Massive open online course

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Not to be confused with Mook.
Poster, entitled "MOOC, every letter is negotiable," exploring the meaning of the words "Massive Open Online Course"

A massive open online course (MOOC /mk/) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as filmed lectures, readings, and problem sets, many MOOCs provide interactive user forums to support community interactions between students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs). MOOCs are a recent and widely researched development in distance education [1] which was first introduced in 2008 and emerged as a popular mode of learning in 2012.[2][3]

Early MOOCs often emphasized open-access features, such as open licensing of content, structure and learning goals, to promote the reuse and remixing of resources. Some later MOOCs use closed licenses for their course materials while maintaining free access for students.[4][5][6]


What is a MOOC?, December 2010
External video
Welcome to the Brave New World of MOOCs on YouTube from the New York Times, 2013


Main article: Distance learning

Before the Digital Age, distance learning appeared in the form of correspondence courses, broadcast courses and early forms of e-learning.[7] By the 1890s correspondence courses on specialized topics such as civil service tests and shorthand were promoted by door-to-door salesmen.[8] Over 4 million Americans – far more than attended traditional colleges – were enrolled in correspondence courses by the 1920s, covering hundreds of practical job-oriented topics. Their completion rate was under 3%.[9]

Broadcast radio was new in the 1920s and with programs that were free to audiences of any size.[10] By 1922, New York University operated its own radio station, with plans to broadcast practically all its courses. Other schools followed, including Columbia, Harvard, Kansas State, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Utah and many others. Students read textbooks and listened to broadcast lectures, while mailing in answers to tests. Journalist Bruce Bliven asked: "Is radio to become a chief arm of education? Will the classroom be abolished and the child of the future be stuffed with facts as he sits at home or even as he walks about the streets with his portable receiving-set in his pocket?"[11] Completion rates were very low, cheating was hard to detect, and there was no way to collect tuition fees. By the 1940s radio courses had virtually disappeared in the United States.[12] The Australian School of the Air used two-way shortwave radio starting in 1951 to teach students in classrooms in remote locations, with students able to ask questions of the live instructor.

During World War II, movies were used to train millions of draftees, as lecturers could demonstrate physical equipment in action. Universities offered televised classes, starting in the late 1940s at the University of Louisville.[13]

In the United Kingdom, in 1971, the Open University began teaching using distance learning, including course-based television broadcasts by the BBC, which started on 3 January 1971 and continues to run today with around 250,000 students studying using a wide range of online channels. For example, since 2008 over 68 million of the OU's open educational resources have been downloaded through iTunes U. In 2012, the OU span off the MOOC company FutureLearn (see below).

At many universities in the 1980s, classrooms were linked to a remote campus to provide closed-circuit video access for some students. The CBS TV series Sunrise Semester, broadcast from the 1950s to the 1980s with cooperation between CBS and NYU, offered course credit.[14]

In 1994, James J. O'Donnell of the University of Pennsylvania taught a seminar over the Internet, using gopher and email, on the life and works of St. Augustine of Hippo, attracting over 500 participants from around the world.[15] The short lecture format used by many MOOCs developed from "Khan Academy’s free archive of snappy instructional videos."[16] In 2003 Hello China launched what the UK Guardian newspaper described on 24 September that year as a new media venture to teach 4 million Chinese learners who were preparing for business degrees by radio, web and mobile phone. The course was open to all participants who could have access to radio and the internet.

Early approaches[edit]

George Siemens interview
A network diagram showing the distributive nature of Stephen Downes' and George Siemens' CCK08 course, one of the first MOOCs and the course that inspired the term MOOC to become adopted.[17]
Tabulation of the significant differences between xMOOC and cMOOC.[18]

The first MOOCs emerged from the open educational resources (OER) movement. The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (also known as CCK08). CCK08, which was led by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council, consisted of 25 tuition-paying students in Extended Education at the University of Manitoba, as well as over 2200 online students from the general public who paid nothing.[19] All course content was available through RSS feeds and online students could participate through collaborative tools, including blog posts, threaded discussions in Moodle and Second Life meetings.[17][20][21] Stephen Downes considers these so-called cMOOCs to be more "creative and dynamic" than the current xMOOCs, which he believes "resemble television shows or digital textbooks."[19]

Galway based online education provider ALISON is often cited in industry literature as the first MOOC, pioneering the systematic aggregation of online interactive learning resources made available worldwide with a freemium model.[22][23][24] Its stated objective is to enable people to gain basic education and workplace skills.[24][25] Contrary to other MOOC providers with close links to American third level institutions such as MIT and Stanford University, the majority of ALISON's learners are located in the developing world with the fastest growing number of users in India.[26][27] It records 1.2 million unique visitors per month with 250,000 graduates of its 500+ courses as of January 2013.[23] In February 2014, ALISON registered its 3 millionth user.

