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MOOC (Massive Open Online Course): The Key Facts

MOOCs are online courses with video content. They enable large numbers of participants to learn from top universities around the world. This is what you need to know about MOOCs.

MOOC (Massive Open Online Course): The Key Facts
Picture: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

The acronym MOOC stands for 

Massive Open Online Course.

MOOCs are modern online courses for many participants at the same time ("massive"), without access restrictions ("open"), and in a course format (with video lectures and integrated tests).

The learning content of a MOOC is created by universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and other top universities. Examples from Europe include the universities of London, Oxford, Munich and Zurich.

The operation of a MOOC (course organization, administration) is coordinated by globally active MOOC platforms (e.g. Coursera and edX).

What is Edukatico’s role in this? 

We are a search portal for online courses from different platforms and universities. Thus, you will find thousands of MOOCs and other online courses from all of the key providers in our course directory.

What´s unique about MOOCs?

MOOCs were created from the idea of covering an entire university course online and thereby making it accessible to everyone in the world.

The intent was to "democratize" educational content from elite universities.

High-quality education should not be available to just a small group of university students in developed countries, but to everyone who is willing to learn – from Alabama to Zanzibar. 

What’s so innovative about MOOCs?

  1. Teaching in a modern video format (not just texts like those that you’d find in other e-learning courses).
  2. Openly accessible learning content from top universities like Harvard, Stanford, etc.
  3. Courses in a true online format (no paper-based study materials like those required in traditional distance learning).
  4. Online interaction between learners and teachers (via discussion forums).
  5. Online tests (often resulting in certificates with verified identity of participants).

Are MOOCs really free?

With many MOOCs, learning is still free. You can watch the video course content free of charge.

However, if you wish to receive an (optional) certificate for your successful participation in the MOOC, you will have to pay a fee.

The cost structure is different for each provider. Some MOOC series are only offered for a fee, but they usually include a free trial.

Other courses require a monthly subscription. With these types of payment models, learners are motivated to complete the course faster. (Read about free courses here.)

Which topics are covered by MOOCs? 

MOOCs cover many topics that are also taught at the university level. In general, most university subjects can be taught in a MOOC format. And practical skills for professional development are becoming important as well.

The number of high-quality MOOCs is especially high in some subject areas.

For example:

(Find all other topics here)

Many MOOCs are presented in English and may include subtitles in English (and other languages) or transcripts. This way, international students can learn the English terminology in addition to the actual course content.

MOOC (Massive Open Online Course): The Key Facts
A MOOC at Coursera (Screenshot)

Can you receive certificates for MOOCs?

Yes, most MOOCs offer optional certificates (for a fee). You will have to meet the course requirements, for example, reach a minimum score on the online tests.

The certificate then shows the name of the MOOC provider (e.g., edX) and the educational institution that created the course content (e.g., Harvard University).

MOOC certificates can be helpful in job applications as well. Due to the increasing prominence of MOOCs, more and more employers know about the value of these certificates. ("Are the Certificates Worth It?")

You can also integrate MOOC certificates into your online resume, for instance with LinkedIn.

Are MOOCs held on specific dates?

Yes, usually MOOCs start on a specific date and run for 4-6 weeks. After a certain time, the video course then begins again.

During the course duration, the learning content is usually accessible at all times. You can work through the individual lessons at your own pace and at a time that is most convenient for you.

For some MOOC platforms (e.g. edX), the content for self-learning is available even after the course finishes. This excludes the tests, however. 

Who is offering MOOCs?

There are already thousands of MOOCs from countless providers worldwide. (In our directory, you can filter the courses in a number of ways, for example, by subject.)

The most important MOOC platforms are:

  • Coursera: 

Largest MOOC platform worldwide, over 100 million course participants. Many high-quality courses created by the universities of Stanford, Princeton, Yale, London, Munich, Zurich, and many more.  (More about Coursera).

  • edX:

Second largest MOOC platform, around 50 million learners. High-quality content from Harvard, MIT, Berkeley and Oxford, among others. (More about edX).

  • Udacity:

Created as a MOOC platform at Stanford. Now mostly programming courses in cooperation with industry partners such as Google, Facebook or Daimler. Course topics include artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.

  • FutureLearn:

Largest European MOOC platform (UK-based). Includes various British and European universities; however, courses are sometimes shorter in duration.

