What on earth are MOOCs? And are they relevant to me?

A guide for potential users

“MOOC” is the buzziest buzz word in higher education. Enthusiasts claim that the MOOC is a  disruptive technology that will change the face of higher education and spread the benefits far and wide. Detractors object that they are dumbing down higher education and threaten the existence of universities, in much the same way that pirate downloads threaten the music industry.

MOOCs certainly raise some interesting challenges for higher education professionals:

  • Are they a force for good or bad?
  • How do we adapt our pedagogies to accommodate MOOCs (if at all)?
  • Should educators embrace MOOCs or hope they go away?

I’ll be examining those questions in later blogs, but in this post, I’m just going to explain MOOCs for the uninitiated and give some useful pointers for potential users. So, if you are a possible student thinking of signing up for a MOOC, or a learning and development manager wondering if they have any relevance to workplace training – this is for you.

So – what is a MOOC?

A MOOC is a “massive open on-line course”.  “Massive” in this context does not mean huge. It means intended for mass participation. Most universities have entry requirements and a limited number of places, but an indefinite number of participants can join a massive course. They are not limited by resources or staff:student ratio.

They are created by academics and universities throughout the world and placed on-line in a site hosted by a MOOC provider.  They are “open” in the same sense as open educational resources (“OER”): they are free to for all to use.

Students can sign up for free and join the course, which typically is the size of a short module in a degree programme. The format of the courses varies, but most include lectures or seminars which take place on-line. These might be “live” classes once or twice a week, when students all log on together with the instructor and participate in a webinar format. These types of courses therefore have a start and finish date and tend to be between 5 and 12 weeks long. In other courses, the seminars or lectures are recorded so the student accesses them in their own time. Some of the courses include other activities, such as homework assignments, quizzes and tests.

Which universities are involved?

All sorts of universities, mainly from the USA, Canada and the UK, have created MOOCs. Many of them are prestigious universities – Ivy League in the USA and Russell Group in the UK. Some MOOCs (e.g. Udacity) are prepared independently.

Are there exams?

Most MOOCs have assignments, exams or assessments – completing these types of activity are an important part of learning.

Do you get credit or certificates?

Some MOOCs award certificates to students who complete them and pass the exams.

At present, MOOCs are not credit-bearing: this means that students cannot use them as credit towards standard degree programmes. However, this may change: in the USA, the American Council on Education is considered whether to recommend that its members (US universities and colleges) recognise MOOCs for credit purposes.

What subjects are covered?

Anything and everything from astronomy to zoology. Computer science features heavily in some MOOC providers, which probably reflects the interest of the participating academics, but you can study management, literature, music, biology, education…..and more courses are being added all the time.

Is it worth participating?

It’s definitely worth a look. If you have, or a member of your team has a training need, then have a look at the courses available. It’s free, flexible and could be a great way to learn.

I’m planning to join a University of Edinburgh course on E-learning and Digital Cultures, starting in January 2013.

Where to next?

The best known MOOCs are run by coursera, udacity and edX.

www.coursera.org Coursera has the widest range of courses and participating universities. The courses have defined start dates and each one has an introductory video and comprehensive information about the syllabus and work commitment involved.

www.udacity.com  Udacity was set up by three roboticists, including Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University. Runs courses in computer science and related subjects.

www.edx.org Set up by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this is a blue chip MOOC provider. The two founding institutions have been joined by Berkeley and, from summer 2013, will be joining forces with University of Texas. A limited range of courses at the moment, but expect this one to grow.

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