Other MOOCs then emerged. Jim Groom from The University of Mary Washington and Michael Branson Smith of York College, City University of New York hosted MOOCs through several universities. Early MOOCs did not rely on posted resources, learning management systems and structures that mix the learning management system with more open web resources.[28] MOOCs from private, non-profit institutions emphasized prominent faculty members and expanded existing distance learning offerings (e.g., podcasts) into free and open online courses.[29]

Recent developments[edit]

External video
The Future of Higher Education Daphne Koller (8411917358).jpg TED talks[30]
Shimon Schocken on YouTube, The self-organizing computer course, October 2012
Daphne Koller at TED, What we're learning from online education, June 2012
Peter Norvig at TED, The 100,000-student classroom February 2012
Salman Khan at TED, Let's use video to reinvent education, March 2011
Anant Agarwal at TED, Why massive open online courses (still) matter, June 2013
Chris Anderson at TED, How web video powers global innovation, July 2010

According to The New York Times, 2012 became "the year of the MOOC" as several well-financed providers, associated with top universities, emerged, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX.[2][31]

North America[edit]

In the fall of 2011 Stanford University launched three courses.[32] The first of those courses was Introduction Into AI, launched by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Enrollment quickly reached 160,000 students. The announcement was followed within weeks by the launch of two more MOOCs, by Andrew Ng and Jennifer Widom. Following the publicity and high enrollment numbers of these courses, Thrun started a company he named Udacity and Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng launched Coursera. Coursera subsequently announced university partnerships with University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Stanford University and The University of Michigan.

Concerned about the commercialization of online education, MIT created the not-for-profit MITx. The inaugural course, 6.002x, launched in March 2012. Harvard joined the group, renamed edX, that spring, and University of California, Berkeley joined in the summer. The initiative then added the University of Texas System, Wellesley College and Georgetown University.

In November 2012, the University of Miami launched its first high school MOOC as part of Global Academy, its online high school. The course became available for high school students preparing for the SAT Subject Test in biology.[33]

In January 2013, Udacity launched its first MOOCs-for-credit, in collaboration with San Jose State University. In May 2013 the company announced the first entirely MOOC-based Master's Degree, a collaboration between Udacity, AT&T and the Georgia Institute of Technology, costing $7,000, a fraction of its normal tuition.[34]

"Gender Through Comic Books," was a course taught by Ball State University's Christina Blanch on Instructure's Canvas Network, a MOOC platform launched in November 2012.[35] The course used examples from comic books to teach academic concepts about gender and perceptions.[36]

In March 2013, Coursolve piloted a crowdsourced business strategy course for 100 organizations with the University of Virginia.[37] A data science MOOC began in May 2013.[38]

In May 2013 Coursera announced free e-books for some courses in partnership with Chegg, an online textbook-rental company. Students would use Chegg's e-reader, which limits copying and printing and could use the book only while enrolled in the class.[39] In June 2013, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill launched Skynet University,[40] which offers MOOCs on introductory astronomy. Participants gain access to the university's global network of robotic telescopes, including those in the Chilean Andes and Australia. It incorporates YouTube,[41] Facebook[42] and Twitter.[43]

In the fall 2014 Georgia Institute of Technology launched the first MOOD (massive online open degree) (Master's degree) in computer science for $7000 by partnering with Udacity and AT&T.[44][45][46]

President Barack Obama has cited recent developments, including the online learning innovations at Carnegie Mellon University, Arizona State University and Georgia Institute of Technology, as having potential to reduce the rising costs of higher education.[47]

In September 2013, edX announced a partnership with Google to develop Open edX, an open source platform and its, a site for non-xConsortium groups to build and host courses. Google will work on the core platform development with edX partners. In addition, Google and edX will collaborate on research into how students learn and how technology can transform learning and teaching. will adopt Google's infrastructure.[48]

EdX currently offers 94 courses from 29 institutions around the world (as of November 2013). During its first 13 months of operation (ending March 2013), Coursera offered about 325 courses, with 30% in the sciences, 28% in arts and humanities, 23% in information technology, 13% in business and 6% in mathematics.[49] Udacity offered 26 courses. Udacity's CS101, with an enrollment of over 300,000 students, was the largest MOOC to date.

Some organisations operate their own MOOCs – including Google's Power Search. As of February 2013 dozens of universities had affiliated with MOOCs, including many international institutions.[50][51] As of May 2014, more than 900 MOOCs are offered by US universities and colleges: List of MOOCs offered by US universities.


Schools in India, China, Korea, and Japan provide MOOCs.[52][53]

In India, the idea was first proposed by IISc Bangalore in the year 1999. Following that, video-based teaching material, NPTEL was set up during 2003-2007. As of March 2014, approximately 750 video courses and web-based courses have been developed by the faculty members of IITs, IIMs and IISc.

Tsinghua University Launched MOOC platform on Oct. 2013, providing more than 60 MOOCs from universities both in China and the rest of the world.

The first MOOC in Malaysia was offered by Taylor's University in March 2013. The MOOC was titled "Entrepreneurship" and it attracted students from 115 different countries. Following this successful MOOC, Taylor's University launched the second MOOC titled "Achieving Success with Emotional Intelligence" in July 2013.[54] In August 2013, Universitas Ciputra Entrepreneurship Online (UCEO) launched first MOOC in Indonesia with the first course entitled Entrepreneurship Ciputra Way.[55][56] With over 20,000 registered members, the course offered insights on how to start a business, and was delivered in Indonesian.