You can find the current courses from these providers in our course directory

Also popular in Europe are the providers iversity and openHPI for German MOOCs; Fun-MOOC for French online courses; Miriada X for Spanish learners; and EduOpen for Italian students.

Additional MOOC providers in other countries:

Chinese provider XuetangX (Tsinghua University) already had millions of users shortly after launch and is currently expanding internationally. 

Also in India (Swayam, NPTEL), Russia (Open Education, Universarium), Brazil (Veduca), in the Philippines (MODeL-OPOU) and Malaysia (Malaysia MOOC), MOOC platforms are currently being established with content mostly from local universities. 

Which MOOCs are the most popular?

Some MOOCs have already reached 1 million participants. 

Among the largest MOOCs are:

Intro video for the MOOC on artificial intelligence at Udacity

From where did MOOCs originate?

MOOCs have gained such popularity because they have taken a massive step towards making education and teaching content available online.

Following examples such as ecommerce in the retail business and YouTube in the entertainment industry, online technology is now also used for education.

The biggest MOOC platforms were all created at leading U.S. universities in 2011/2012. Important pioneers were professors Anant Agarwal from MIT (edX), Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng from Stanford (Coursera) and Sebastian Thrun also from Stanford (Udacity). 

The approach was similar in each case: 

A university professor offers his lectures in a digital format as an experiment, and is suddenly (and unexpectedly) able to reach more than 100,000 participants around the world. Due to the success, online education is then institutionalized through a stand-alone platform.

Later on, the terminology was further differentiated into so-called xMOOCs (large numbers of participants), cMOOCs ("connectivist" approach with fewer participants who are more active themselves), or special pMOOCs (more job-related for professionals). However, the terminology is not always distinct and generally not that important.

What’s the business model of MOOC providers?

The MOOC platforms usually make revenue when the course participants decide to get the optional certificate in addition to the video content. This usually involves a fee.

With the "Freemium" model (free content, premium additional service) that is common on the internet, the MOOC providers finance their operations. The revenue of the biggest platform (Coursera) already reaches hundreds of millions of USD annually.

Some MOOC platforms also offer specific course series (mainly for professional development) that are only available for a fee. The providers are still experimenting with different models for their businesses.

The universities and other content creators usually don’t have a specific monetary goal, but use MOOCs as a marketing channel. Through their online courses, they are able to reach potential students from around the world. At the same time, a university or college can demonstrate its special expertise in a certain subject or topic.

Will MOOCs replace universities?

At the beginning of the MOOC hype, there was much speculation about whether the free online courses could lead to the demise of traditional universities. Professors had also protested against the expected disempowerment of educators because of MOOCs from elite universities .   

This excitement has cooled down now. MOOCs are viewed as an additional technological tool of modern education, for teaching content to a large number of students.

It is uncontested that the digital revolution will not stop at universities and will bring certain changes and opportunities. MOOCs offer the chance to reach a globally scattered "long tail" of learners in niche subjects for whom campus classes in a local college are not an option.

It is clear that online learning and the digital impact on education will continue to grow. The role that universities will play in the long run remains to be seen.

Are there disadvantages to MOOCs?

Whether a MOOC makes sense for a specific learner is always an individual question.

Depending on the subject area, learning environment, learning goal, and personal learning style, MOOCs can be extremely helpful or unsuitable.

For you, as someone who is interested in MOOCs, there is only one solution: Try it out yourself! (And check out our 5 learning tips for MOOCs before you do.)

A general point of criticism is that the completion rate for MOOCs is quite low (often <10%).

However, this fails to take into account that many learners simply try out a MOOC without planning to complete the full course.  

What are the most important MOOC trends?

  1. In-depth course series: There is an increasing number of course series consisting of multiple MOOCs that focus on one topic (e.g., Specializations at Coursera, MicroMasters at edX and Nanodegrees at Udacity).
  2. Certificates: MOOC providers are working to establish their certificates as serious qualifications. They are also developing offers with academic credit and degrees (e.g., at Coursera, edX or FutureLearn).
  3. Business models: MOOC platforms are experimenting with different revenue sources. The "Freemium" model with paid certificates seems to be the one that will become the standard.
  4. Internationalization: MOOCs are increasingly being created for more languages and countries. And existing MOOCs are being translated into languages other than English. 
  5. Learning analytics: MOOC data are professionally evaluated by the providers to continuously improve the courses and learning experiences.
  6. Terminology: Some providers now avoid the confusing acronym "MOOC". Instead, they simply refer to online courses, online learning or digital education.

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