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What is a Massive Open Online Course Anyway? MN+R Attempts a Definition

Co-written by Juliana Marques and Robert McGuire

If you are reading this, you are probably curious about Massive Open Online Courses, also known as MOOCs, a form of distance learning that some say is changing education as we know it.

If you search Google for massive open online courses, you will get a massive number of results: more than two billion articles among Wikipedia, blogs, newspapers, discussion forums, databases . . . . All this content can be overwhelming, especially if you just want to have an overview of how MOOCs function.

Even if you are already familiar with MOOCs, we hope this article will help you to better understand the main concepts behind the trend of open courses. There have been some excellent “What is a MOOC” articles already, including the now-classic video by Dave Cormier, who, along with Bryan Alexander, is credited with originally coining and defining the term. But, as Cormier points out himself, the video was created 18 months before the existence of Coursera and Udacity, which have grown to millions of users and hundreds of classes, not to mention that dozens of other platforms and independent classes have also been launched.

So, in the fast-changing field of online education, a useful explanation of MOOCs for a newcomer needs some updating. As editor of this site, Robert has been working with writers, teachers and students from around the world, and Juliana has been writing her thesis for a degree in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. One thing we’ve both learned along the way is that the definition of the term is changing constantly.

But before we get to a definition, let’s spend some time on the history and theory of MOOCs.

History of massive open online courses

As Juliana previously discussed in an article on the History of Distance Learning, the idea to provide free academic knowledge online is not recent. It’s been now almost 15 years, for example, since the American university The Massachusetts Institute of Technology began its OpenCourseWare project, giving more people access to university lectures and other tools to enhance e-learning. Computers connected to the Internet started to multiply in offices, libraries, schools and, most importantly, in homes in many parts of the world. Nowadays, mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets have a growing role in learning within networks, and you’re likely to start hearing a lot more about mobile learning or mobile MOOCs in the news soon.

The theory behind the first MOOCs

The idea that there is knowledge to be taken advantage of within networks inspired Canadian educator George Siemens to develop a theory called connectivism that could explain changes in education after the popularization of technology inside and outside classrooms. Using this theory, Siemens partnered with Stephen Downes to develop a new format of online course that is open for anyone interested.

That class, called Connectivism and Connective Learning/2008 (CCK/08), put into practice the main characteristics of connectivism by allowing a large number of students to collaborate between themselves, create new content and start new discussions and debates. They did this using many different platforms such as forums, blogs and social networks. The aim was to allow students to create their own personal learning environments (PLEs) independently and at the same time support an interconnected knowledge.

Other predecessors to today’s MOOCs

Meanwhile, another individual started to attract attention in North America with online education resources. Using basic tools on his home computer, Salman Khan began making short math tutoring videos, first for his younger cousins and then for anyone following his YouTube account and eventually for millions of students around the world. That has grown into Khan Academy, a non-profit provider of video lectures and exercises on a variety of subjects and now, although Khan isn’t a formally trained educator, he is one of the best-known teachers in the world.

Another antecedent to the MOOC is iTunes U, launched by Apple in 2007 to offer education materials for download. Many colleges and universities joined the site, creating courses especially designed for the format or simply posting podcasts, video lectures or textbooks for free download by anyone in the world.

Those initiatives influenced most MOOCs offered nowadays. If you browse courses on any MOOC provider, you will see that many have characteristics of iTunes U’s classes, of Khan’s videos and also of Connectivism and Connective Learning/2008 and of later versions of that class. Over the next few years, many individual teachers around the world were experimenting with bringing together these different ideas into online classes that they made freely available.

Nor should we forget what, funnily enough, are now sometimes called “traditional” online classes. For many years now, most colleges and universities have offered at least a few of their classes in online formats for tuition-paying students and for credit. You can even earn an entire online degree this way from a growing number of programs. While these are not massive and not free, they demonstrate that online learning is possible, and much of the technology behind those classes are part of how MOOCs function now.

Then, in 2012, the MOOC initiatives many of us are familiar with burst onto the scene. Educators, social entrepreneurs, charitable foundations, universities and venture capitalists began forming initiatives to unite the best online tools with the best — or, at least, the most prestigious — teaching available. This was how Udacity, Coursera and edX (the only non-profit among those major MOOC platforms) were founded. The response they got was enormous, with tens of thousands students signing up for each class.

Defining a MOOC

Let’s at last discuss a possible definition of a massive open online course and try to understand how it differs from other forms of distance learning. We think the best way to understand a MOOC is to work backward through the abbreviation.

In what way is a MOOC a course?

