MOOC’s – What Are They?

MOOC - 3I asked the same question myself when I first stumbled across this phenomenon, but having ‘been there, done it and got the certificate’, I feel slightly more qualified to answer the question. MOOC is an acronym for “Massive Open Online Course”.  I’ve just completed a Coursera MOOC on Social Network Analysis, run by the University of Michigan. The course lasted 8 weeks, with a timed 2-hour exam in week 9.

Coursera was established by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stamford University and is one of a growing number of organisations offering free online courses. Courses include Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, Computer Science, and others. Each course includes short video lectures on different topics and assignments to be submitted, usually on a weekly basis. Assignments were scored automatically for the Social Network Analysis course, with results available within minutes of submission. Some courses and assignments use a peer review system where an objective standard is difficult to establish. This was the case for the optional programming element of the SNA course.

I opted for something called the “Signature Track”, which meant that all my assignments and exam submissions were electronically verified against my personal ID, which was established by one-off submission of an official photo ID document, such as a driving licence or passport. The only technical requirement (other than a PC/laptop and Internet connection) was a webcam for taking a photo image of my face, submitted for each assignment, which would be compared to the image they had on record. All of this security and fraud detection was supplemented by a clever algorithm that profiles keyboard typing patterns, e.g. to deter me from substituting someone else to submit assignments.

It’s not compulsory or necessary to run this gamut of security procedures if all you want to do is take the course and are not worry about having a formal certificate of achievement at the end. I did, but that’s purely a personal decision. I got my certificate for a pass score of 88.5%, where 80% was the pass/fail threshold.

Given this was my first experience of a MOOC, I did a bit of background research to get a better understanding of how this compared to traditional pedagogical learning methods. I was slightly surprised to learn that, on average, less than 10 percent of students complete a course. This is according to research conducted by the Open University.

See: Why do students enrol in (but not complete) MOOC Courses, by Ian Quillen

Amongst the reasons quoted for this low completion rate is that students enrol because they recognise the unusual opportunity afforded by MOOCs but, unlike traditional college courses, there is no financial obligation if they subsequently decide to drop out, e.g. having experienced the full demands of a course.

There may also be people who just want to see what’s going on, see how others teach the same subjects they do, as well as competitors who might want to steal some ideas and use them in their own platforms.

I have to admit that in my enthusiasm, I signed up for two courses that overlapped mid-way through my SNA course and found that I couldn’t cope with a combined commitment of around 20 hours/week, so had to drop out of the other course. So my advice is that unless you really do have lots of spare time, stick to doing one course at a time.

I was also interested in what sort of demographic or cohort was doing these courses, and why. According to Donald Clark, several target audiences have emerged. For the record, I fit into 8 and 9:

  1. Internal students on course – cost savings on volume courses
  2. Internal students not on course – expanding student experience
  3. Potential students national –major source of income
  4. Potential students international – major source of income
  5. Potential students High school – reputation and preparation
  6. Parents – significant in student choice
  7. Alumni – potential income and influencers
  8. Lifelong learners – late and lifelong adult learners
  9. Professionals – related to professions and work
  10. Government – part of access strategy

Clark observes:

(MOOC)….decision makers often don’t have the marketing skills to differentiate between different addressable audiences. External adult learners may not want a long-winded, over-engineered, six to ten week course on anything. Life’s too short. Yet academics are used to producing courses of this semester length. What many may want are mini MOOCs. They may want them to be asynchronous starting and ending when convenient for them. This, of course, is exactly what’s happening. All in all, however, the good news is that MOOCs are forcing HE institutions to change. MOOCs may very well be the force that makes them more open, transparent and relevant. There will, of course, be a backlash, but the digital genie is out of the bottle – MOOCs are here to stay.

See: Who’s using MOOC’s? 10 Different Target Users, by Donald Clark for the full piece.

I must admit that I like the idea of “mini MOOCs”, and the concept of asynchronous start and end dates, which would have avoided the problem I referred to earlier with two courses overlapping for a period of time. I’ll await developments in this area.

