What Is a MOOC?

Posted by on Mon, Mar 3, 2014

What Is a MOOC?

Online learning is rapidly becoming an integral part of education. Anyone with a computer can learn anywhere and at any time. Traditional brick-and-mortar college campuses are even beginning to incorporate online aspects into their lessons. Today, we’re in the midst of a movement to make those online courses available outside of a college program, for anyone in the world to take.

[Take the free course Documenting Your Experiences for College Credit and get credit for what you already know.]

These massive open online courses, called MOOCs, are causing quite a stir. Are they the new face of education or just a fad? While people are asking a lot of questions about online learning and the future of education, maybe your questions are more along the lines of what a MOOC entails. We take a comprehensive look at all the components of a MOOC and help you break it down. 

What is a MOOC?

MOOCs are exactly as they are named—Massive Open Online Courses. They are online courses that are open to anyone with Internet access and are typically free. This open access is on of the cornerstones of MOOCs. The openness also leads to massiveness, as the number of students in a MOOC can be in the hundreds or even thousands. There are three main components to a MOOC:

  1. Lectures from professors at accredited universities around the world. MOOCs are taught by university professors with established careers at accredited institutions, including the top research universities in the US, such as Harvard and MIT. Many MOOC instructors have spent years developing expertise in their fields of study—both through teaching and in professional careers. As a student in a MOOC, you have free access to highly praised schools and their faculty.
  2. Assignments and grading. If there are a hundred thousand students, how can a professor possibly interact with everyone? How can grading happen? Typically, professors are available to answer questions anytime and for live discussion during specified office hours. Many assignments are graded through automated systems, and some MOOCs have an even more innovative solution for mass grading. The professor provides clear evaluation criteria, and the students evaluate one another. This method can be quite reliable, and it increases student interaction.
  3. Social interaction via online discussion forums and social media. Another way students can interact is through the network of community forums. These are online discussion boards where students can socially interact with one another. Many times, students can “up vote” or “down vote” topics that are posted, and that way, relevant material is always at the top of a discussion board and remains the easiest to access. This is a great feature that keeps irrelevant or off-topic conversations from cluttering the boards.

[It’s easy to get started and stay on track. See the Top 10 Tips for Taking a MOOC.]

Through these three components, MOOCs give everyone the ability to obtain a level of education that in the past could only be obtained through the admissions and enrollment process. Author Tamar Lewin of the New York Times observes that MOOCs are “a tool for democratizing higher education.”

How does a MOOC benefit me?

MOOCs are a great way to advance or start a career. Many of them include the option to receive a certificate of completion for a small fee. Depending on the institution, these certificates may even have the potential for college credit. Many employers view MOOC certificates as legitimate ways for employees to advance their skills. Listing MOOCs on your résumé can help you stand out among other job candidates, and LinkedIn now offers the option to display official certifications from MOOCs and other online courses in your personal profile.

Networking is also an important facet of a MOOC, and it is one way to get the most out of your course. Because MOOCs are global, you will find new people with which to discuss what matters to you, often with new perspectives. Groups can be created for students who are located near one another to meet in person. Choosing topics that are important or interesting to you is a great way to be sure you will find others who have the same interests. You might even make some new friends!

A MOOC can benefit you personally, too. You have the option to try something new without having to pay. If the subject or the course is not for you, you can stop at any time without any repercussions. Online courses are extremely flexible, meaning you can attend class when you choose and can study on your own time. Plenty of MOOCs are also self-paced, meaning there is no deadline to finish your assignments—you can complete the course whenever you’re ready.

When choosing a MOOC, consider your future plans and what it is you want to learn. Single courses often provide clarity on what is required to achieve longer-term goals, as well as giving you a sense of what the subject is all about. MOOCs can serve as a starting point for your next steps. Gary W. Matkin, Ph.D., the Dean of Continuing Education, Distance Learning, and Summer Session at the University of California, Irvine, spoke with StudentAdvisor about making sense of MOOCs. When asked what makes a good MOOC, he said, “[it is] an experience that helps you achieve your learning goals efficiently and in a stimulating manner. It keeps you motivated to learn more.” Keep in mind during your MOOC journey that the course is for you and your learning goals. You’re not in it for anyone but yourself.

[Have more questions? Read our answers to 6 Questions about MOOCs You May Be Afraid to Ask.]

What is my next step?

Now that you know all about MOOCs and the potential impact they can have, start exploring! MOOCs are offered through several online provider websites. Some of the more popular providers are Coursera, edX, Udemy, Udacity,  lynda, and FutureLearn. Many universities offer MOOCs on their own sites as well. There are even libraries that have MOOCs. With so many providers, choosing a MOOC can be overwhelming, but there are plenty of resources to help you explore course options.

On LearningAdvisor.com, you’ll find course descriptions, instructor details, start and end dates, and links to sign up pages. Beyond the basic information, there are also student reviews on hundreds of courses—you can even provide your own ratings and share your thoughts with other learners. Browse courses by subject, and search the MOOC database using your own keywords. You can also find current news on MOOCs and evolving education technology alongside tips on taking and succeeding in MOOCs.

One of the best things about a MOOC is community: you’re not learning alone. There are people experiencing everything you are at the same time, and many resources are available to you to help you along the way. Learning something new is just a few clicks away. Make a plan, find a topic, and start learning!


What have you discovered in a MOOC?

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