Clarification on the question, “What is a MOOC?”

I have been thinking more about the question “What exactly is a MOOC, anyway?” related to the #change11 course that started last week and which I am engaging in (in my spare time, ha!!). While I spent some time considering some of the ethical and privacy issues involved in this research, I have conveniently side-stepped the question about what this thing is, anyway.

This may not be a big issue, but when I mentioned this to a F2F colleague this week and was asked what this thing is, I just stood there, speechless.

I have participated in a rather interesting discussion about some of these issue on Frances Bell’s blog, though even there we skirted the issue of what this thing is. So, searching for the response from the facilitators themselves, I came across The MOOC Model for Digital Practice as I reviewed the Week 1 course Orientation page, and came across the following  useful definition which I will quote here at length due to its comprehensive form and complexity (pp. 10-11):

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC is an online course with the option of free and open registration, a publiclyshared curriculum, and open-ended outcomes. MOOCs integrate social networking, accessible online resources, and are facilitated by leading practitioners in the field of study. Most significantly, MOOCs build on the engagement of learners who self-organize their participation according to learning goals, prior knowledge and skills, and common interests. The term came into being in 2008, though versions of very large open online courses were in existence before that time (McAuley, 2010). MOOCs have been offered in conjunction with academic institutions and independently by facilitators: to date, topics have remained within the E-learning and educational technologies fields. Some MOOCs have had upwards of 2000 registrants. MOOCs share in some of the conventions of an ordinary course, such as a predefined timeline and weekly topics for consideration, but generally have no fees, no prerequisites other than Internet access and interest, no predefined expectations for participation, and no formal accreditation (there are several instances of MOOCs that are affiliated with a university and provide learners the option of enrolling formally in the course and submitting assignments for marking).

News that a MOOC will be offered is typically spread through online social networks and email lists. Registration and course topics are offered through a central course site developed by facilitators: participants can use the central site to interact and discuss ideas, or may share their contributions from their own blogs and develop and maintain ties through other technologies such as Twitter. The course operates on an open and a-hierarchical invitation to participate in and scaffold activities and discussions: a true “teacher as learner as teacher” model (Siemens, 2006). Participation in a MOOC is emergent, fragmented, diffuse, and diverse. There is no credit or certificate offered for completion. Facilitators of MOOCs volunteer their time, and comment on participants’ input, but it is expected that the community of participants will be the primary source of feedback for the majority of work contributed. This is in keeping with the participatory collaboration and commenting norms within social media.

With this stated, it seems to me that, in a nutshell, a MOOC is:

An open online course on some topic around which participants interact with one another where and when they want, based on the strength of the connections between participants who self-determine their interaction. The connections between social media and other websites can be traced through links and a tag (#change11).

While I do not want to be locked into a definition, as a MOOC is a moving target, I do want to have a clearer ideas of whaty this thing is that stretches out for months and months ahead. How does this seem to others participating in this?

9 thoughts on “Clarification on the question, “What is a MOOC?”

  1. Well…I have concerns with some of this…

    First, it skirts the “M” issue, which is a problem I’ve had (I am offering an open online class with 90 people). How many people to qualify for Massive?

    And we do offer a certificate of completion… (again, I seem to be running an Open Online Class excluded from the definition of MOOC this way).

    Also, only some MOOC instructors volunteer their time. Others are paid for the central/paid portion and are volunteering in accommodating outsiders.

    I’d love it if you’d take a look at the Wikipedia definition of Massive Open Online Class — I worked on it some as part of EduMOOC but it needs more work… 🙂


    1. Lisa, thanks for the comment and the reference to the Wikipedia article.

      I like an aspect of the definition that is listed there – “a course where the participants are distributed and course materials also are dispersed across the web . . . The course is not a gathering, but rather a way of connecting distributed instructors and learners across a common topic or field of discourse.” (

      With this insight, it seems the focus is on connecting people around some topic and then leaving them there to work through it on their own (if they wish). Would you say this is the case?

      Can you speak a little more about the one you are working with that has 90 participants?


  2. Hi Lisa (and Jeffrey) for me thats a small class lol. 1200 a year is what im blessed with an dwe call them large classes…its all relative.

    The MOOC might also need to embrace the self set learning agenda, and the means of that learning….
    I’m not sure that a definitive statement can really exist on a mooc, is there one one to do a mooc right? no.
    Its a but like defining the purpose of schools, its going to be contentious or at least contested.

