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The Ultimate Student Guide to xMOOCs and cMOOCs

One World by Genista via Flickr

One World by Genista via Flickr


The education media declared 2012 the year of the MOOC, and even mainstream news featured numerous stories about Massive Open Online Courses, some suggesting that this new type of course would revolutionize the model of higher education.

Yet the MOOCs featured in the media are quite different from the original concept. One co-founder of the first MOOC, Stephen Downes, came up with the terms ‘xMOOC’ and ‘cMOOC’ to distinguish between classes modeled on his and the form that has become better known since then. The Coursera and edX platforms that have grabbed the spotlight recently are examples of xMOOCs.

Have you ever wondered how these courses could be free, or why some charge a fee for certificates or other services?  Even if you haven’t, it’s a good idea that students of MOOCs be familiar with the MOOC providers, specifically, how they are funded, what certification or credit is available, and the terms and privacy policy that you agree to when you sign-up.

In this post I’ll go through all the need-to-know information of each. I’ll start with a brief history of MOOCs, review the two types, and provide a snapshot of two of the xMOOC providers. This need-to-know info will help you make the most of each, so you can meet your learning goals and be a savvy student

A brief history of the first MOOC

MOOCs have an interesting history. Granted, it’s a short history, but worth knowing nonetheless. The origin of the MOOC goes way back (all of five years), to 2008 when Canadian scholars Stephen Downes and George Siemens led an online course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge  (CCK08). When they opened it up, for free, to anyone to participate, over 2,200 students signed up.

Another Canadian educator, Dave Cormier, came up with the term ‘MOOC’ to describe this new type of education event. He defines a MOOC as being a course with a start and end date and that is open with no barriers to entry, neither cost nor education criteria. The courses are also online, accessed on the Web, and are massive, requiring a significant number of students to contribute to a connected learning environment.  The MOOC concept was also one of the first courses based on the premise of distributed content, where course content is accessed on the Web for free rather than from textbooks.

‘c’ stands for Connectivist

By Chris P Jobling via Flickr

By Chris P Jobling via Flickr

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge was about — and based on — the learning theory of connectivism, developed by one of the instructors, George Siemens. His theory is based on the idea that learning happens within a network, where learners use digital platforms such as blogs, wikis, social media platforms to make connections with content, learning communities and other learners to create and construct knowledge.

Within a cMOOC, learners are encouraged (though not required) to contribute actively, using these digital platforms. Participants’ contributions in form of blog posts, tweets etc. are aggregated by course organizers and shared with all participants via daily email or newsletter.

cMOOCs are also not typically sponsored or funded by higher education institutions but are organized by individuals with a passion for a specific content area. Organizers commit their time to create a framework for learning where participants from all over the world can connect share, contribute, collaborate to learn and expand their network professionally and personally. cMOOCs are also open and flexible, responsive to needs of its participants which can provide a tailored learning experience. (Sylvia Moessinger, discusses some other cMOOCs here.)

The first xMOOC

MOOCs started getting a lot more attention when Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig from Stanford University opened up enrollment to their Artificial Intelligence course in 2011. They expected a few thousand students at the most to enroll, but within the first few days enrollment hit 10,000, then 100,000 and the final number of registered students was 160,000, making it indeed massive. The course was a life changing experience for many students including the course instructor Sebastian Thrun:

One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students. In the fall of 2011, Peter Norvig and I decided to offer our class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge. [Gee, 2012]

Shortly after Artificial Intelligence finished, Thrun started Udacity, a platform offering MOOCs that mostly focus on science and technology. Coursera opened soon after, followed by edX which is a joint effort between Harvard and MIT. And new platforms are still being launched, including Open2Study from Australia’s Open Universities and NovoEd from Stanford.

These MOOCs offered on university-based platforms are modeled on traditional course materials, learning theories and higher education teaching methods. For example, they usually are organized around lectures and quiz-type assessment methods. Also these courses typically use little distributed content that’s available on the Web outside the platform. Most course content is prerecorded video lectures which are posted on the courses’ home page.

It was for these reasons that Stephen Downes came up with the terms to differentiate between two concepts, as mentioned earlier. xMOOCs are not better or worse than a cMOOC, just different. xMOOCs fit the needs of many (though not all) learners looking for academic courses that meet a specific interest and need.

Who and what are behind the xMOOC platforms?

Another significant factor that differentiates an xMOOC from a cMOOC is who are behind them. Rather than a group of individuals building the course as in a cMOOC, an xMOOC usually has one or more higher education colleges or schools behind it, and, in some cases, a for-profit company. A great deal of money is required to develop video and other course content in a MOOC and to operate the platform. Funds are provided either by the institution, by private investors or through grants such as those obtained through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

Both Coursera and Udacity are set up as for-profit companies and have received millions of dollars in funding from venture capitalists, which suggests at some point in time revenue will need to be generated. Other providers, such as edX are set up as not-for-profit organizations, and are funded by the institutions themselves through endowment funds and other sources. edX is a collaborative effort between the two schools not to generate a profit, but to use the platform as a vehicle for research, and to explore alternative education models. (Although, as Anant Agarwal, president of edX, recently said, “Even though we are a nonprofit, we have to be self-sustaining over the long term.”)

What do cMOOCs and xMOOCs mean for you as a student?

