments in the form of presentations or discourse incited by discussion questions, where thousands of participants exchange ideas, responses, and evaluations in an online forum. Some platforms, such as UNX, include peer-to-peer assignments review as a way of learning and collaborating. Additionally, it is a means for the institutions to allow reviewing manual evaluation-based activities, such as project development, with a low cost for human resources. Such peer-to-peer collaboration on MOOCs is spurring quality content creation, as evidenced by the Peer to Peer University (P2PU) and the Code Academy.


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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • From our perspective is quite important because it allows you to reach a large population that otherwise will not engage in learning subject. And that has been always a big obstacle in development countries, how to reach more population with high quality education?. I believe this type of initiatives will help to reduce the digital and educational gap in many countries, and if you use it for STEM it may create a generational step forward in the society at all . - Rocael.Rizzardini Rocael.Rizzardini Jul 31, 2012
  • From my perspective as a researcher interested in under-represented populations in STEM, MOOCs are a potential support for students who might otherwise face barriers or be reluctant to engage in STEM training. However, it is important to recognize that challenges that exist in the traditional learning space exist for these learners as MOOCs as they are conceived now. MOOCs depend on access to certain resources already, they're more easily accessible to those who can navigate an online learning space, etc. - jennifer.deboer jennifer.deboer Aug 8, 2012
  • When referring to developing & emerging countries, MOOCS are able to change access to quality education worldwide. I work in a public university in Egypt but I also know a lot of high school students who are so passionate to learn & innovate in STEM but they lack available resources. Sometimes it is not only money that acts as a barrier but also the learning content that is based mainly on memorizing & recall. Through the collaborative & networking approach of MOOCS, every young person can have equal opportunity to access quality educational resources whatever the place of residence is or the wealth of whom he/she depends on. Also the "free" concept is pretty valuable not only in terms of free price but also in feeling free to design adaptive learning path & freely communicating with as many as tutors/learners with "no barriers". Also the unique feature of MOOCS of being "remixed" is so applicable when targeting a multidisciplinary approach related to STEM by generating a kind of "Hybrid" content that integrates not only Science, Technology, Engineering & Math but also can involve social sciences & humanities like history & arts. In life sciences, hybrids of different varieties & species are usually intended to combine the favorable traits of the parents, a concept that can be widley applied for STEM education. - Zeinab.El.Maadawi Zeinab.El.Maadawi Aug 15, 2012
  • MOOCs provide the opportunity to learn about on-line and place-based learning can be improved through leveraging distributed, self-organizing communities of learners, greater studentautonomy vs instructor control( these are aspects that are being bserved in MOOCS).- vkumar vkumar Aug 18, 2012
  • MOOCS also provide a great platform for educational innovation - exploring new models for the production and delivery of educational opportunites.- vkumar vkumar Aug 18, 2012
  • MOOCs have many implications on the impact of STEM education and the future. This concept of free, open content to anyone leverages the divide of those who can and cannot afford education. The areas that we need to worry about is how these MOOCs are delivered, are these courses engaging enough to hold the interest of students and does the (hopefully) educationally-sound work scale to the massive populations. - Holly.Lu Holly.Lu Aug 25, 2012