In January 2012, University of Helsinki launched a Finnish MOOC in programming. The MOOC is used as a way to offer high-schools the opportunity to provide programming courses for their students, even if no local premises or faculty that can organize such courses exist.[57] The course has been offered recurringly, and the top-performing students are admitted to a BSc and MSc program in Computer Science at the University of Helsinki.[57][58] At a meeting on E-Learning and MOOCs, Jaakko Kurhila, Head of studies for University of Helsinki, Department of Computer Science, claimed that to date, there has been over 8000 participants in their MOOCs altogether.[59]

In February 2012, ex-Nokia employees in Finland-based CBTec launched,[60] based on the Open Source Moodle Virtual learning environment.[61] The site is localized to more than 19 languages (including Latin), designed for mobile use.[61][62]

The first German MOOC platform openHPI was launched in September 2012 by the Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam, Germany.[63] openHPI focuses on ICT courses and started with their first course on "In-Memory Data Management" with more than 15,000 participants.[64] The second openHPI course "Internetworking with TCP/IP" (Jan 2013) with more than 11,000 participants during the course term was the very first xMOOC in German language. openHPI announced more than 160,000 enrollments as of March 2015.[65]

The University of Edinburgh was the first of the UK universities to join the Coursera platform. Edinburgh also offers MOOC courses in Futurelearn. By 2014 the university had seen more than 1 million learner signups across 20 MOOC courses.

In late 2012, the UK's Open University launched a British MOOC provider, Futurelearn, as a separate company[66] including provision of MOOCs from non-university partners.[67] A FutureLearn course delivered by the British Council, Exploring English: Language and Culture, is Futurelearn's largest MOOC to date, with over 122,000 people joining the course.[68]

On 15 March 2012 researchers Dr. Jorge Ramió and Dr. Alfonso Muñoz from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid successfully launched the first Spanish MOOC titled Crypt4you.[citation needed]

iversity is a MOOC provider in Germany.[50] With over 82,000 students (Nov 2013) iversity's "The Future of Storytelling" is iversity's largest MOOC to date.

OpenupEd[69] is a supranational platform, founded with support of the European Union (EU).[53]

In Ireland ALISON provides free online certificate/diploma courses to two 2 million learners worldwide.[53] ALISON was shortlisted in June 2013 by London–based education technology company Edxus Group and specialist media and advisory firm IBIS Capital, as one of the 'top 20 e-learning companies in Europe' as judged by an expert panel.[70]

In the UK of summer 2013, Physiopedia ran their first MOOC regarding Professional Ethics in collaboration with University of the Western Cape in South Africa. This was followed by a second course in 2014, Physiotherapy Management of Spinal Cord Injuries, which was accredited by the WCPT and attracted approximately 4000 participants with a 40% completion rate. Physiopedia is the first provider of physiotherapy/physical therapy MOOCs, accessible to participants worldwide.

In October 2013, the French government announced the creation of France Universite Numerique (FUN), a French public alternative to existing solutions. French business schools have begun launching their own MOOCs, the first being supervised by Alberto Alemanno.

In September 2014, the popular high street retailer, Marks & Spencer partnered up with University of Leeds to construct an MOOC business course "which will use case studies from the Company Archive alongside research from the University to show how innovation and people are key to business success. The course will be offered by the UK based MOOC platform, FutureLearn.[71]


On 15 October 2012 The University of New South Wales launched UNSW Computing 1, the first Australian MOOC.[72] The course was initiated OpenLearning, an online learning platform developed in Australia, which provides features for group work, automated marking, collaboration and gamification.[73]

In March 2013 the Open2Study platform was set up in Australia.[74][75]

In July 2013 the Wicking Centre at the University of Tasmania launched Understanding Dementia, the world's first Dementia MOOC. With one of the world's highest completion rates (39%),[76] the course was recognized in the journal Nature.[77]

Latin America[edit]

In 18 June 2012, Ali Lemus from Galileo University[78] launched the first Latin American MOOC titled "Desarrollando Aplicaciones para iPhone y iPad"[79] This MOOC is a Spanish remix of Stanford University's popular "CS 193P iPhone Application Development" and had 5,380 students enrolled. The technology used to host the MOOC was the Galileo Educational System platform (GES) which is based on the .LRN project.[80]

Startup Veduca[81] launched the first MOOCs in Brazil, in partnership with the University of São Paulo in June 2013. The first two courses were Basic Physics, taught by Vanderlei Salvador Bagnato, and Probability and Statistics, taught by Melvin Cymbalista and André Leme Fleury.[82] In the first two weeks following the launch at Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo, more than 10,000 students enrolled.[53][83]

Startup Wedubox (Finalist at MassChallenge 2013) [84] launched the first MOOC in finance and third MOOC in Latam, the MOOC was created by Jorge Borrero (MBA Universidad de la Sabana) with the title "WACC and the cost of capital" it reached 2.500 students in Dec 2013 only 2 months after the launch.


