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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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