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The 1-minute guide to MOOCs


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If you’re wondering what MOOCs are about, here’s a brief overview. All in 1 minute. For fast readers.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. It’s free of charge (‘open’) to whoever wants to sign up (often a massive number of people) and it’s run online. MOOCs have been around for a number of years, notably via a bunch of connectivist educators in Canada. However, they have recently started to appear in the mainstream and educational press, with free online courses being offered by the likes of Stanford and Harvard universities or MIT through companies such as Udacity, Coursera  and edX. (More on the history of MOOCs on Wikipedia)

How does a MOOC work?

MOOCs are free, with a handful of tutors/facilitators, and possibly thousands of students. Depending on the MOOC you take, the learning materials may take different forms:

  • The more connectivist orientated MOOCs – or cMOOCs – tend to have little or no ‘content’ as such. Instead, there may be a few suggested weekly online readings or videos to watch, and learning develops through participants discussing the contents or collectively solving issues, with particular emphasis placed on the online conversations that can develop via forums, blogs, weekly video-conferencing sessions, and social network channels such as Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
  • Other MOOCs may have more formal learning content, such as access to recorded lectures and specially created content, with automatically graded exercises and quizzes, and the online conversations may not be the main focus. These so-called xMOOCs may offer certificates of completion.

Typically any MOOC will have a core of active learners, and a larger body of ‘lurkers’ (passive onlookers). The xMOOCs may offer some sort of (usually automated) assessment. What one doesn’t get though, is a university ‘degree’ from any of these MOOCs.

Why the fuss?

Given the high percentage of lurkers and dropouts on MOOCs, there is some debate around whether participants actually ‘learn’ anything, and how (or indeed whether) this learning should be assessed. Typically, one will benefit from a MOOC to the extent that one is prepared to contribute, so a certain amount of self-discipline is needed to get anything out of a MOOC. I blogged about my own experiences as a participant on the PLENK2010 cMOOC here.

There is also some discussion about how these MOOCs can sustain a long-term business model – or indeed whether they should. The xMOOCs can be seen as thinly disguised marketing by institutions offering samples of their traditional course content online for free, and the word ‘bandwagon’ surfaces. But the fact is that there is a wide range of free online courses being offered by reputable educational institutions and educators – whether they are xMOOCs or cMOOCs – and we can take part in courses for free.

What MOOCs are on offer?

Recent offerings include the MobiMOOC on mobile learning, the Games Based Learning MOOC looking at educational games, and EdFuture, a MOOC looking at how technology is transforming higher education. These last two are still running at the moment. Stephen Downes’ Online Daily site highlights upcoming MOOCs in education, and is a good place to keep up on the press coverage and (sometimes heated) debate surrounding them.

What about MOOCs for EFL/ESL teachers?

The closest we currently get to MOOCs in ELT are the open online courses offered by SEETA. These short facilitated courses (or ‘mini-MOOCs’) last a week or two, are offered by well-know ELT educators, and can attract several hundred teachers. Not exactly the cast of thousands Coursera gets, but not bad for ELT. Nor are they ‘true’ MOOCs in that the conversations usually takes place within the course VLE with less dissemination and discussion of ideas via social media. But hey, it’s a start. Past offerings by SEETA include courses on mobile learning, using video, using digital games, and digital literacies. I blogged about my own experiences of running an ‘Introduction to mobile learning’ mini-MOOC for SEETA in 2011 here. All of SEETA’s past courses are archived and available on their website, where you can also keep an eye out for upcoming free courses.

If you’ve taken part in or run any MOOCs, please feel free to share your experiences – positive or negative -in the comments below!

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
October 2012

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    1. carla arena says:

      I’d include the Electronic Village Online sessions that have been running for a decade in the category of MOOCs, Nicky. In fact, I think we’ve been doing that even before the name was coined. And the good thing the sessions are all for language educators!
      Soon, we’ll have the roll of sessions we’ll be offering in our EVO 2013. Exciting topics!
      We’ll advertise the free sessions at http://evosessions.pbworks.com
      carla arena recently posted..Edit Teaching – CardsMy Profile

      1. Nicky Hockly says:

        You’re absolutely right, Carla. These webhead MOOCs have been running successfully for years now, thanks for the reminder :-)

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  2. ICAL TEFL says:

    One thing which strikes me about MOOCs is the quality and content of the videos on offer. Many don’t actually offer anything more than the kind of content which could be found in a few written paragraphs. However, because it’s packaged into a video it’s suddenly taken on the guise of being cutting edge and exciting.

    My prediction is that most will have gone in a year or so when a new craze comes along; only those which actually provide more will survive and so far I can’t find any which do.

  3. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks for dropping by. The xMOOCs certainly are content driven (whether that content is in text, audio or video format), but the philosophy behind the cMOOCs is that learning takes place via the conversations that arise around a certain topic. In this sense I think cMOOCs are a departure from the transmission style of teaching that is often the hallmark of higher education. I agree that xMOOCs may fade away or at least garner less hype ( and it’s worth noting that the hype only started when Stanford Univeristy et al started offering MOOCs- no coincidence). But the cMOOCs, being community driven, are more likely to stay, and have indeed been around since 2007. I wouldn’t want to lump these two very different types of MOOC together…

    Thanks again for your comments, and I’d be interested to hear if you’ve taken part in any MOOCs, what your experience has been like.


  4. I participated in a MOOC a few months ago and I’m ashamed to say was one of those who dropped out. To justify why I dropped out (if one can justify oneself) I signed up just a day before it started and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. There was a huge amount of reading and video materials to wade through – not to mention the forum and blog posts that we were meant to contribute to – and it was not a good time of year for me (exams at school so lots of preparation and marking) and I just didn’t have the time to keep up with the course.

    I was impressed with the quality of the content of the course which consisted mainly of downloading readings and watching videos, as well as contributing to blogs and forums. I wasn’t as impressed with the platform – Coursestes – which was not user-friendly and dull. The first week of the course was very daunting because of the number of participants involved – it was difficult to know where to start.

    I think you have to be prepared to do a MOOC, motivated and treat them as if you were doing an accredited university course to get the most out of them. I don’t think they’re for everyone – but I like the idea of free university level education by some top professors for people who can’t afford it. The problem is, the business model, as has already been mentioned here and the effect they would have if they became the norm on regular teachers.

  5. Hi
    I’m actually learning in ITyPA, the first french language MOOC : http://itypa.mooc.fr/node/314

    ITyPA : Internet, Tout y Est Pour Apprendre)
    Le Page Gilles (@lepagegilles) recently posted..L’étudiant connecté (de Wendy Drexler)My Profile

    1. Nicky Hockly says:

      Thanks for the heads up on this French MOOC – good to know that there are MOOCs available in other languages than English :-)

  6. Nicky Hockly says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences of a MOOC, Helen. They sound similar to mine. I also found it very difficult to keep up, and I suppose one has to realise that one can’t possibly read all the interactions going on among hundreds (or thousands!) of people.

    The level of dialogue/conversation can be excellent on a MOOC – and I suppose at the end of the day the MOOC is as good as the people who are involved in it, and as good as the quality of the conversations that take place.

    I agree that you need to be prepared, and willing to participate, to get the most out of one. Not an easy task if you are already on a heavy work schedule!


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