On 16 March 2015, the University of Cape Town launched its first MOOC, Medicine and the Arts on the UK-led platform, Futurelearn.[85]

Related educational practices and courses[edit]

MOOCs can vary by criterion such as being for profit/non-profit or being taught by professors from universities and organizations. Khan Academy, Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), Learnterest, Udemy, and Course Hero are viewed as similar to MOOCs work outside the university system or emphasize individual self-paced lessons.[86][87][88] Udemy allows teachers to sell online courses, with the course creators keeping 70–85% of the proceeds and intellectual property rights.[89][90]

Structures and instructional design approaches[edit]

External video
Duke Chapel spire.jpg
10 Steps to Developing an Online Course: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on YouTube, Duke University[91]
Designing, developing and running (Massive) Online Courses by George Siemens, Athabasca University[92]

Many MOOCs use video lectures, employing the old form of teaching using a new technology.[93] Thrun testified before the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) that MOOC "courses are 'designed to be challenges,' not lectures, and the amount of data generated from these assessments can be evaluated 'massively using machine learning' at work behind the scenes. This approach, he said, dispels 'the medieval set of myths' guiding teacher efficacy and student outcomes, and replaces it with evidence-based, 'modern, data-driven' educational methodologies that may be the instruments responsible for a 'fundamental transformation of education' itself".[94]

Because of massive enrollments, MOOCs require instructional design that facilitates large-scale feedback and interaction. The two basic approaches are:

  • Peer-review and group collaboration
  • Automated feedback through objective, online assessments, e.g. quizzes and exams

So-called connectivist MOOCs rely on the former approach; broadcast MOOCs rely more on the latter.[95] This marks a key distinction between cMOOCs where the 'C' stands for 'connectivist', and xMOOCs where the x stands for extended (as in TEDx, EdX) and represents that the MOOC is designed to be in addition to something else (university courses for example).[96]

An emerging trend in MOOCs is the use of nontraditional textbooks such as graphic novels to improve knowledge retention.[97] Others view the videos and other material produced by the MOOC as the next form of the textbook. "MOOC is the new textbook," according to David Finegold of Rutgers University.[98]

Connectivist design[edit]

Development of MOOC providers[99]

As MOOCs have evolved, there appear to be two distinct types: those that emphasize the connectivist philosophy, and those that resemble more traditional courses. To distinguish the two, Stephen Downes proposed the terms "cMOOC" and "xMOOC".[100] A third type, the "vMOOC", has been suggested[101] to describe vocational MOOCs, that would require simulations and related technologies to teach and assess practical skills and abilities.

Such instructional design approaches attempt to connect learners to each other to answer questions and/or collaborate on joint projects. This may include emphasizing collaborative development of the MOOC.[102]


Connectivist MOOCs are based on principles from connectivist pedagogy:[103][104][105][106]

  1. Aggregation. Enable content to be produced in different places and aggregated as a newsletter or a web page accessible to participants.
  2. Remixing associates materials created within the course with each other and with other materials.
  3. Re-purposing of aggregated and remixed materials to suit the goals of each participant.
  4. Feeding forward, sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with other participants and the rest of the world.

An earlier list (2005) of Connectivist principles from Siemens:[107]

  1. Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
  2. Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources.
  3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  4. Capacity to learn is more critical than what is currently known.
  5. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate learning.
  6. Ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
  7. Accurate, up-to-date knowledge is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  8. Decision making is a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.[clarification needed]

Ravenscroft claimed that connectivist MOOCs better support collaborative dialogue and knowledge building.[108][109]


Assessment can be the most difficult activity to conduct online, and online assessments can be quite different from the bricks-and-mortar version.[110] Special attention has been devoted to proctoring and cheating.[111]

The two most common methods of MOOC assessment are machine-graded multiple-choice quizzes or tests and peer-reviewed written assignments.[110] Machine grading of written assignments is also underway.[112]

Peer review is often based upon sample answers or rubrics, which guide the grader on how many points to award different answers. These rubrics cannot be as complex for peer grading as for teaching assistants. Students are expected to learn via grading others[113] and become more engaged with the course.[114] Exams may be proctored at regional testing centers. Other methods, including "eavesdropping technologies worthy of the C.I.A." allow testing at home or office, by using webcams, or monitoring mouse clicks and typing styles.[111]

Special techniques such as adaptive testing may be used, where the test tailors itself given the student's previous answers, giving harder or easier questions accordingly.

Lecture design[edit]

A study of edX student habits found that certificate-earning students generally stop watching videos longer than 6 to 9 minutes. They viewed the first 4.4 minutes (median) of 12- to 15-minute videos.[citation needed]

Completion rates[edit]

Completion rates are typically lower than 10%, with a steep participation drop starting in the first week. In the course Bioelectricity, Fall 2012 at Duke University, 12,725 students enrolled, but only 7,761 ever watched a video, 3,658 attempted a quiz, 345 attempted the final exam, and 313 passed, earning a certificate.[115][116]

Early data from Coursera suggest a completion rate of 7%–9%.[117] Most registered students intend to explore the topic rather than complete the course, according to Koller and Ng. The completion rate for students who complete the first assignment is about 45 percent. Students paying $50 for a feature designed to prevent cheating on exams have completion rates of about 70 percent.[118]

One online survey published a "top ten" list of reasons for dropping out.[119] These were that the course required too much time, or was too difficult or too basic. Reasons related to poor course design included "lecture fatigue" from courses that were just lecture videos, lack of a proper introduction to course technology and format, clunky technology and trolling on discussion boards. Hidden costs were cited, including required readings from expensive textbooks written by the instructor that also significantly limited students' access to learning material.[114] Other non-completers were "just shopping around" when they registered, or were participating for knowledge rather than a credential. Providers are exploring multiple techniques to increase the often single-digit completion rates in many MOOCs.