A MOOC is a course in two important senses. First of all, it has assignments and evaluations built in the way that a college class has assignments and exams. Most MOOCs have quizzes along the way and exams at the end, but more subjective assignments, such as written essays or creative projects, are also possible. (The Berklee School of Music Songwriting MOOC, for example, required . . . . writing a song.) The evaluation may be done by the teacher, by software or by peers. Having assignments and evaluations distinguishes a MOOC from university initiatives like Open Yale that offer free lectures but don’t have any way of assessing a visitor to the site.

Second, MOOCs are courses in the sense of having a completion point. Khan Academy has exercises along the way, but if you jump in to start learning, for example, elementary school arithmetic, you’ll never reach a last day of school. Somehow, Sal always has recorded one more advanced mathematics lesson for you or a lesson in a related topic. MOOC courses are designed to come to a conclusion, usually after 4 – 12 weeks.

In what way is a MOOC online?

It’s pretty obvious what online means, but one thing to keep in mind is that some forms of distance learning are hybrid, where students do part of their work online and meet with the teacher at school part of the time. Increasingly, hybrid classes use materials from a MOOC to support the class, but the class itself isn’t what most people would call a MOOC. One example of this hybrid format is the on-campus version of Professor Mohamed Noor’s Introduction to Genetics and Evolution class at Duke University. He teaches it in MOOC form and he uses the MOOC materials in a hybrid or flipped class for his on-campus students.

In what way is a MOOC open?

MOOC can of worms

Tristram Biggs via Flickr

This is the part of the definition that is most in dispute. Lately, most people refer to something as a MOOC when it is free for anyone to participate in without a fee and without any admissions process. It’s open in the sense of being no-cost, and it’s open in the sense of having no application requirements. All you need is a username and password.

But the original designers of MOOCs meant for them to be open in two other important senses. MOOCs were originally open (and many still are) in the sense of open-access, much like creative works under a Creative Commons license can be open. These instructors use materials in the public domain that don’t have copyright restrictions, and they intend for their work to be freely available for others to reuse and adapt.

That’s not how today’s major MOOC providers work, though. On sites like Coursera and edX, anyone may enter, but the materials a visitor will find there are under copyright and can’t be removed or modified. Also, after those classes are completed, the materials are often closed from public view until the next time they are offered, whereas on many independent MOOCs outside those major platforms, even after they are inactive, the materials remain available for anyone to access.

Second, the original MOOC concept was open in the connectivist sense. The boundaries between teacher and student and between each student are much more open than in a traditional classroom, and the creation of knowledge happens through connections that are unexpected and unplanned. Some critics of the most popular MOOC platforms say they establish traditional flows of information from the teacher to the student. The class is less open to interaction among its participants and to letting them introduce their own knowledge brought in with them from the outside. To distinguish between these different styles of MOOCs, many people use two different terms, which are explained very well in The Ultimate Student Guide to xMOOCs and cMOOOCs by Debbie Morrison.

People who promote open education resources (OER) are disappointed that the term MOOC is being applied to classes without open access. However, we believe a word is defined by its usage, and, for better or worse, right now the term is mostly used in a way that includes classes that don’t have an open-access or connectivist approach. On this site, if anyone in the world is free to enter the class without paying and without any admissions criteria, we consider it a MOOC.

In what way is a MOOC massive?

The massiveness of a MOOC is a natural result of being an online course open for anyone to enter. What counts as massive varies quite a bit. Some MOOCs have a few hundred students and a few have had more than 100,000 students. But one way to look at it is to consider a course massive when it has more students than the teachers and assistants can themselves interact with. When machine grading, peer assessment and other peer support become not only desirable but necessary, that counts as massive from the teacher’s perspective, and a few thousand more or less doesn’t make much difference.

[pullquote position=”right”]So, on this site, we define a MOOC the way we understand most people to be using the term — an educational resource resembling a class, that has assessment mechanisms and an endpoint, that is all online, that is free to use without admissions criteria and that involves hundreds of students or more.[/pullquote]

But, like we said at the beginning, this is a fast-moving (not to mention vigorously contested) field. Let us know in the comments section if you have another take.

What can I learn in a MOOC?

Most MOOCs are offered by college professors on subjects that are usually covered in college classrooms and with a workload and schedule resembling a college semester. So MOOCs are about getting a college education, right?

Actually, MOOCs have a much broader application than that. A growing number of MOOCs cover material for earlier grades. The A.P. exam prep MOOCs from the University of Miami Global Academy are one example.

