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A Short History of MOOCs and Distance Learning

History of MOOCs

by Cat Sidh via Flickr


Since MOOCs have started to multiply on the web, many discussions about their structure, effectiveness and openness have been appearing. Students, teachers, e-learning specialists, academics, the media: everyone has an opinion.

However, not much commentary looks at the history of MOOCs with an approach to understanding why so many universities are creating them and massive numbers of students are joining them. A short history of distance learning and may explain much about the sudden popularity of MOOCs.

The evolution of technology and of new learning experiences have always been closely related. As distance learning specialists affirm, the field of distance-learning had three main generations:

  1. Correspondence study
  2. Multimedia
  3. Computer-mediated

The first of these distance learning models grew exponentially in Europe and United States after the Industrial Revolution, especially because a more qualified work force was needed for the factories. In addition, postal services were becoming faster, cheaper and more reliable. For example, in the 19th century, students from Australia were already able take correspondence courses from prestigious universities, such as the London School of Economics, one of the first in the United Kingdom to offer distance education.

The pre-history of MOOCs, electronic media

However, this first generation was still far from reaching massive numbers of students like MOOCs are doing today. Correspondence study only predominated until the arrival of electronic media, which lead to popularization of radio and television as educational tools in the 20th century. Teachers and learners from all parts of the world took advantage of the new technology. Those who did not have access to formal learning could watch or listen to classes for free, wherever they were. The content was adapted to reach different types of audiences, and even students in remote areas could have knowledge in academic subjects.

But a main pedagogical factor was still lacking: students had hardly any interaction with professors or other students. Videotape was used by many distance learning initiatives but was criticized because of its passivity. The multimedia generation had popularized distance learning and allowed new possibilities, but only computers and the web could unite forces to provide a new e-learning infrastructure, mainly built upon networks and communities on-line.

Democratizing through openness and media

Meanwhile, another initiative appeared in the United Kingdom in 1969 — the Open University. An influence to many other ideas in the future, the Open University revitalized distance education because it combined correspondence instruction, supplementary broadcasting and publishing, residential short courses and support services at local and regional levels. Its founders believed communication technologies could be explored to provide high-quality degrees.

And most importantly, Open University adopted an open policy to allow more students to have access to academic knowledge. Nowadays, Open University also offers online courses and has a strong community of students in many countries. Much of the MOOC philosophy is based on their special approach to higher education.

As you can imagine, the computer-mediated generation of distance learning was only complete after many could have access to technology through personal computers connected to the Internet. In the 1990’s, educators rapidly took advantage of digital improvements for the purpose of teaching. CD-ROMs could store more information than floppy disks, and user-friendly software changed how we relate to computers. Even regular pedagogy — formal textbooks and written assignments — were influenced by digital technologies such as Blackboard, leading physical classrooms to integrate knowledge with hardware and software interfaces.

If you are already familiar with MOOCs, you can see that many courses also adopt this strategy of teaching. Although the course is online, professors have been trying to keep it similar to a “real class.”

One example is Introduction to Biology, from the EdX platform. Professor Eric Landen, famous for his pioneering work on the human genome project, decided to record his regular class and not only addresses his students in the physical room. We see him addressing undergraduates at M.I.T. and from time to time, he looks at the camera and talks directly to students around the world at their computers. Of course, we cannot (yet) raise our hands and ask questions. But the MOOC will offer many tools for that kind of interaction, such as forums and study groups on social networks.

MOOCs arrive: When knowledge meets networks

It is within networks that learning can generate quite interesting experiences. This leads us to the raise of MOOCs. Did you know that the first one was launched in 2008? It was called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge/2008’ (CCK8), created by educators Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Building off a for-credit course at the University of Manitoba, Canada, this was the first class designed behind the acronym of ‘MOOC’ and used many different platforms to engage students with the topic, including Facebook groups, Wiki pages, blogs, forums and other resources.

Around 2,200 people signed up for CCK08, and 170 of them created their own blogs. The course was free and open, which meant that anyone could join, modify or remix the content without paying (although a paid, certified option was offered).

In 2012, another MOOC experiment caught academics’ attention. Two Stanford Professors  Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig decided to offer “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” for free online. Designed to resemble real classroom experiences and offer high-quality classes for everyone, the idea had the advantage of carrying the prestigious Stanford name .

More than 160,000 students in 190 countries signed up, and for the first time, an open online course was truly ‘massive’. This led Thrun and Norvig to build a new business model for online knowledge, the start-up Udacity.

It did not take long until other professors adapted their ideas using own resources. Within one year, two more American start-ups for MOOCs appeared: Coursera and EdX. In 2013, the the Open University is building its own MOOC platform, Futurelearn, which will feature universities from the United Kingdom. And there are many other independent MOOC initiatives appearing, including Open2Study in Australia and iversity in Germany.

These MOOC start-ups might have different goals, but what they have in common is the connection between learners and teachers. We’ve come a long ways from the one-way conversation of correspondence courses and educational videocassettes, but whatever is eventually written about the history of MOOCs, academic knowledge will never be seen the same way. More and more, knowledge and information can be easily reduced into small bits and rapidly transmitted to anywhere in the world, to anyone. I am very curious to see where MOOCs are going to take us. Are you willing to join the journey?


Editor’s note: For a further discussion of this history, see Juliana Marques’ and Robert McGuire’s article “What Is a Massive Open Online Course Anyway?”



Juliana Marques (2 Posts)

Master's student in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. My goal is to be in touch with ultimate changes in the way we communicate, interact with each other and learn. I enjoy traveling, reading, concerts, movies and sharing bright ideas.