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Does This MOOC Make My Class Look Big – Part 1

MOOC! The very name seems to demand attention and the words behind each letter even more so; MASSIVE OPEN ONLINE COURSE. In this brief four part write-up, you will learn about the early history of MOOCs, their components, a specific MOOC implementation, and thoughts about community colleges and MOOCs.


Let’s begin by exploring the relatively short history of MOOC’s. In 2008, George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the Canadian National Research Council taught a course titled, “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge”.  Offered through the University of Manitoba as a regular tuition class, it was attended by 25 local students. In addition, 2300 other students participated in the class, free of charge, via the web. The course was taught using a constructivist approach of knowledge building and student interaction. A standard LMS (learning management system) was eschewed in favor of a variety of open web technologies such as wikis, discussion boards, web pages, etc.… The term MOOC, coined by Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander (Wikipedia, 2013), was a direct result of this class. Several years later, the “Connectivism” class would be used as a classic example of what is called a “cMOOC” or “Constructivist MOOC” as a way to differentiate smaller, open content MOOC’s from the large scale MOOCs that were yet to come.

Not much happened in the MOOC world for a few years. Then, in 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig from Stanford offered an Artificial Intelligence course that enrolled over 160,000 online students.  Offered in conjunction with a tuition course, the open course utilized short weekly video lectures with web based form responses. The instructors created the course just ahead of the students so the content was fresh. Discussion boards had a lot of activity. Assignments were structured with due dates, and a midterm and final were required for course completion (Martin, August, 2012). Thrun’s AI class is often used as the classic example of what is called an “xMOOC”, a term that is used to indicate the more “assembly line” approach that can handle extremely large numbers of students.


One interesting aspect of the term MOOC is that it supports delivery of courses that fall onto the cMOOC side or the xMOOC side of the MOOC spectrum and other option in between. As indicated by Matthieu Plourde, an instructional designer from the University of Delaware, “every letter is negotiable” and new applications of each term may yet be implemented.

Every Letter Is Negotiable

Let’s explore each letter in MOOC beginning with the first letter, M. The word MASSIVE is used in varying contexts as seen just in the two courses above. The first cMOOC enrolled 2300 students and the first xMOOC enrolled 160,000. What does “Massive” really mean? The term is relative to the content and delivery style and support mechanisms in place for the course. For some institutions, even a course of 50 might be massive while others regularly offer classes in the 300 – 500 range so for them 10,000 or 100,000 might be more “massive”.

The next letter, O for OPEN, is often one that is misunderstood. The MOOC movement originally got its start as an offshoot of the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement and the “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge” cMOOC was truly open in every sense of the word; tuition, access, materials, copyright. However, the same cannot be said of many xMOOCs today. Access to the class online may be free (i.e. no tuition), however, some of the classes require the purchase of expensive materials and others charge high fees for certificates of completion. In addition, most xMOOC’s lock their materials under copyright protection inside a management system even though some of those materials may have been created with open copyright initially. Even the idea of open tuition may be “negotiable”. A recent Canvas Network instructor stated in their InstructureCon 2013 presentation that they were thinking of charging a $30 access fee just for students to sign up for the class (Pat McKeague, June 17, 2013).

The second O, which stands for ONLINE, is pretty straightforward. Classes are offered with all material delivered via the web. Students may complete the entire class without ever leaving the comfort of their home and their computer. Taking classes entirely online can be problematic, however, for those seeking certificates of completion.  Identity and cheating concerns are high on the list of those providing certificates for MOOC completion. MOOC providers such as Udacity provide services that limit possibilities of cheating and or identity mismanagement.

The last letter, C, stands for COURSE and indeed, entire “courses” are delivered as part of the MOOC framework. Many of these courses are ones that students might take as part of their college curriculum, however many are not. For example, Broward College offers a College Foundations course to better prepare students for placement testing, Northern Illinois University will soon offer a course called, “Perspectives on Disability”, and Arizona State University is thinking of offering a course focused on life skills and time management.

Martin, F. (2012). Will massive open online courses change how we teach? Communications of the ACM, Vol 55, No. 8, August 2012. Retrieved from

Massive Open Online Course, Wikipedia, 2013:



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