The effectiveness of MOOCs is an open question as completion rates are substantially less than traditional online education courses.[120] Alraimi et al. explained in their research model a substantial percentage of the variance for the intention to continue using MOOCs, which is significantly influenced by perceived reputation, perceived openness, perceived usefulness, perceived, and user satisfaction. Perceived reputation and perceived openness were the strongest predictors and have not previously been examined in the context of MOOCs.[120]

Human interaction[edit]

"The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support," says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center. Her research compared online-only and face-to-face learning in studies of community-college students and faculty in Virginia and Washington state. Among her findings: In Virginia, 32% of students failed or withdrew from for-credit online courses, compared with 19% for equivalent in-person courses.[121]

Assigning mentors to students is another interaction-enhancing technique.[121] In 2013 Harvard offered a popular class, The Ancient Greek Hero, instructed by Gregory Nagy and taken by thousands of Harvard students over prior decades. It appealed to alumni to volunteer as online mentors and discussion group managers. About 10 former teaching fellows also volunteered. The task of the volunteers, which required 3–5 hours per week, was to focus online class discussion. The edX course registered 27,000 students.[122]

Flipped classrooms[edit]

Some traditional schools blend online and offline learning, sometimes called flipped classrooms. Students watch lectures online at home and work on projects and interact with faculty while in class. Such hybrids can even improve student performance in traditional in-person classes. One fall 2012 test by San Jose State and edX found that incorporating content from an online course into a for-credit campus-based course increased pass rates to 91% from as low as 55% without the online component. "We do not recommend selecting an online-only experience over a blended learning experience," says Coursera's Andrew Ng.[121]


Techniques for maintaining connection with students include adding audio comments on assignments instead of writing them, participating with students in the discussion forums, asking brief questions in the middle of the lecture, updating weekly videos about the course and sending congratulatory emails on prior accomplishments to students who are slightly behind.[121]


Some instructors make students begin with self-assessment surveys and videos. They asked, "What do you think it takes to be successful in online education, and do you feel that you are ready for it?" Asking those kinds of questions "improved the engagement right off the bat."

Student fees[edit]

Coursera found that students who paid $30 to $90 were substantially more likely to finish the course. The fee was ostensibly for the company's identity-verification program, which confirms that they took and passed a course.[121]

Student scores[edit]

Research found that time spent on homework exercises was the largest grade predictor—more than time spent watching videos or reading. Among comparable students, one additional hour yielded a 2.2-point score increase on a 100-point scale (with a 60 required to pass). "Organizing the course around exercises and mental challenges is much more effective than around lectures", says Thrun.[citation needed]


MOOCs are widely seen as a major part of a larger disruptive innovation taking place in higher education.[123][124][125] In particular, the many services offered under traditional university business models are predicted to become unbundled and sold to students individually or in newly formed bundles.[126][127] These services include research, curriculum design, content generation (such as textbooks), teaching, assessment and certification (such as granting degrees) and student placement. MOOCs threaten existing business models by potentially selling teaching, assessment, and/or placement separately from the current package of services.[123][128][129]

James Mazoue, Director of Online Programs at Wayne State University describes one possible innovation:

The next disruptor will likely mark a tipping point: an entirely free online curriculum leading to a degree from an accredited institution. With this new business model, students might still have to pay to certify their credentials, but not for the process leading to their acquisition. If free access to a degree-granting curriculum were to occur, the business model of higher education would dramatically and irreversibly change.[130]

But how universities will benefit by "giving our product away free online" is unclear.[131]

No one's got the model that's going to work yet. I expect all the current ventures to fail, because the expectations are too high. People think something will catch on like wildfire. But more likely, it's maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money.

