What is a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)

A massively online open course (MOOC) is a learning module or series of modules that are accessible over the internet at no charge. MOOCs are intended to be available to anyone who is interested in learning and do not require the learner to complete prerequisites or an entrance exam. Interested parties can simply access the course materials and work through them at their own pace. Some MOOCs gather cohorts of learners for interactive discussion, but the majority follow the reading, lecture (video or audio), and additional resource model that still makes up the backbone of most university courses.

Breaking Down Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)

MOOCs can be created by anyone, but the most popular ones are created by prestigious institutions with well-known experts. For example, the Econ 252: Financial Markets MOOC produced by Yale in 2011 features Robert J. Shiller, the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Economic Science.

Along with other forms of EdTech​, massively open online courses (MOOCs) were once seen as a threat to traditional universities and the model for higher education. Some people believed students from all over the world would opt for free courses taught by the top academics in their field rather than pay tuition to attend a physical college or university. While MOOCs do remain popular, the death of the university model has not come to pass. This is because MOOCs suffer from some limitations compared to a traditional education system.

MOOC Limitations

The most apparent limitation of MOOCs is that they do not grant the learner an accreditation or certificate that will be recognized by potential employers. That is to say a learner could take all the courses necessary for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) online for free and gain the knowledge of a traditional MBA program, but there would be no MBA designation on their resume to signal to employers that they do indeed know their stuff. Universities are the gatekeepers of the degrees that act as third-party endorsements of the skills and knowledge a person holding one of their degrees is supposed to have.

Another limitation of education through MOOCs is that the online nature of the courses takes away the networking and relationship building that takes place alongside higher learning. Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the other prestigious institutions offer as much value in the vast networks they help build as they do in the knowledge they attempt to impart on their students.

The final limitation is that the completion rates and the percentage of people that go on to transfer their learnings into a future degree are both small. There are a number of theories as to why MOOCs aren’t more fully utilized. Some massively open online courses suffer from poor design both in user-friendliness and finding the appropriate level for the audience, but the bigger problem may be the fact that MOOCs are free. With no money at stake for a MOOC, the learner has nothing to lose and can quickly find better ways to use his or her time when the content gets the slightest bit challenging or boring.

MOOCs: The Future

Despite the limitations, MOOCs aren’t going away. The enthusiasm for MOOCs prompted many educational institutions to take their digital future seriously. As new technologies enrich MOOCs with virtual reality and artificial intelligence (AI) bot classmates that can increase learner engagement, there will be better outcomes. Moreover, universities with successful MOOCs will be encouraged to create a business model around that success. For example, it would be more attractive to potential university students if they could challenge courses that they’ve completed the MOOC for rather than having to take it all over again. Or MOOCs could have a more robust authentication and testing system where a score for a learner could become an accreditation of sorts. Time will tell, but it is possible that, far from killing universities, MOOCs open up an avenue for saving them in a world of digital education.