What are MOOCs?

Simply put, MOOCs are personalized online courses that allow thousands of students to participate at any one time.  And these MOOCs have been all the rage lately.  You are now in the digital era, where everything you want to know can now be brought right before your eyes with a mere click of your fingers. With it comes a revolutionary, far-reaching learning trend, seeking to change the way people perceive education—costly and exclusive. Here’s everything you need to know about massive online open courses or MOOCs.

MOOC: The Basics

Coined in 2008,  the term “massive online open courses”pertains to online courses that allow the participation of hundreds, if not thousands, of students simultaneously. Not only are they free, they offer essentially unlimited enrollment to anyone interested. Based on Stephen Downes’ connectivist theory, MOOCs feature three aspects: open content, open instruction, and open assessment. Their uniqueness was lauded by Donald Gofarb, Dean of Columbia University’s Engineering Department. They work on the foundation that knowledge and learning stem from a network of connections.

The learning process is streamlined in four ways. The first is “aggregate,” which pertains to student engagement. This phase involves watching videos, reading lectures, and sifting through numerous lessons on the web. The second part is referred to as “remix”. It is where learners exchange thoughts with professors and fellow students through blogging, posting in forums, and instant messaging. The third is “re-purpose,” a phase wherein the student creates or constructs a knowledge base. The final activity is called “feed forward.” Here, a student shares his knowledge through blogs and other shareable material.

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With the growing popularity of these open courses, many traditional universities creating an online platform have also emerged. The most popular example is MIT Open Courseware, a website brimming with all course materials from the esteemed institution. A person does not need to sign up for an account in order to access a total of 2,150 courses posted in the website. Since its opening in 2002, MIT Open Courseware has played host to 125 million eager learners from all around the world.

Another popular hub is Coursera, a social entrepreneurship website that works in coordination with 33 universities. The site’s goal is to provide excellent academic materials to millions of interested students. With lessons inspired by pedagogical foundations, registrants can enjoy a diverse array of learning materials in the fields of business, mathematics, and computer science, among many others.

Academic Earth is another open course website that promotes world-class education with the use of online classes and learning materials. Working hand-in-hand with Academic Earth are academicians from renowned universities, such as Yale, Stanford, MIT, Dartmouth and University of Cambridge, to name a few.


The core of the concept behind MOOCs is what’s being termed as the “flipped classroom,” which is already a renowned trend in brick-and-mortar courses. Professors no longer have to exert so much effort nor waste their time on implementing canned lectures, which their students only sleep through. Instead, they put those lessons online for their students to watch at their convenience.

Massive open online courses also allow a student to learn on his own pace, which is otherwise not feasible with traditional education system.  The asynchronous modules provided by MOOCs make them great alternatives for those who cannot attend university courses because of time and personal constraints.

Ultimately, what’s making the popularity of massive open online courses rise exponentially over the years is their noble goal of reaching out to people who do not have the financial capacity to pursue their studies. Andrew Ng, a computer science professor at the University of Stamford, emphasizes his desire to bring college coursework within the masses’ reach– giving  everyone, from all walks of life, from every nook and corner in the world the opportunity to be educated by the best professors from the most prestigious universities. He envisions that the world would be a better place to live in if a less fortunate child in Africa can enjoy equal opportunity as that who lives in the wealthy suburbs of DC.


Despite the hype massive open online courses are getting, educators urge caution about using them as a learning tool and insinuate that though they may be less costly to produce compared to traditional courses, they are not necessarily applicable to every student, thus should be reevaluated. Critics assert that these are effective only to the motivated, self-disciplined, and high achievers, despite the courses’ goal to make learning more accessible. Other cynics fear that students may not be able to obtain personalized attention online. The high attrition rates of massive open online courses also have been criticized.

Moreover, MOOCs are seen to eventually go in the wrong direction especially that they cannot cater to the learning needs of students who need help with basic skills. Ned Muhovich, a director of the academic advising center and an advocate for e-learning since 2000, explains that the fusion of traditional and online education is the best option for some students. Furthermore, online courses alone are not advisable for students who are struggling academically, since this type of learners need consistent feedback and reinforcement from their educators. Also, institutions can save money with MOOCs only if learners are able to take a grasp of and finish the courses quickly.


The emergence of online open courses has given birth to similar concepts. These are known as quasi-MOOCs, which are authored by those who are not bonafide (and certified) educators.  One extremely popular quasi-MOOC is Khan Academy. There are also no examinations to determine your progress. Although quasi-MOOCs are very helpful for some, these do not have the same reputation that MOOCs have, thus people must be aware of the platforms they are participating in.

The popularity of massive online open courses has grown by leaps and bounds in a span of just less than a decade. Students from around the world are noticeably willing to embrace the drawbacks that come with these courses just to be able to chase their dreams and widen their knowledge base the hassle-free way. With this, MOOCs will undeniably continue to take the world by storm in the years to come– breaking down financial barriers and other forms of personal constraints.

Photo by: Robert K. O’Daniell/The News-Gazette

Authored by: Marvelous Perez

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