What is a Massive Open Online Course?

What is a Massive Open Online Course?

In a nutshell:

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, offer new ways to educate the general population. These platforms allow the expansion of new methods of teaching and learning, offering a more flexible and adaptive framework than traditional course delivery. The main highlighted platforms in today’s field are Coursera (30 million registered users), edX (14M), XuentangX (9.3M), Udacity (8M), and FutureLearn (7.1M).1

Why bother?

Planner open with color pens laying on top

MOOCs experienced a big boom in 2012 and have been increasing in number since then.1  In 2017, there were over 81 million participants enrolled, comprising over 9,000 courses and over 800 universities. The main attractiveness for these types of courses are:

a) the cost (most of them are free or have a nominal fee),
b) structure (students can set their own schedule),
c) grading (most of it is automatic), and
d) availability (they’re open to anyone).2

MOOC platforms are also starting to offer classes for credit at a fraction of the cost, mainly focused on business and computer science. Most of the classes are backed by renowned universities such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Arizona State University, or the University of Michigan.3

The how-to guide:

One way to apply MOOCs to our current classes is by intermixing the infrastructures provided by MOOC platforms and the concept of hybrid classrooms.4

The beauty of MOOCs is that they don’t need specific classroom settings or rigid schedules. Students are given a sense of freedom, autonomy and accountability which creates an environment of intrinsic motivation. Students can be instructed to learn the material not only in class but outside of class, which would free the in-class time for material review, feedback, concept discussions, and creation/application.

History lesson:

Computer data cross the screen

MOOCs started back in 2008 at the University of Manitoba with Stephen Downes and George Siemens who were looking to expand worldwide their pool of participants, and therefore enrich the experiences of those taking the course.

In 2011, Stanford joined the movement with three high-demand technical courses.

Then, in 2012, Udacity and Coursera were created. Not long after, MIT, with its platform MITx, joined efforts with Harvard and created edX.5

The bottom line:

MOOCs provide an alternative way of teaching and learning which can be attractive to new generations of learners and can add value to current learning experiences. However, poorly designed MOOC classes can experience a high dropout rate.5



  1. Shah, “MOOC REPORT,” CLASS CENTRAL, 18 January 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.class-central.com/report/mooc-stats-2017/.
  2. [Online]. Available: https://www.reviews.com/mooc-platforms/.
  3. “Coursera,” [Online]. Available: https://www.coursera.org/degrees.
  4. R. C. M. M. C. &. S. R. Griffiths, “Interactive Online Learning on Campus. Testing MOOCs and Other Platforms in Hybrid Formats in the University System of Maryland,” Ithaka S+ R, no. 10, 2014.
  5. McGill University, [Online]. Available: https://www.mcgill.ca/maut/current-issues/moocs/history.

Want more info?

About the author:

Enrique Vazeuez

Enrique Alvarez Vazquez, MSEE, is a Computer Systems Engineer at the Center for Visual and Cognitive Neuroscience.  Alvarez is currently enrolled in the electrical engineering Ph.D. program while concurrently taking a Graduate Certificate in software engineering and a Graduate Certificate in college teaching.

Alvarez says he is, “always looking for ways to connect and empower others while transmitting knowledge in an effective and enjoyable way.” Connect with him and learn more on LinkedIn.

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Created2023-10-03 05:45:04Updated2023-10-03 06:09:13
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