And many massive open online courses aren’t offered by colleges or universities at all but by cultural organizations and philanthropies. These can be short classes for a few weeks and on topics related to the special expertise of that organization. Staffing agencies and workforce development nonprofits are exploring how MOOCs can be used to support workplace readiness. And businesses are testing out ways to use MOOCs to engage their customers and build professional skills within their industries. Some are as large as the software giant SAP, and others are as small as the two-man startup Instreamia. After all, if Sal Khan can become a massively popular teacher online, why can’t you or I?

What is it like to study in a MOOC?

Of course, MOOC formats may differ from one platform to another, but on the major platforms you can expect to find more than video lectures. They usually offer discussion forums, quizzes, peer grading exercises, exams and readings to guide you through the content. Additionally, students are inspired to create study groups and networks online (on Facebook, for example), or even offline through the MeetUp website. Most courses provide a syllabus with a schedule and detailed explanations about the content.

You might notice that most classes offered at the moment by universities are introductory, taken from undergraduate disciplines. However, it is also possible to find subjects in other levels or MOOCs specializing in a particular field of knowledge. 

The flexibility of courses also may differ. On Udacity, for example, you can start a class anytime you like and complete every task or exam at your own pace. This reduces the massiveness and the opportunity to interact with other students. On Coursera, classes have a start and an end date. Although it’s possible to watch lectures at any time you want (and to pause, start again, rewind and make your comments), most assignments and exams have a deadline.

Self-paced, synchronous and asynchronous

The terms self-paced, synchronous and asynchronous are applied to these different models in inconsistent ways. A self-paced class at Udacity is usually called asynchronous, since you don’t have to take it during a specific period. You may be taking the class a year after the teacher produced and published it.

From that perspective, the classes at Coursera and edX are often called synchronous. Everyone is moving through the material at approximately the same pace established by a schedule and deadlines.

However, some “traditional” online education models have all the students in a class — say 20 or fewer — gathering at the same time for live video conferences. This is often called synchronous online education. From that perspective, most MOOCs, including Coursera and edX, which don’t require students to meet at the same time, are often called asynchronous.

As the conversations about MOOCs and other online education overlap, this can get confusing. We’d love it if you can suggest a good vocabulary for distinguishing between these different concepts of pacing and timing. Leave your ideas in the comments section, please.

“Anyone can join”: The challenges of reaching massive audiences

When you enroll in a massive open online course and check the forum, you’ll see that the flexibility of MOOCs attracts a huge variety of students of different ages, nationalities, backgrounds, abilities, interests and English-language literacy. Very few of them are people who might actually be going to the particular college offering the MOOC or to any college at all.

There are many reasons colleges and universities provide free online classes in the form of a MOOC to audiences beyond their own students. One important reason is that they are hoping to reach new audiences. In some cases, they want to reach people who can’t have access to a full degree or any other university course, either because of distance, cost or a lack of time.

In other cases, they hope to influence students who may enroll in their institution. An example of that is the MathMOOC at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, which attracted students from around the world and every state in the U.S. but most especially from “feeder schools” around Wisconsin whose students may end up at La Crosse.

A third reason for offering MOOCs is “brand building.” Some university presidents have pointed out that by raising the profile of their school through a MOOC they are increasing the value of the degree to past and future graduates. We can offer an anecdote in support of that theory. One active MOOCer from Greece told Robert she was unsure about signing up for the MOOCs offered by Wesleyan University, because she had never heard of it. Robert thought that was funny since Wesleyan has an excellent reputation in the U.S. But as a smaller liberal arts school that emphasizes teaching, it doesn’t show up on the lists of “top” research universities an educator in Europe might see. This student has taken a couple classes from Wesleyan now, and suffice it to say the school has a new brand ambassador in Thessaloniki.

[pullquote position=”right”]It is important to highlight that MOOCs are still experimental for everyone involved in producing and delivering them, which means that students are included in the experiment as well.[/pullquote] It might be easy to enroll in a MOOC (no prerequisites, no tuition, no taxes, all content is for free!), but to complete it successfully can be challenging. It’s utopian to expect a “one size fits all” format for online education, especially when MOOCs are so massive. In addition, the use of many different media might cause information overload, especially for such a large and diverse audience.

Where will all this end and how can I get started?

Only one year after the biggest MOOC platforms were founded, it is already possible to see how fast they are changing higher education. As you can see, MOOCs are a great source of free high quality information about a topic, and they may also be a source of opportunities for career advancement or educational credentials. Some free courses are now being accepted for credit at some colleges, and some Coursera MOOCs received credit recommendations from the American Council on Education. In addition, students may choose to pay for a verified certificate and share their results with potential employers, which could lead to fewer students seeking degrees.