One last reference on completion rates; I picked up this post that appears to be stating the case for traditional education techniques as opposed to on-line learning. I’m not sure I agree with all that the author has to say, but I do agree that it comes down to personal motivation. In particular, the last paragraph resonated with me:

Why online education is mostly a fantasy, by Francisco Dao

“Education is primarily driven by motivation, and online learning doesn’t do anything to address people’s motivational needs. In fact, the nature of online education strips away many of the components that keep students engaged and committed. Many of the factors that online education advocates claim are a benefit, such as time flexibility and the lack of classrooms, are actually a hindrance to learning. Studies have shown that a fixed structure and the sense of belonging that comes from a student body improve completion rates. Allowing students to study on their own removes these components of the support system resulting in lower rates of course completion.

In the end, MOOCs and online programs primarily help those who are self motivated to learn, and the vast majority of these people would have figured out how to educate themselves, whether in college or on their own, regardless of whether or not online courses are available.”

To conclude, my own experience has been an enjoyable sojourn into the world of MOOCs. I found the teacher for my SNA course (Professor Lada Adamic) very knowledgeable, engaging and helpful. The course materials were, without exception, of the highest quality. There was also an active online community of students and staff, willing to help with problems, and a strong sense of peer support. I would recommend MOOC’s to anyone who wants to explore new knowledge or skills, or to build on the knowledge they have, either for personal or professional improvement.

Then following links and references might help get you started.

And here’s a very useful article about financial assistance for lifelong learners (though specific to students in the US).

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

List of MOOC Providers

10gen Education – an online learning platform run by 10gen (the MongoDB company)

ALISON, – is the global leader in free online certified skills training for the workplace with 6 million registered learners, 750,000 graduates worldwide and a further 250,000 signing up each month to learn for free on the platform. ALISON offers 750+ free online courses at diploma and certificate level covering a wide range of subjects including Business, Languages, Computer Skills, Information Technology, Psychology, Healthcare, Self-development and many more . The company adds new course offerings on a weekly basis driven by demand from learners, and employers seeking time and cost efficient ways of upskilling their workforce.

Academic Earth – Featured universities include Harvard, Massachussets Institute of Technology and Stamford.

Canvas – An open, online course network that connects students, teachers & institutions

Caltech’s ‘Learning From Data’ Course – California Institute Of Technology

Class2Go – Stanford – Now in maintenance mode. Will be merged with the edX platform.

Coursera – Founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stamford University. It has teamed up with 62 colleges (and counting) for its classes. The company is experimenting with a career service that makes money by connecting employers to its students, and attracted $22-million in venture capital in its first year.

CourseSites MOOCs  Blackboard is pleased to support open education opportunities and massive open online courses (MOOCs) through CourseSites by Blackboard, a free, hosted and scalable online learning platform.

EdX – A Not-for-profit enterprise with MIT and Harvard universities as founding partners. So far, students can take classes only from Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley, but classes from nine more universities are coming soon.

Futurelearn – The first UK-led multi-institutional platform, partnering with 17 UK universities, offering MOOC to students around the world. It is a private company owned by the Open University.

iversity – A company with a diverse interdisciplinary team from Berlin presently offering MOOC  production fellowship and collaboration network for academia.

Khan Academy – Salman Khan made waves when he quit his job as a hedge-fund analyst to record short video lectures on everything from embryonic stem cells to (naturally), hedge funds and venture capital.

NovoEd – Rebranded version of Stanford’s Venture Lab, with a special focus on students collaboration and real-world course projects.

OpenUpEd – First Pan-European MOOC initiative, with support of the European commission.  It includes partners from 11 countries.

Open2Study – An initiative of Open Universities Australia which itself is a leading provider  online education through collaboration of several Australian universities.

OpenLearning  –Free courses from educators worldwide

OpenHPI – The educational Internet platform of the German Hasso Plattner Institute, Potsdam, focusing on courses in Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Open University – One of the founders of open education. Launched in 1969 to provide (paid for) distance learning. Tentatively stepping into the MOOC arena

MRUniversity – Focusing on economics courses, founded by two GMU professors

P2PU – Peer to Peer University is a non-profit online community based learning platform, founded with funding from the Hewlett Foundation and the Shuttleworth Foundation.