—James Grimmelmann, New York Law School professor[131]

Fee opportunities[edit]

In the freemium business model the basic product – the course content – is given away free. "Charging for content would be a tragedy," said Andrew Ng. But "premium" services such as certification or placement would be charged a fee.[49]

Course developers could charge licensing fees for educational institutions that use its materials. Introductory or "gateway" courses and some remedial courses may earn the most fees. Free introductory courses may attract new students to follow-on fee-charging classes. Blended courses supplement MOOC material with face-to-face instruction. Providers can charge employers for recruiting its students. Students may be able to pay to take a proctored exam to earn transfer credit at a degree-granting university, or for certificates of completion.[131]

Overview of potential revenue sources for three MOOC providers[132][133][134]
edX Coursera UDACITY
  • Certification
  • Certification
  • Secure assessments
  • Employee recruitment
  • Applicant screening
  • Human tutoring or assignment marking
  • Enterprises pay to run their own training courses
  • Sponsorships
  • Tuition fees
  • Certification
  • Employers paying to recruit talented students
  • Students résumés and job match services
  • Sponsored high-tech skills courses

In February 2013 the American Council on Education (ACE) recommended that its members provide transfer credit from a few MOOC courses, though even the universities who deliver the courses had said that they would not.[135]

The University of Wisconsin offered multiple, competency-based bachelor's and master's degrees starting Fall 2013, the first public university to do so on a system-wide basis. The university encouraged students to take online-courses such as MOOCs and complete assessment tests at the university to receive credit. ACE president Molly Corbett Broad called the UW Flexible Option program "quite visionary."[136]

As of 2013 few students had applied for college credit for MOOC classes. Colorado State University-Global Campus received no applications in the year after they offered the option.[137]

Academic Partnerships is a company that helps public universities move their courses online. According to its chairman, Randy Best "We started it, frankly, as a campaign to grow enrollment. But 72 to 84 percent of those who did the first course came back and paid to take the second course."[138]

While Coursera takes a larger cut of any revenue generated – but requires no minimum payment – the not-for-profit EdX has a minimum required payment from course providers, but takes a smaller cut of any revenues, tied to the amount of support required for each course.[139]

Industry structure[edit]

The industry has an unusual structure, consisting of linked groups including MOOC providers, the larger non-profit sector, universities, related companies and venture capitalists. The Chronicle of Higher Education lists the major providers as the non-profits Khan Academy and edX, and the for-profits Udacity and Coursera.[140]

The larger non-profit organizations include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the American Council on Education. University pioneers include Stanford, Harvard, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, CalTech, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Berkeley, San Jose State University[140] and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay IIT Bombay.

Related companies include Google and educational publisher Pearson PLC. Venture capitalists include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates and Andreessen Horowitz.[140]

The changes predicted from MOOCs generated objections in some quarters. The San Jose State University philosophy faculty wrote in an open letter to Harvard University professor and MOOC teacher Michael Sandel:

Should one-size-fits-all vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures.[141]


Unlike traditional courses, MOOCs require additional skills, provided by videographers, instructional designers, IT specialists and platform specialists. Georgia Tech professor Karen Head reports that 19 people work on their MOOCs and that more are needed.[142] The platforms have availability requirements similar to media/content sharing websites, due to the large number of enrollees. MOOCs typically use cloud computing and are often created with authoring systems. Authoring tools for the creation of MOOCs are specialized packages of educational software like Elicitus, IMC Content Studio and Lectora that are easy-to-use and support e-learning standards like SCORM and AICC.

Course delivery involves asynchronous access to videos and other learning material, exams and other assessment, as well as online forums. Before 2013 each MOOC tended to develop its own delivery platform. EdX in April 2013 joined with Stanford University, which previously had its own platform called Class2Go, to work on XBlock SDK, a joint open-source platform. It is available to the public under the Affero GPL open source license, which requires that all improvements to the platform be publicly posted and made available under the same license.[143] Stanford Vice Provost John Mitchell said that the goal was to provide the "Linux of online learning."[144] This is unlike companies such as Coursera that have developed their own platform.[145]

Potential benefits[edit]

The MOOC Guide[146] lists 12 benefits:

  1. Appropriate for any setting that has connectivity (Web or Wi-Fi)
  2. Any language or multiple languages
  3. Any online tools
  4. Escape time zones and physical boundaries
  5. Produce and deliver in short timeframe (e.g. for relief aid)
  6. Contextualized content can be shared by all
  7. Informal setting
  8. Peer-to-peer contact can trigger serendipitous learning
  9. Easier to cross disciplines and institutional barriers
  10. Lower barriers to student entry
  11. Enhance personal learning environment and/or network by participating
  12. Improve lifelong learning skills

Experience and feedback[edit]

About 10% of the students who sign up typically complete the course.[3] Most participants participate peripherally ("lurk"). For example, one of the first MOOCs in 2008 had 2200 registered members, of whom 150 actively interacted at various times.[147]

Learners control where, what, how and with whom they learn, although different learners choose to exercise more or less of that control.[148]

Students include traditional university students, along with degreed professionals, educators, business people, researchers and others interested in internet culture.[117]

Principles of openness inform the creation, structure and operation of MOOCs. The extent to which practices of Open Design in educational technology[149] are applied vary. Research by Kop and Fournier[148] highlighted as major challenges the lack of social presence and the high level of autonomy required.

