When is a MOOC Not a MOOC?

Coincidentally, the last three courses I reviewed in the weekly Degree of Freedom News (to which you can subscribe by punching in your e-mail over there to the right) all elicited similar commentary regarding whether a course felt like a college class vs. something else.

Canvas.net’s Cheating in Online Courses, for example, seemed more like a symposium than a course, while Udacity’s Introduction to Statistics reminded me of one of the many computer-based training programs I’ve taken over the years.  And a 58-part Art History Survey course from Udemy was similar to the educational experience I had watching Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting on PBS (albeit without the wimple).

This is not to say that I didn’t learn a great deal from all three programs (as I have from most if not all of the 20+ courses I’ve either completed or am currently taking).  And given that we still lack a formal definition of what a MOOC consists of, who am I to say which classes are inside or outside the club?

I suppose we could say that only courses delivered via edX, Coursera and Udacity get to “count” as MOOCs, but this strikes me as far too narrow and artificial a definition.

It’s true that courses taken from one of these three providers are likely to have more elements built into them (not just lectures, but assessments, reading and homework assignments, all built around a syllabus and common schedule). So perhaps we should be looking for classes that want to be considered MOOCs to be ready to deliver a complete “package” of materials we commonly associate with a college-level class.

And this is just a personal preference, but I like courses to have a focal point (which tends to be a single professor tying together the disparate elements of a class).  I realize that (having had a traditional teacher-based K-12 and college education in earlier years) this may be a generational preference.  But having ploughed through four weeks of fairly demanding reading and lectures for my Saylor.org Existentialism class, the one thing that seems to be missing (along with non-lame assessment questions) is a single voice (that I’m free to agree or disagree with) guiding me through the material.

Now given that I have already made the decision to pull MOOCs and other learning sources (like iTunes U and Saylor.org courses) under the heading of “free learning” and use this wider variety of resources as the basis for my One Year BA, I have already opted out of the “If it’s not a MOOC, it’s not a real course” attitude.

But absent a more rigorous understanding of what we mean when we say “MOOC,” we stand the risk of watching the term get seized by marketers vs. educators, and applied to any set of training tools of any depth on any subject (so long as they’re presented on a web site as a series of square tiles – the emerging design language of the MOOC provider).

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5 Responses to When is a MOOC Not a MOOC?

  1. John Espinosa July 23, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    I have come to think of MOOCs as needing a few basic elements, video lectures, assessments of some kind, communications tools such as chats or discussion board, and finally the ability to get some kind of a certificate. Of course this definition narrows down the available options quite a bit, but I think it is an important distinction between MOOCs and what you refer to as “free learning” courses. To me, what makes MOOCs of the Coursera and edX type special is the interactive element. You are not just passively learning information, or simply being assessed, but you also you become part of a true learning community, and at the end you have the chance to earn something that acknowledges the work you put in to it.

  2. Devavrat Ravetkar July 23, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    While its an interesting topic, focussing on MOOCs and education systems can only get you so far. I’m eager to know of the actual learning that you’ve been doing and how it has made you grow as an emotional and intellectual being.

  3. Cristian Angelini July 24, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    I asked myself the very same question. In the end, my answer was in the acronym itself.

    Massive: it needs tools to exploit the power of thousands to hundred thousands students, so forums, hangouts and good but not harsh moderation policies. It’s amazing how much help and inspiration you’ll find from fellow students, how much knowledge will emerge as the course goes on, and how rewarding when it will be your turn to inspire.

    Open: it should offer different paths and goals based on different skills and backgrounds, without lowering the bar. This sound problematic and probably is, but we’re talking about the whole world here, so a chaotic mess of different education systems, cultures and let’s not forget also working experiences, with so many students being mature people looking for continual education. Getting in a CS class with professional IT as fellow students? I’d have died to get that when I was young.

    Online: good old books are surely great but it should not force students to refer to offline resources when online are available, not just text but also tools like virtual labs and computing clouds. Everything else should be a complementary activity or the start of a personal project of improvement (I actually bought more educational books since I started MOOCs, which is something that should be considered when talking about indirect effects in the educational system).

    Course: without tests, homeworks, assessments and grades we’d be better off simply following educational videos on youtube. And certificates: worthless or not as they may be (and I’m betting they won’t be worthless as soon as recruiters will get know what they are), what I learnt is that for a student they’re like high scores in videogames. Bragging rights, self esteem, a beautiful and cheap carrot that pull us to complete a course as best as we can.

  4. leonard waks July 25, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    There are existing definitions and refinements that are now standard. See wikipedia:

    “As MOOCs have evolved, there appear to be two distinct types: those that emphasize the connectivist philosophy, and those that resemble more traditional and well-financed courses, such as those offered by Coursera and edX. To distinguish between the two, Stephen Downes proposed the terms “cMOOC” and “xMOOC””

    The cMOOCs are organized on connectivist learning principles. A professor organizes a website with an outline of course materials – videos, lectures, readings, bibliographies, most important websites – and some key questions. The students learn through using these resources and connecting with one another and many others to learn, manage, and grow the field of knowledge. There are no fixed course objectives, except to learn in depth about the subject matter. Such MOOCs employ a complexity-based mode of organization.

    The xMOOCs are essentially scaled up standard courses with course goals, fixed subject matters, quizzes and exams.

    This conceptual vocabulary is now so standard that all discussion of MOOC definitions has to start here.

    I have recently begun to explore the various ways that xMOOCs can take advantage of some forms of connectivist learning. See my recent blog post on this topic:

    In my recent book Education 2.0 (Paradigm, 2013) I have wrapped my arms around the entire online learning space and readers may be interested in looking at it.


  1. The Georgia Tech Move, the San Jose Pause, and Ongoing MOOC Debates - August 6, 2013

    […] Degree of Freedom blogger Jonathan Haber discusses the slippery subject of what is and is not a MOOC, noting that “absent a more rigorous understanding of what we mean when we say ‘MOOC,’ we stand the risk of watching the term get seized by marketers vs. educators, and applied to any set of training tools of any depth on any subject (so long as they’re presented on a web site as a series of square tiles…” – http://degreeoffreedom.org/when-is-a-mooc-not-a-mooc/ […]

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