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MOOCs: What Exactly Are They

The rise of e-learning opened the doors to massive amounts of information that was previously available only to the learned scholars. In the past, if you were interested in some quality academic knowledge, you either had to ask an expert in the field, check out your local library, or enroll in classes offered by a higher educational institution. Nowadays, with the help of MOOCs, you can start learning whatever you want with a single click.

What makes MOOCs so special?

The term ‘MOOC’ was coined in 2008, and it stands for ‘massive open online course.’ Such programs are aimed at large-scale participation bringing together thousands of people from different parts of the world. They originated as a part of the open educational resources movement. The idea behind this initiative is to democratize access to knowledge and make it available to anyone willing to learn. The only prerequisite students have to meet is having a computer or mobile device with a decent internet connection, as the educational content is delivered via online platforms. Though the format differs from conventional classroom activities, MOOCs remain a well-structured collection of learning materials on a particular subject with integrated assessment activities.


Exploring the possibilities of reaching a massive audience was one of the key drivers of MOOC development. From the very beginning, the goal was to allow interactions between a wide variety of participants, overcoming the limitations posed by traditional face-to-face classes.

One of the first ‘official’ MOOCs, entitled Connectivism and Connectivity Knowledge, enrolled nearly 100 times more people online than it did on campus. This course, led by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, had 25 students attending lectures at the University of Manitoba, with a further 2300 from around the globe participating via the Internet. Only three years after that, in the fall of 2011, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence launched by Peter Norvig and Sebastien Thrun had reached a whopping number of 160,000 international students attending the same classes online.

Some of the most popular MOOCs, such as Machine Learning from Stanford University, The Science of Well-Beingfrom Yale University, and Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects from the University of California (San Diego), each claim over 3 million participants worldwide. And we’re not at the top of the mountain yet. There are no technical constraints limiting MOOCs’ final size, so in principle, they have infinite scalability.


Openness can be seen from different perspectives in MOOCs. First of all, there is no admission process for potential students. Learners are spared from having to pass entrance exams or undergo applicant interviews. Their prior qualification, academic performance, or educational level don’t have any significant relevance as well. Anyone willing to take part only has to fill in a simple registration form and then hit the ‘enroll’ button.

MOOCs allow students to explore the desired subject without the financial burden associated with traditional university studies. The learning content is usually delivered in the interactive video format. This means students don’t have to spend a penny on hefty textbooks and optional reading materials. Moreover, most courses are offered for free, though some providers may charge a small fee for a verified certificate of competition.


The course is delivered over the Internet, so learners can access their classes wherever they are. There is no need for students to attend on-campus lectures, study groups, or seminars. Instead, MOOCs have brought professors and instructors from renowned universities into living rooms and coffee shops all over the world.

Although the course is done remotely, it doesn’t mean that learners are set adrift. As MOOCs attract a large audience, they can also enable the formation of massive online learning communities. There are discussion forums and message boards that facilitate social contact between students and their instructors or fellow peers. Here, they can ask questions about the program and help others by replying to their inquiries.


Just like any other course, a MOOC is a plan of study with specific learning objectives students have to achieve over a given period of time. However, the online format implies that participants can enjoy the liberty to study whenever they want to. MOOCs usually run in asynchronous mode, so people have the opportunity to schedule their learning sessions around their other commitments.

Another key difference is that there are rarely any end-of-course exams students ought to take. There are only weekly quizzes and peer-reviewed assignments, but they can’t provide the same knowledge assessment as proper instructor feedback. Yet, some educational institutions offer graduate-level programs, like MicroMasters and Nanodegrees, which require deeper understanding. Students enrolled in these courses should prove their comprehension of the covered materials through a series of writing assignments. So if you are earning your degree online, you can occasionally use a writing service by writepaper.com to get some help with your essays.

Why do MOOCs matter?

Online courses are suitable for different types of learners. They can be vocational training for those willing to improve their job prospects, develop business-focused skills, or change their career path. High-school students can use them as a means to explore various subject areas in preparation for their university studies. College undergraduates can also benefit from online courses as they can augment their campus classes and deepen their understanding in specific areas. Furthermore, taking MOOCs is a great practice to support one’s lifelong education.