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massive open online course: a course of study offered over the Internet which is free and has a very large number of participants
'MONTREAL – MOOCs are coming to McGill University. These massive open online courses – all the rage in education circles, … may offer Quebec students the kind of accessibility they've been looking for. That is to say the courses are free, although they don't typically offer academic credit.'Montreal Gazette 22nd February 2013
'Mooc providers expand … Two of the leading US massive open online course providers have each almost doubled the number of universities offering courses on their online platforms.'Times Higher Education 21st February 2013
During the past year or so, it seems that the freedoms afforded by web-based technology have kick-started a quiet revolution in the domain of education. For those of us who feel that higher education is beyond our grasp, and that the opportunity to be taught by some of the world's most prestigious institutions – think Harvard and MIT – could only be a pipe dream, then there's a new acronym on the block that might change our perspective. It transpires that anyone out there, regardless of educational, social or cultural background, has the opportunity to tap into the benefits of a MOOC.
a MOOC … relies heavily on the concept of collaboration and sharing, all students' work made publicly available for fellow coursemates to see, comment on and learn from
The acronym MOOC stands for massive open online course, and it's the hottest new trend in digital pedagogy. Traditional web-based courses conventionally involve a tuition fee and are limited to a specific number of students. MOOCs, by contrast, are completely free, and truly 'massive' in that they're open to all, potentially enrolling many thousands of students.
MOOCs resemble conventional courses in that the main medium of instruction is through 'lectures', typically short instructional videos of no more than about 15 minutes. Along the way, there are frequent pauses in which students can check they've understood the material by doing specially designed quizzes or other small tasks. Feedback is given electronically, and teaching assistants monitor dedicated course discussion boards. However with a MOOC, there is no conventional, linear approach to learning, and students are free to follow any path they choose through a network of lectures and supplementary resources such as blogs, Twitter feeds, discussion forums etc. By its very nature, a MOOC does not offer a personal learning experience in which a student's work is individually monitored, but relies heavily on the concept of collaboration and sharing, all students' work made publicly available for fellow coursemates to see, comment on and learn from.
It only takes about 5 minutes to enrol on a MOOC, and anyone with an Internet connection can do so. This means, predictably, that though many thousands of students may sign up for MOOCs (some courses attract as many as 100,000), usually only a fraction of those that enrol actually complete the course.
Though many MOOCs are delivered by academics from well-respected institutions, they don't, unlike traditional online courses, usually lead to any formal qualifications (though may offer some kind of completion certificate verified by the course deliverer). Educationalists supporting MOOCs argue however that they help to expand knowledge bases and intellectual networks, and moreover can bring high-quality education to the masses, opening up opportunities for those in the remotest parts of the world.
The term MOOC (also appearing as Mooc and pronounced like the noise that a cow makes with the addition of a /k/ sound) first appeared in 2008, and was allegedly coined by Dave Cormier, a web innovations expert based at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. Cormier used MOOC to describe a course created by Canadian professors George Siemens and Stephen Downes, which was offered for a fee to a small number of university students, but also simultaneously offered online to over 2000 students for free.
However it wasn't until the autumn of 2011 that the MOOC concept really began to gain momentum, when a Stanford University course on artificial intelligence was offered for free alongside the 'real' class. In spring 2012, Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller set up Coursera, an educational technology company working with universities to make some of their courses available online. Around the same time, MIT launched MITx, an online learning environment offering a portfolio of MIT courses for free to anyone around the world. The MOOC snowball then started rolling, and a large number of institutions across the world had jumped on the bandwagon by the end of the year.
Though the acronym MOOC might seem rather inelegant, the idea of free, open, online courses seems to be turning the world of higher education on its head, so it looks likely to be around for some time to come.
Read last week's BuzzWord. Ecocide.
This article was first published on 8th April 2013.