Attributes of major MOOC providers[150]
Initiatives For profit Free to access Certification fee Institutional credits
Petrolessons Yes No Yes Partial
EdX No Yes Yes No
Coursera Yes Yes Yes Partial
Udacity Yes No Yes Partial
Udemy Yes Partial Yes Partial
P2PU No Yes No No

Grading by peer review has had mixed results. In one example, three fellow students grade one assignment for each assignment that they submit. The grading key or rubric tends to focus the grading, but discourages more creative writing.[151]

A. J. Jacobs in an op-ed in the New York Times graded his experience in 11 MOOC classes overall as a "B".[152] He rated his professors as '"B+", despite "a couple of clunkers", even comparing them to pop stars and "A-list celebrity professors." Nevertheless he rated teacher-to-student interaction as a "D" since he had almost no contact with the professors. The highest rated ("A") aspect of Jacobs' experience was the ability to watch videos at any time. Student-to-student interaction and assignments both received "B-". Study groups that didn't meet, trolls on message boards and the relative slowness of online vs. personal conversations lowered that rating. Assignments included multiple choice quizzes and exams as well as essays and projects. He found the multiple choice tests stressful and peer graded essays painful. He completed only 2 of the 11 classes.[152][153]

Humanities vs science[edit]

Many popular MOOC sites were created by scientists. However, MOOCs are also useful for teaching poetry. "There was a real question of whether this would work for humanities and social science," says Ng. However, psychology and philosophy courses are among Coursera's most popular. Student feedback and completion rates suggest that they are as successful as math and science courses.[121]

In the community-college study, Ms. Jaggars found lower online grades in English than in natural-science classes, although no definitive explanations emerged.[121]

Students served[edit]

By June 2012 more than 1.5 million people had registered for classes through Coursera, Udacity and/or edX.[154][155] As of 2013, the range of students registered appears to be broad, diverse and non-traditional, but concentrated among English-speakers in rich countries. By March 2013, Coursera alone had registered about 2.8 million learners.[49]

Coursera enrollees
Country Percentage
United States 27.7%
India 8.8%
Brazil 5.1%
United Kingdom 4.4%
Spain 4.0%
Canada 3.6%
Australia 2.3%
Russia 2.2%
Rest of world 41.9%

By October 2013, Coursera enrollment continued to surge, surpassing 5 million, while edX had independently reached 1.3 million.[121]

A course billed as "Asia's first MOOC" given by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology through Coursera starting in April 2013 registered 17,000 students. About 60% were from "rich countries" with many of the rest from middle-income countries in Asia, South Africa, Brazil or Mexico. Fewer students enrolled from areas with more limited access to the internet, and students from the People's Republic of China may have been discouraged by Chinese government policies.[156]

"We have the whole gamut of older and younger, experienced and less experienced students, and also academics and probably some people who are experts in related fields," according to Naubahar Sharif who teaches the class on Science, Technology and Society in China. "We do have students from China as well, in places where Internet connections are more reliable."[156]

Koller stated in May 2013 that a majority of the people taking Coursera courses had already earned college degrees.[157]

According to a Stanford University study of a more general group of students "active learners" – anybody who participated beyond just registering – found that 64% of high school active learners were male and 88% were male for undergraduate- and graduate-level courses.[158]

In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed 103 professors who had taught MOOCs. "Typically a professor spent over 100 hours on his MOOC before it even started, by recording online lecture videos and doing other preparation," though some instructors' pre-class preparation was "a few dozen hours." The professors then spent 8–10 hours per week on the course, including participation in discussion forums.[159]

The medians were: 33,000 students enrollees; 2,600 passing; and 1 teaching assistant helping with the class. 74% of the classes used automated grading, and 34% used peer grading. 97% of the instructors used original videos, 75% used open educational resources and 27% used other resources. 9% of the classes required a physical textbook and 5% required an e-book.[159][160]

Student demographics[edit]

A study from Stanford University's Learning Analytics group identified four types of students: auditors, who watched video throughout the course, but took few quizzes or exams; completers, who viewed most lectures and took part in most assessments; disengaged learners, who quickly dropped the course; and sampling learners, who might only occasionally watch lectures.[158] They identified the following percentages in each group:[161]

Course Auditing Completing Disengaging Sampling
High school 6% 27% 29% 39%
Undergraduate 6% 8% 12% 74%
Graduate 9% 5% 6% 80%

Jonathan Haber focused on questions of what students are learning and student demographics. About half the students taking US courses are from other countries and do not speak English as their first language. He found some courses to be meaningful, especially about reading comprehension. Video lectures followed by multiple choice questions can be challenging since they are often the "right questions." Smaller discussion boards paradoxically offer the best conversations. Larger discussions can be "really, really thoughtful and really, really misguided," with long discussions becoming rehashes or "the same old stale left/right debate."[151]

Challenges and criticisms[edit]

The MOOC Guide[146] suggests 5 possible challenges for collaborative-style MOOCs:

  1. Relying on user-generated content can create a chaotic learning environment
  2. Digital literacy is necessary to make use of the online materials
  3. The time and effort required from participants may exceed what students are willing to commit to a free online course
  4. Once the course is released, content will be reshaped and reinterpreted by the massive student body, making the course trajectory difficult for instructors to control
  5. Participants must self-regulate and set their own goals

These general challenges in effective MOOC development are accompanied by criticism by journalists and academics.