Being fully aware of how each MOOC provider functions, and for what reasons will help students make good decisions about what services to pay for (if offered) and how to take full advantage of the course and platform to meet your personal learning goals. If you are interested in receiving recognition for course completion for example, you will want to determine what is available by course, whether a certificate or college credit.

At Coursera, for example, students can opt into the Signature Track program that provides students with a certificate of completion on select courses and ties it to a verified identity. The package also includes a digital portfolio option which records course work within the Coursera platform in the form of a personal web portfolio. There is a cost for this service, $69, though currently there is an introductory price available of $39.

Udacity, also a for-profit, acts as a broker between interested students and Fortune 500 Companies seeking employees and is thus paid referral fees by the companies that recruit and hire Udacity students. Students can post a resume on their Udacity profile if interested, and will be eligible for jobs if they complete certain high-demand courses and do well. If you are a student interested in securing a job, Udacity can be a vehicle to help you reach your career goals.

Some courses offered through xMOOC providers also offer college credit, which may have a fee associated with it. For example, some have an arrangement with Pearson Vue or ProctorU, where students pay to complete a comprehensive exam at an exam center or online. Fees vary but are usually under $100. However, the services and programs offered by Udacity and Coursera are optional — students can participate in xMOOCs without opting into the services offered.

Your privacy and xMOOCs

Not-for-profits such as edX or Open2Study may gather data about the online actions of students collectively (not individually) such as completion rates or hours of video watched and number of times logged onto the platform. This data is used for research studies and often for course developers to create more effective learning experiences. At times you may receive questionnaires asking questions that may not be related to the course content but that are geared to determining your impressions of the learning experience. This is helpful for the course organizers.

What the for-profit xMOOC will do with the data they collect on their users is unclear. So it’s important to keep in mind the oft-quoted (and debated) point that “On the internet, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

Therefore, I strongly recommend that all MOOC students read the Terms and Conditions posted on the xMOOC provider’s website before signing up for a course, as well as the privacy policy, to identify the conditions that you agree to when you sign up for a course. From here you will learn how your information and content you share on the forums is treated. You will also be find details on what personal information is collected as well as the non-personal information like pages viewed and links clicked. You will find this information on each xMOOC site usually under the ABOUT tab. If you still have questions, I encourage you to contact the provider directly.

Closing thoughts

Taking a course for free is a tremendous opportunity! We are so fortunate that there are many options for learning that enable us to grow personally and professionally — cMOOCs and xMOOCs provide us with those opportunities. Knowing what goes on behind the scenes will help you, the student, get the most out of the MOOC experience. I hope you found this article useful, and I leave you with one homework assignment. If you are taking an xMOOC, or planning on taking one, go to the site of the provider and read the terms and privacy policy. Keep learning and be a savvy student!



Debbie Morrison (6 Posts)

Debbie Morrison is an instructional designer and educator with over ten years of experience in creating meaningful, rich learning outcomes in higher education, K-12 and business settings. She collaborates with organizations to develop effective online programs, and is the learning mentor for the online department at four-year university, and most recently the Lead Curriculum Developer, Online Programs. She writes and blogs about online education and MOOC learning experiences. Debbie holds a Master's Degree in Education and Human Development, with a focus on educational technology.


  1. Great post Debbie – thanks for this! It’s great to zoom out occasionally and look at the bigger picture of what’s going on in this amazing MOOC upsurge.

  2. Thanks for this comprehensive and informative post. There is one other thing I think I’ve noticed about cMOOCs vs xMOOCs – that cMOOC topics seem to generally BE about online learning and/or connectivism! Do you find that to be true? If so, do you think it is because the concepts behind connectivism have not yet reached academics/teachers outside the technology/education world?

    • Excellent point! It is true that many of the cMOOCs are related to teaching and learning, and often related directly to online learning. I think the concept of Professional Development through online learning, i.e. a cMOOC is not mainstream as of yet, since many educators are still not comfortable with learning online, and/or do not have the tech skills to do so. It will take time to reach everyone, but within twenty years or so, the idea of crowd learning via cMOOCs will likely be mainstream, yet something else will be the new method.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I’ve been looking for the feedback from participants in cMOOC’s and have really not seen any. If they’re just talking about connectivity, it’s more like navel-gazing by the already converted.

    I guess also, where the subject is Connectivity, the subject is new and one can reasonably have something called a course, where nobody involved is an expert, because such experts do not yet exist. But if it’s Chemistry, or Roman Architecture, there are experts, and it makes very little sense to have a cMOOC where the expert is not front-and-center.

    The argument for the cMOOC seems nonexistent. All I hear is some education theorists think that massive collaboration and social is a part of a socially desirable transformation in schools.

    They’ve never even tried to make a case that it’s the best way for a student to learn the recognized basics of Chemistry. In fact they tend to talk about adapting to new situations and learning from colleagues, as if there is not a significant body of basic knowledge, developed by great men and women of science over centuries, that should be learned efficiently.

  4. Thanks Debbie!

    I did take in the past two postgraduate courses in local Universities about Teaching at university level (150h each), but none of those things were considered (not invented) by then. 🙂

    I was planning to organize some (x)MOOC at work (a research center linked to a public hospital), and maybe organize some other (c)MOOC off-work for fun (about GNU/Linux and some free/open source sotware tools). And your review enlightened my former doubts about these topics.

    Thanks indeed!