© Giulia Forsythe, 2012 and JISC, 2012
Figure 5.2.1 Making sense of MOOCs © Giulia Forsythe, 2012 and JISC, 2012

5.2.1 MOOCS: a massive disruption?

Probably no development in teaching in recent years has been as controversial as the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The writer Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times in 2013:

...nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course ….For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic…I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world ….paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.

Many others have referred to MOOCs as a prime example of the kind of disruptive technology that Clayton Christensen (2016) has argued will change the world of education. Others have argued that MOOCs are not a big deal, just a more modern version of educational broadcasting, and do not really affect the basic fundamentals of education, and in particular do not address the type of learning needed in a digital age.

MOOCs can be seen then as either a major revolution in education or just another example of the overblown hyperbole often surrounding technology, particularly in the USA. I shall be arguing that MOOCs are a significant development, but they have severe limitations for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.

5.2.2 Key characteristics

All MOOCs have some common features, although we shall see that the term MOOC covers an increasingly wide range of designs. Massive

By 2019, Coursera claimed over 35 million sign-ups with its largest course claiming 240,000 participants. The huge numbers (in the hundred of thousands) enrolling in the earliest MOOCs are not always replicated in later MOOCs, but the numbers are still substantial. For instance, in 2013, the University of British Columbia offered several MOOCs through Coursera, with the numbers initially signing up ranging from 25,000 to 190,000 per course (Engle, 2014).

However, even more important than the actual numbers is that in principle MOOCs have infinite scalability. There is technically no limit to their final size, because the marginal cost of adding each extra participant is nil for the institutions offering MOOCs. (In practice this is not quite true, as central technology, backup and bandwidth costs increase, and as we shall see, there can be some knock-on costs for an institution offering MOOCs as numbers increase. However, the cost of each additional participant is so small, given the very large numbers, that it can be more or less ignored). The scalability of MOOCs is probably the characteristic that has attracted the most attention, especially from governments, but it should be noted that this is also a characteristic of educational broadcasting, so it is not unique to MOOCs. Open

At least for the initial MOOCs, access was free for participants, although an increasing number of MOOCs are charging a fee for assessment leading to a badge or certificate or other fees. For instance, in 2019 Coursera was charging between US$29-$99 per course. More importantly, there are no pre-requisites for participants other than access to a computer/mobile device and the Internet. However, broadband access is essential for MOOCs that use video streaming, which severely limits their potential for widening access to higher education in the least developed countries.

There is another significant way in which MOOCs through Coursera and some other MOOC platforms are not fully open (see Chapter 11 for more on what constitutes ‘open’ in education). Coursera owns the rights to the materials, so they cannot be repurposed or reused without permission, and the material may be removed from the Coursera site when the course ends. Also, Coursera decides which institutions can host MOOCs on its platform – this is not an open access for institutions. On the other hand, edX was an open source platform, so any institution that joined edX could develop their own MOOCs with their own rules regarding rights to the material. This is probably no longer the case now that edX has been merged with 2U. cMOOCs are generally completely open, but since individual participants of cMOOCs create a lot if not all of the material it is not always clear whether they own the rights and how long the MOOC materials will remain available.

Indeed, there are many other kinds of online material that are also open and free over the Internet, such as open textbooks and open educational resources, often in ways that are more accessible for reuse than MOOC material (see Chapter 11). Online

MOOCs are offered at least initially wholly online, but increasingly institutions are negotiating with the rights holders to use MOOC materials in a blended format for use on campus. In other words, the institution provides learner support for the MOOC materials through the use of campus-based instructors. For instance at San Jose State University, on-campus students used MOOC materials from Udacity courses, including lectures, readings and quizzes, and then instructors spent classroom time on small-group activities, projects and quizzes to check progress (Collins, 2013). Other variations in the design of MOOCs will be discussed in more detail in Section 5.3.

Again though it should be noted that MOOCs are not unique in offering courses online. In fall 2019, there were 7,313,623 students enrolled in distance education courses (which then were nearly all online) at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the USA. Of all American post-secondary students,  37% were taking at least one distance education course (US Department of Education, 2020). Although students can count these online courses towards a degree, these ‘for-credit’ online courses though are not free or even open to anyone. MOOCs are. Courses

One characteristic that distinguishes MOOCs from most other open educational resources is that they are organized into a whole course. However, what this actually means for participants is not exactly clear. Although many MOOCs offer certificates or badges for successful completion of a course, to date these have not in most cases been accepted for admission to universities or for advanced standing or credit, even (or especially) by the institutions offering the MOOCs.

5.2.3 Summary

It can be seen that all the key characteristics of MOOCs exist in some form or other outside MOOCs. What makes MOOCs unique though is the combination of the four key characteristics, and in particular the fact that they scale massively and are open for participants (although not always free).


Christensen, C. (2016) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York: McGraw-Hill, 2nd edition

Collins, E. (2013) SJSU Plus Augmented Online Learning Environment Pilot Project Report San Jose CA: San Jose State University

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Friedman, T. (2013) Revolution Hits the Universities New York Times, January 26

US Department of Education (2020) Digest of Education Statistics 2020, Washington DC: National Center for Education Statistics.  Table 311.15.

Activity 5.2

  1. When is a MOOC not a MOOC? What are the essential characteristics for a course to be a MOOC?
  2. Can you find examples of MOOCs from providers within your own state or province? Do they differ in any way from the main MOOC platforms such as Coursera or edX? In what ways?
  3. Are they an inferior or low quality form of education? If so, why? What criteria would you use for judging the quality of a MOOC? Write down your answers then check these when you have read the rest of this chapter and see if you have changed your mind.

For my feedback on these questions click the podcast below:


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Teaching in a Digital Age: Third Edition - General Copyright © 2022 by Anthony William (Tony) Bates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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