MOOCs: Massively Open Online Courses – Education On A Vast Scale


A wave of innovation is sweeping across the educational landscape as MOOCs – Massively Open Online Courses – become a popular and inexpensive way to gain education online. MOOCs are online courses that hundreds or thousands of people join and take at the same time – or even at different times.

Download The Curiousmatic  Fall 2013 list of MOOC providers

Today there are hundreds of high-quality, free (or low-cost) MOOCs available from leading institutions, including Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard, covering topics that range from Accounting to Vaccines. Underlying the trend are technological advances and a new urgency on the part of educational institutions to increase their reach and relevancy in a global, digital world.


Some attempts were made to test large scale online courses in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2012 that MOOCs really took off, when Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig tested the idea of an open, scalable, free online course about Artificial Intelligence. Over 160,000 students in 160 countries signed up. Soon thereafter, other universities – as well as private companies – began experimenting with MOOCS.

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Comparing MOOCs to Traditional Education

To grasp the concept of MOOCs more completely, it’s useful to draw some direct comparisons between them and traditional education:

  • MOOCs are digital, low-cost (or free) and can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. Traditional schools, on the other hand, are physical, have limited student enrollment capacity, and can be very expensive.
  • Traditional schools graduate a high percentage of their enrolled students, and provide them with sterling credentials. Meanwhile, MOOCs often have a high number of enrollments – followed by low completion rates. In addition, MOOCs usually offer certificates of completion, as opposed to the transferrable credits or degrees offered by traditional institutions.

It’s valuable to note that MOOCs are often best suited to students who are disciplined and self-motivated. Less motivated students often drop out of MOOCs, resulting in completion rates that are often under 20%.


Comparing MOOCs to Each Other

The differences between MOOCs can be rather substantial. For instance:

Princeton’s Algorithm MOOC features streaming lectures that were recorded earlier, along with embedded in-lecture tests and downloadable Java compiling tools. Princeton MOOCs utilize the Coursera technology platfom, which powers numerous other university MOOC providers (see our downloadable MOOC provider list).

Stanford MOOCs – which are provided via their proprietary technology platform, Novoed, feature streaming lectures, but require students to form into small learning teams in which they collaborate to work on assignments and submit projects. Stanford’ students also peer review each other’s work, using [tooltip tip=”guidelines”]rubrics[/tooltip] to ensure objectivity and evaluation validity.

edX, the partnership between Harvard and MIT, has its own style of MOOC, using a proprietary technology platform that streams videos of existing lectures and features student discussion forums.


MOOCs Are Sometimes Controversial

MOOCS are not without some controversy. In the spring of 2013, some 58 Harvard professors banded together to argue for more oversight of the MOOCs that Harvard offers. On the other hand, few have gone as far as Harvard’s legendary innovation thought-leader, Clayton Christensen, who suggests that in 15 years half of all US universities may be in bankruptcy, due to the changes in online education.


More About MOOCs

Curious to learn more about MOOCs? We authored a downloadable research document for your reference: the Curiousmatic Fall 2013 MOOC Provider List. The document, located in  our shared Google Drive, lists institutions and some courses from leading MOOC providers.  You can also learn more about MOOCs – and other interesting topics in the news- just subscribe to The Curiousmatic Digest.

Breaking Updates

Sept 16, 2013 - Curiousmatic Analysis:
Coursera has just passed the $1M revenue mark for course certification fees, signifying a potential business model and revenue shift for MOOCs.  The certifications, gained via “Signature Track” courses , provide students with stronger credentials and provides fresh revenue sources for Coursera, which has raised $65 M in capital so far.
Disclosure: The concept for Curiousmatic was developed in the Stanford University MOOC, Designing a New Learning Environment.