MOOCs: Online Distance Learning for Everyone - Including You!

MOOC standing for Massive Open Online Course – is a term likely to enter into our common vernacular. New technology enables the possibility to teach over 100.000 students at the same time in the same online course. Teaching such many students in a traditional campus situation will take more than 250 years. 

New technologies enable us to give (the best quality) education to a virtually unlimited number of people. Nowadays the best courses from the best institutions are made available for everyone in the world for free. Institutions are working together to make this possible, for example by Cousera, Udacity, MITx and EdX.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC is a course or unit accessible, usually with no prerequisites, to anyone who wishes to enrol, usually for free, and with self-assessment or peer assessment along the way. Many now are being offered by household name universities who may not give you credit towards a degree, but will often award certificates of participation, or even a grade.

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Most MOOCs are now delivered by acknowledged experts and outstanding teachers. MOOCs are very new, and no-one yet knows what they will mean or what role they will play in the future of education. But many already believe that Pandora’s box has been opened. Whatever the future holds in store, you can benefit from these online courses already today.

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The difference between MOOCs and OER and what that means for you

The online course material was already available for many years as Open Educational Resources (OER). MOOCs embedded them in courses that start on a regular basis with real homework assignments with a real deadline. However, they differ from OER material derived from distance teaching universities and Open Universities. Most MOOCs nowadays are basically an attempt to move the classroom online, but scalable learning of these massive courses may eventually lead to the breakdown of that model.

How do MOOCs work in practice?

In most of these MOOCs, the study material is broken down into units that require study time of 8-12 minutes each representing a coherent concept. It gives the opportunity to break away from the one size fits all education. In the end, they perhaps enable massive tailored education to the needs of a student, following a more personalized course and/or curriculum. But these MOOCS also has components to practice what is studied (including retrieval practices) and have feedback on assignments. Feedback to practices and assignments are generated by a computer not only on multiple choice, short answers but also on math, models, programming assignments, etc. However, critical thinking and reflection are still hard to facilitate automatically.

For assessment peer-2-peer tutoring and even peer- and self-grading are used and they seem very promising. It’s even operational in a massive online course where more than 10.000 students give grades to other students. Worldwide communities of students are formed, discussing the MOOC they are studying and helping each other. Because of the large numbers of students involved, even a question posted in the middle of the night is likely to be answered correctly in a short time (e.g., on average 22 minutes response time in MOOCs by Cousera). Students even form study groups both virtually and physically coming together.

Are MOOCs really open?

MOOC are less open than many ‘classic’ distance courses as you have to study at a certain pace, with fixed starting and end dates. Moreover, the courses of CourSera and Udacity don't make use of material that has an Open License. MITx now does so in part already by the material of MIT OCW to be used.

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