Meanwhile, the major American providers we’ve used as to illustrate the different kinds of MOOCs are only the beginning of the story. When you start searching for massive open online courses, you will also discover that many new platforms are being developed from all over the world and in many different languages. Some universities are also trying to reach the stream independently. The University of Amsterdam, for example, where Juliana is studying, built its own MOOC website.

It is normal to get confused in such a high tide, but never fear. The most comprehensive roundup of all the sources of MOOCs is on this site in our MOOC Around the World series. And when you do embark on a MOOC, you can have a good learning experience by considering some of the tips and strategies other students and teachers have shared here.


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.


  1. 1.- Very good article, excellent.
    2.- MOOCs have two models for degrees
    a) MOOC providing university may provide degrees . This is too diffucult yet. It requires many courses online + conflict between f2f and online students .
    b) MOOCs providing universities sell their products to other colleges and universities. Those colleges and universities do provide credits and degrees to their students .
    3.- Model ( b ) happened on May 30 , 2013
    Coursera sold its courses to 10 state universities at $ 36 per course. Including SUNY .
    These state universities now can provide credits and degrees to their students . Probbaly they will charge a small fee putting some profit on top of $ 36 .
    4.- Model ( b ) should be implemented by all schools with financial diffuculty. Then problem is faculties will be just facilitators for the courses . Since 50 % of the faculty are adjuncts , problem is 50 % tenured professors.

    5.- This shows that MOOCs became traditional education in the USA.

  2. Very good definition. Quite long but clear. I will share it on Twitter right now. Keep going.

  3. The terms Openly Licensed and Public Domain are not interchangable. The copyright holder of something “openly licensed” (e.g. something licensed under a Creative Commons license, or a GNU licensed) still maintains their copyright, as well as a wide variety of rights that go along with it. Additionally, when the materials are remixed, and reused, the original author must be attributed.

    Public domain materials meanwhile, can be remixed, and reused without attribution, and have no copyright protections.

    Nuance is important here so that students, educators, and everyone else know what they can, and cannot, do with OER and truly “open” MOOCs

    • Absolutely agree. Thanks for bringing it up. We tried to capture that nuance while being accurate and not overly complicated, but I’ll take another run at a revision of that section soon.

      It might be worth treating in a separate article, which I know has been done elsewhere, but discussing it in the context of MOOCs and for beginning students could be useful. Let us know if you know of any good candidates for the job.

  4. Excellent article Robert and Juliana.
    The MOOC term and its popular usage has certainly ‘muddied’ the waters. The cMOOC (Connectivist MOOC) was truly ‘open’. The hybrids to follow should probably be called Massive Online Course (MOC). They are more enticed by the word ‘massive’ than ‘open’.
    Still it’s all very interesting and it has certainly brought Distance Education/Online Learning into the forefront regarding the potential of Internet technologies.
    Thanks for this!

    • The cMOOC model may betruly “open”, but it (by its own definition) is not a “course”, because a course is a path, a route, or a specific direction. In Cormier’s video, he says that each student chooses their own “path”, so therefore there is no actual “course”. This is my big problem with cMOOCs: when I take a training course, I expect an expert to identify the knowledge that I need to gain. Cormier says we should be identifying information according to our needs, but if I don’t yet understand something, how do I know whether I need to learn it or not?

      There are many things I’ve dismissed as irrelevant or useless based on a superficial view, and when I’ve been forced to sit down and learn it, in the end I find myself wishing I’d done so earlier.

  5. WRT: “synchronous”.

    I think the problem with the word “synchronous” is that it’s not really a digital state of affairs. Any attempt to define it to be one thing or the other in the case of MOOCs would result in a loss of clarity, as you’d end up with a piece a jargon that would only make sense to people in the know, and would confuse the casual reader.

    Surely it’s better to explicitly state what we’re talking about that to use a term that the reader is just as likely to misinterpret as to understand correctly?

    • I’ve had another thought about it, and I reckon we can split it into “synchronous progression”, where everyone is working to the same deadlines, but not wokring at exactly the same time, and something like “synchronous participation/activity” for things like real-time webinars etc.

      • That describes the distinction perfectly for me. Maybe it will catch on. That’s how I’ll describe them going forward.

  6. Very informative Juliana & Robert! You have come up with a fine definition. Without wanting to make the definition longer, I see an extra nuance to the ‘resembling a class’ part.

    In my opinion, a MOOC distuingishes itself from a normal ‘class’ in the fact that the MOOC is not a formal type of education and the classes do not take place in an institutionalized way (like they are in physical schools or universities).