Saylor – a non-profit organization that provides over 280 free, self-paced courses.

Udacity – Udacity was an outgrowth of a Stanford University experiment in which Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course online for free in which over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled.

Udemy – An online learning platform that allows anyone to host their video courses.

UoPeople – University of the People (UoPeople) is a tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution offering undergraduate programs in Business Administration and Computer Science.

World Education University – Many of the courses have been provided through OpenCourseWare initiatives.






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About Steve Dale

Stephen Dale is both an evangelist and practitioner in the use of Web 2.0 technologies and Social Media applications to support personal development and knowledge sharing. He has a deep understanding of how systems and technology can be used to support learning and facilitate smarter working, where connections and conversations are the key to self-development and creativity within the organisation.
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7 Responses to MOOC’s – What Are They?

  1. Pingback: Link roundup | Kind of Digital

  2. Dear Steve,

    Excellent intro. I have one quibble with the implied criticism in the Francisco Dao paragraph you highlighted — or at least with how many people resistant to MOOCs often use that argument. The motivated and unmotivated learner is a false distinction. All learners most be motivated and self-directed. In traditional classrooms, if we think an unmotivated student who is dragged across the finish line is learning or that we are educating them, we are kidding ourselves. We only need to look at the rate of illiteracy, the college readiness gap and the work readiness gap for high school graduates in the U.S. to see that “completion” does not necessarily equal education. MOOCs may only work for motivated learners, but that’s true of all education. MOOCs just make that more apparent by, for the time being, being purely about education itself rather than also about credentials, credits and degrees.

    In your list of resources, your readers may also find helpful a link to our site, which focuses on helping prospective MOOC students get started, choose wisely, get the most they can out of the experience and use it in their larger educational and career plans.


    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  3. Steve Dale says:

    Hi Robert,

    many thanks for the comment, and absolutely agree. I run an occasional training course on Personal Knowledge Management, and I’ve learnt to ask my delegates one simple question at the very start of the course: “Are you here because you want to be here, or because your manager sent you?”. I then cross-reference this information with the post-course delegate feedback, and usually find that I’m marked down by the delegates who have been ‘sent’. These I consider to be the unmotivated learners, who have probably wasted a day of their time. Real learning come from a personal thirst for knowledge, and in this fast-moving world we now live in we need to continually refresh our knowledge or get left behind.

    Thanks also for the link to your website – now added to the references in my post.


  4. Cheryl says:

    There’s one fundamental fact about “distance learning” that has not changed over the last two decades as technology has become more sophisticated – it requires a high level of sustained motivation from the learner. This can be enhanced or hindered by the technology but is the key factor in course completion.
    Sixteen years ago I was responsible for a few hundred experimental on-line learning projects across Europe. Many failed because they did not take the learner’s experience and motivation into account. Since then I have seen many companies and organisations think that MOOCs are a quick route to profit and a rush to be seen part of this “new” future of education and learning. Many of them will fall by the wayside….

  5. Steve Dale says:

    Thanks for the comment Cheryl, and agree, absolutely! I’d go so far as to say that motivation is important for any learning, distance or otherwise. It is that much more difficult for distance learning, I agree, particularly if you haven’t got the benefit of meeting or having conversations with your fellow students. A feeling of isolation can kick in. Fortunately, most of the MOOCs I’ve looked at have fairly active online communities.

  6. Nigel Parkes says:

    Steve, Only 88.5%? you’re slacking man! 😉 I got 95.9% in ‘Strategic Innovation’!

    Joking aside, I totally agree with you. The Innovation course from Vanderbilt is apparently a module from their MBA.

    I easily spent more than the 6 hours a week because I wanted to, and I’ve rarely been exposed to such a high standard of course material. The challenge of co-ordinating a syndicate from Sweden and India entirely on-line was an exercise in Innovation itself – it speaks for itself that no-one in our syndicate scored under 90%

  7. Steve Dale says:

    Hi Nigel,

    well clearly your course was a lot easier than mine 🙂

    Strategic Innovation sounds quite interesting – must look that one up. Agree your point about quality of the course material. I must look into the business model underpinning MOOCs, after all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch…..or is there?

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