Some dispute that the 'territorial' dimensions of MOOCs[162] have received insufficient discussion or data-backed analysis, namely: 1) the true geographical diversity of enrolls in/completes courses; 2) the implications of courses scaling across country borders, and potential difficulties with relevance and knowledge transfer; and 3) the need for territory-specific study of locally relevant issues and needs.

Other features associated with early MOOCs, such as open licensing of content, open structure and learning goals, community-centeredness, etc., may not be present in all MOOC projects.[4]

Effects on the structure of higher education were lamented for example by Moshe Y. Vardi, who finds an "absence of serious pedagogy in MOOCs", and indeed in all of higher education. He criticized the format of "short, unsophisticated video chunks, interleaved with online quizzes, and accompanied by social networking."[clarification needed] An underlying reason is simple cost cutting pressures, which could hamstring the higher education industry.[163]

Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors claimed that MOOCs are not a reliable means of supplying credentials, stating that "It’s fine to put lectures online, but this plan only degrades degree programs if it plans to substitute for them." Sandra Schroeder, chair of the Higher Education Program and Policy Council for the American Federation of Teachers expressed concern that "These students are not likely to succeed without the structure of a strong and sequenced academic program."[164]

With a 60% majority, the Amherst College faculty rejected the opportunity to work with edX based on a perceived incompatibility with their seminar-style classes and personalized feedback. Some were concerned about issues such as the "information dispensing" teaching model of lectures followed by exams, the use of multiple-choice exams and peer-grading. The Duke University faculty took a similar stance in the spring of 2013. The effect of MOOCs on second- and third-tier institutions and of creating a professorial "star system" were among other concerns.[112]

In April 2013, the Philosophy Department faculty of San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Harvard Professor Michael Sandel outlining their concerns about MOOCs, most notably their "fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well- funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant." The letter was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.[165]

At least one alternative to MOOCs has advocates: Distributed open collaborative courses (DOCC) challenge the roles of the instructor, hierarchy, money and massiveness. DOCC recognizes that the pursuit of knowledge may be achieved better by not using a centralized singular syllabus, that expertise is distributed throughout all the participants and does not just reside with one or two individuals.[166]

Although the purpose of MOOCs is ultimately to educate more people, recent criticisms include accessibility and a Westernized curriculum that lead to a failure to reach the very audience they were intended to save.[167]


Dennis Yang, President of MOOC provider Udemy has suggested that MOOCs are in the midst of a hype cycle, with expectations undergoing a wild swing.[168]

During a presentation at SXSWedu in early 2013, Instructure CEO Josh Coates suggested that MOOCs are in the midst of a hype cycle, with expectations undergoing wild swings.[169] Dennis Yang, President of MOOC provider Udemy, later made the point in an article for the Huffington Post.[170]

Many universities scrambled to join in the "next big thing", as did more established online education service providers such as Blackboard Inc, in what has been called a "stampede." Dozens of universities in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia have announced partnerships with the large American MOOC providers.[50][171] By early 2013, questions emerged about whether academia was "MOOC'd out."[168][172] This trend was later confirmed in continuing analysis.[173]


Provider Type Example institutional participants
UPEx Non-profit

USC, UCLA, Khan Academy, NPTEL

Miriada X Non-profit 48 universities from Spain and Latin America
MenaVersity Commercial n/a
Rwaq Commercial n/a
Stanford Online Non-Profit Stanford University
Coursera Commercial University of Maryland, Wharton School, University of Virginia, Stanford University, University of Houston System, University of Tokyo, University of Edinburgh
iversity Non-profit Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, University of Florence, University of Hamburg
edX Non-profit MIT, Harvard University, UC Berkeley, Kyoto University, Australian National University, University of Queensland, IIT Bombay, Dartmouth College, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid
Eliademy Commercial Aalto University Executive Education,
Canvas Network Commercial Santa Clara University, University of Utah, Université Lille 1
One Month Commercial School of Visual Arts
OpenLearning Commercial University of New South Wales, Taylor's University, University of Canberra
Udacity Commercial Georgia Institute of Technology, San Jose State University, Google, Salesforce, Facebook, Cloudera, Nvidia, Autodesk, Cadence
Academic Earth Non-profit UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Michigan, Oxford University
FutureLearn Non-profit University of Birmingham, University of Edinburgh, University of Reading, Open University, Monash University, Trinity College Dublin, Warwick University, University of Bath, University of Southampton
Kajabi Next Commercial n/a
Peer to Peer University Non-profit n/a
Khan Academy Non-profit n/a Commercial Universidad Latina Non-profit n/a
Udemy Commercial Professors from Universidad de Chile, University of Chicago Law School, George Washington University, and other institutions. Other professionals are also involved.
Petrolessons Commercial n/a
MOOEC Non-profit University of Queensland, Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology
NovoEd Commercial Stanford University, Wharton, Princeton, Darden, Comcast, Carnegie Foundation, Universidad Católica de Chile
WizIQ Commercial IIT Delhi, Des Moines Area Community College
Université Numérique France Université Numérique Non-profit Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, École normale supérieure de Cachan, University of Paris-Sud
School of Business and Trade - Non-profit n/a
AtademiX Non-profit Ataturk University From TURKEY

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External links and further reading[edit]