    In other words, MOOCs do not take place within formal education but represent a type of non-formal learning. (Not to be confused with informal learning.)
    The differences between MOOCs and institutionalized education might become less distinct however, when more MOOC providers might start to work with verified certificates.

    • Indeed Patricia! I agree. This flexibility of MOOCs is what brings them to such a large audience, and I believe this can mean a lot in the future. The formalization is definitely a demand from students and start-ups which aims profit, but I think it’s great that so many people worldwide can at least have access to such rich content that MOOCs can offer.

      • It’s perplexing something is just offered for free, massive and only requiring you to sign up and enjoy classes and lessons as though in a formal class. Moocs greatest advantage is that it paves you way for more degrees.

  7. Robert & Juliana~

    A very comprehensive definition. Well done showing the short “history” and evolution of MOOCs. One aspect that I would really like to see discussed is the notion of “success” in a MOOC. What does success look like? How does on measure success as a participant? As a facilitator/developer? Does success equate with completion?

    Keep up the fabulous work. Maggie

    • Thanks Maggie. That’s a great suggestion, and I’ll add it to my “wish list” that our contributors consider for story ideas. If you know any potential new contributors to tackle it (hint, hint), send them my way.

      • Very good article.

        My feedback on the definition of “massive”, I blogged about it there and another interesting définition is Wolfgang Reinhardt’s idea is that we use the Dunbar’s number, the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

        For myself right now I think the massive is when you are faced with a series of emerging properties, such as (but not limited to) those which you talk about : no comprehensive student/teacher interaction, but I’d add the ability to have a self-sustained community, in which student interaction is enough to process most questions..

        other emerging properties remain to be explored!

        • Really nice insight Rémi! I didn’t know about Robin Dunbar and I believe the concept of ‘massive’ is an interesting point of the debate. I agree with you when you say that MOOCs don’t need to be massive to be great. There are some experiences that try to deal with it. For instance, the quad-blogging, which was used in Coursera’s E-learning and Digital Culture last January. There’s actually one study that shows how this strategy can be effective and help students to deal with content overload (at the same time they can create content themselves and contribute with the MOOC somehow).
          Thank you for you comment!

  8. Very informative and informed article, Juliana. I especially liked the discussion of open-ness and your pointing out that the openness of the original, connectivist MOOCs was more truly open and unbounded than the more current, narrower definition. I much prefer the notion of an open course that is ever evolving, but also agree with the commenter above that, with that kind of openness, the idea of a “course” gets lost. In fact, openness in the connectivist sense pretty makes a MOOC seem more or less like the web.

  9. Bonjour,

    Je suis documentaliste et je travaille en France. j’ai beaucoup apprécié l’artle et vos différentes disucussions.

    Voici ma question : comment les Moocs sont-ils perçus au niveau international ?

    Bien cordialement

    • Bonjour Sabah,
      Merci beaucoup pour le question. I’ll write in English, hope it’s ok! I believe that at moment MOOCs are playing a great role for international students and they provide great feedback about them. Many MOOCs receive students from different countries, most from China, India and Brazil. So, for these students, MOOCs offer a chance to be in touch with high quality academic content. Even if their English is not so good to complete examinations, they still can have materials which are sometimes translated by volunteers. I do hope that MOOCs do become a global wave and help others to learn, connect and even improve skills.

  10. Bonsoir Juliana,

    Thank you very much for your response.

    Je comprends votre réponse et je suis d’accord avec vous. Je pense que les MOOCS vont permettre à de nombreuses personnes d’avoir plus facilement accès à l’information et donc de garder espoir de se former pour obtenir des diplômes au niveau national et international.

    Je pense aussi que certaines écoles coûtent assez cher, un gain d’argent va pouvoir se faire ; Par exemple :
    -> des étudiants n’auront plus le besoin de payer des chambres universitaires, de payer des déplacements (cf billets de train, repas universitaires,…) ;
    -> des étudiants pourront avoir accès à une plus grande pallette de cours français ou étrangers, de tout niveau, aux travers d’une multitude d’enseignants, de pratiques documentaires, d’un échantillon plus large de partenariats avec des enseignants, des conseillers,…

    Quels pourraient être les problèmes peut-être ? Je pense qu’ils seront peut-être techniques, culturels… Et je me demande comment les apprenants vont-ils pouvoir juger de la bonne qualité de l’enseignement ?


  11. Bonjour, présente : Coursera : la start-up californienne qui monte dans le monde de l’éducation.- 4/9/2013

    Pour aller plus loin :