    1. Ailsa, to this point I am struck by the “learning” that you listed. While this seems to be informal learning, I am wondering to what extent “learning” may be a focus, as opposed to introducing a topic and then letting people fumble through it (or not). In this way, if a MOOC is a course, what is educational in a MOOC?


  3. There is so much in that little question Jeffrey. I am teased back in to responding, again 🙂
    Ive been reading Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2010). Actor-network theory in education. New York, NY: Routledge.
    And am mulling over how mobilizing particular definitions also leads to exclusions. She names this purifying… and obsessions with particular measurable outcomes, and i’m led to wonder whose outcomes get deemed more and less important, and whose idea of how much a change needs to have occurred for learning to be measured as having occurred.
    The measures are so often of acquisition rather than of doing, participation, engagement.
    And they tend to be measured as individual outcomes.
    But a network could be something else, and distributed learning might be measure otherwise.
    And rather than a focus on humans or human to human points of contact, might we also consider the other actors that shape and are shaped, not as a tool but as influential actors in their own right?
    And so relationships of teaching and learning become my focus, the assemblage that is involved, and how it helps or hinders, and this then becomes a very po-mo consideration for there will be no one measure. What i learn, set out to learn and act on will be different to yours…Learning does not happen in a single metaphysical frame, what i experience will differ, our realities differ…and so there will be multiple ways of enacting this mooc.

    1. Ailsa, all I can wonder now is when you will sit the viva / defend and be done?! Wow, that is deep, and helps me gather more insights into ANT, something that always seems just beyond my grasp.

      I so appreciate your taking the time to respond again, especially given your schedule. Not that I am asking you to continue to reply, but your response has urged my thinking back to the initial definition. If there are multiple ways of enacting this MOOC, what is the unifying element about which to say we are doing something together that is MOOC-related, or just talking online? Aren’t there some unspoken learning intentions we bring to this that have some overlap with one another?

      In other words, there must be some focus around which the course comes into being, and you have now helped me to consider that it may be useful for me to clarify my own intentions and interests in why I am participating, namely another post tomorrow. Suffice it to say that we cannot expect similar outcomes if this will be open and non-learning objective oriented. Even in this, don’t we (even informally) establish our often-unspoken or unclear learning objectives, those reasons why we engage with others around the #change11 tag? Furthermore, don’t we often measure them using vague terms such as “It was good” or “I wish the teacher spoke more” etc.?


  4. tis a really interesting discussion 🙂
    And its one of the criticisms ANT levies at Lave and Wengers Community of practice model, for not only are we communities of practice, and our communities overlap, the ontologies we bring and how we act and are enacted in the world differ. I have to try to see how Stephen for example conceives of a group because his understanding, his experience and what he projects when talking of this, is sooo different to my own.
    No doubt when others talk to me and find that i talk to my mobile phone and that it in turn translates what and how i say something before it deigns to pass this correspondence on to someone else is similarly bewildering. Then again my conversations with endnote could also be seen as odd, she is such a finnicky bitc# in that she does not like meeting with me on a mac or in dropbox and so screws stuff up… active sabotage for non windows players? Or when i see a sign made that has to state it is a human-readable format and i need to think about how bot friendly signs get configured for bots to talk to bots…or at least for computers to talk to bots maybe…
    We assume similarities when we may be aligned but not necessarily working off the same page. What i value and what someone else values when they say ‘that was a good course’ is internally judged, we may or may not share the same value base. Even when “i wish the teacher spoke more” i might like the lilt of a voice and you might like the knowledge shared.

    A practical example i heard from a fellow phder in the United Arab Emirates, he works in a country where oral traditions, memory and rote learning are highly prized; to recite the koran is something to be esteemed. And there he is teaching critical thinking and condemning rote learning as expressed accurately in the essays he marks. In a non democratic setting teaching critique may be an invitation to set students up for failing in the ‘real world’. Most intriguing is students who learn to hop from one ontology to another, especially where there are profoundly different ways of thinking and learning, and learning how to contain what is learnt but still being fluid at choosing what to enact, where and with whom. Do we prize teaching people how to be fractured? Adaptive? Do we fail those who cannot enter the dominant world view? Or who reject this dominant worldview?

    All i ever know is from where i am in relating to others. To quote Donna Haraway: there is no God like view from nowhere.
    and therefore, be it ever so humble, ANT, for now at least, is my home.
    For me a mooc is a 3d ever moving tangle of consitutive relationships, and where the learning is distributed between actors- human and otherwise.

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