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • At this moment moment one of the main challenges is how to make scalable grading and support. We are currently following previous MOOC steps such as peer-assessment and community contribution recognition. Both still need further trials to enhance the process in a per course basis and then be able to generalize better. - Rocael.Rizzardini Rocael.Rizzardini Jul 31, 2012
  • A large proportion of mainstream offerings of MOOCs (edx, coursera) are not innovative in terms of engagement pedagogy. - Nick Nick Aug 5, 2012. I agree here--some of the most high-profile MOOCs right now are still facing the challenge of exploiting the new format of an online course as an innovative, collaborative space that employs solid pedagogical practices. - jennifer.deboer jennifer.deboer Aug 8, 2012
  • Along with this comment, perhaps there should more in the description about some of the pitfalls of MOOCs as they exist right now? They are a hot topic, but will this last? - jennifer.deboer jennifer.deboer Aug 8, 2012
  • Moocs are perhaps as much or more about "a way of teaching and learning" as they are about the technology that supports them. Is this topic about pedagogy/learner experience, or the underlying technology? For example, what made the original computer science course taught by the team that is now Coursera possible is the automated feedback to the learners. We should be sure to track "real time assessment" innovations while we talk about MOOC's (example: Will the Hewlett Foundation's ASAP project that calls for innovations in "automated scoring algorithms for student-written essays" make new types of MOOCs possible? - jim.vanides jim.vanides Aug 6, 2012
  • Another aspect of MOOCs that should be mentioned is how the learners are "credentialed" after their experience. Do they earn informal "badges"? Or can they get credits that lead to a degree from an accredited institution? How do students demonstrate competency - and to whom? - jim.vanides jim.vanides Aug 6, 2012
  • Perhaps more detail on the various structures that fall along the "classroom-only" to "online-only" spectrum...some of the instances of MOOCs have already provided blended-learning opportunities in different forms.- jennifer.deboer jennifer.deboer Aug 8, 2012
  • Although mentioned as a separate entity in the Horizon project list of emerging technologies, I think Badges should be mentioned when describing MOOCS. As learners in MOOCS are expected to have their own learning path where they can control how, where, & when they learn, badges can return some of the structure & reward that is needed to keep learners on track. Also, badges can be integrated within the formal assessment if any. The concept that is related to Scouting badges seems to be generally accepted by the age group of the main target audience for STEM education (high school students) who are eager to gain their online badges as proudly as their Scout analogues. https://p2pu.org/en/
    http://www.massivelyminecraft.net/awards/
    - Zeinab.El.Maadawi Zeinab.El.Maadawi Aug 15, 2012


(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on STEM+ education?

  • Great potential special on STEM courses. First to influence more people and motivate more young students to get involved with STEM. Then to help students with common troubles with STEM through online networked communities. For instance, my team worked with of our mathematics professors to create a wiki, although is not a MOOC per se, it has been a great success with over 1 million pages seen last year, and is open for anyone on the internet. - Rocael.Rizzardini Rocael.Rizzardini Jul 31, 2012
  • The great hope for MOOC's, especially in STEM, is "broad access to high quality STEM learning". Of course we have to first figure out which types of MOOC experiences are "high quality" and which are NOT effective. It's both a Learner Experience Design question (just reading material doesn't make you smart, especially for novices learning STEM), and it's a technology question (what other types of automated feedback are possible so that a wider variety of disciplines can be "MOOC'ed") - jim.vanides jim.vanides Aug 6, 2012 . Agree. And also how do we incorporate what has been learnt about effective teaching/learning practice in STEM disciplines into the design and deliver of MOOCS - vkumar vkumar Aug 18, 2012
  • It could potentially impact the actual APPEAL of STEM+ fields of study. While not as much an issue outside the US, the attitude towards fields such as engineering within the US plays a role in the lack of student enrollment and retention. The large amount of public interest in MOOCs that are (at least for now) largely focusing on courses in STEM+ could change that. - jennifer.deboer jennifer.deboer Aug 8, 2012
  • Because of their potential to support education that draws learning programs from rich distributed sources and compile them into highly personalised programs, MOOCs may lead to a greater decoupling between individualised program design, course delivery, and evaluation/accreditation processes. Delivery becomes mass-market, but design of personalised education suites (a role for an "educational personal trainer"?) and subsequent assessment of the holistic outcomes become highly individual activities. - David.Lowe David.Lowe Aug 9, 2012
  • I agree with the above inputs about the potential impact of MOOCS putting in mind some barriers that must be overcome to have a self sustained MOOCS concept: http://mfeldstein.com/four-barriers-that-moocs-must-overcome-to-become-sustainable-model/
    -Developing revenue models
    -Delivering valuable signifiers of completion such as credentials, badges, etc..
    -Providing an experience and perceived value that enables higher course completion rates (most today have less than 10% of registered students actually completing the course
    -Authenticating students in a manner to satisfy accrediting institutions or hiring companies that the student identify is actually known. - Zeinab.El.Maadawi Zeinab.El.Maadawi Aug 15, 2012


  • STEM education in MOOC's could be very powerful to bring great content to the masses and encourage engagement in the topics - especially to those who weren't interested initially. The challenge might be having students in the MOOC gain access to labs and other materials needed to successfully gain understanding of a STEM topic. - Holly.Lu Holly.Lu Aug 25, 2012

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?


Please share information about related projects via our NMC Horizon Report project submission form.