MOOCs—what is the definition?

MOOCs—what is the definition?


We’ve just seen another big announcement related to elite institutions discovering the use of online instruction through MOOCs (massively open online courses) – the latest I’ve read is from Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic (


I personally couldn’t be more pleased with the press online instruction is getting from these announcements, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, (  If these sorts of efforts help legitimize the ongoing efforts in our field of utilizing multiple technologies to provide greater access to the promise of education, then I am all for it.  But — you would know that there would be a but — there a few things that I think that need further discussion and possibly clarification.


For example, Mr. Weissmann and many others refer to the MOOCs having the potential of “remaking higher education for the Internet age.”  This may be, but the disconnect for me continues to be that we refer to these as “courses.” I think the better term is open content.  When I think of a course in higher education, students register for it, they interact with the content, and then their learning is assessed. It is the assessment of student learning that continues to be the greatest hurdle with MOOCs from my perspective.  I wish I was smart enough or clever enough to provide answers to this challenge.  It could be that some of the answer lies with the work of colleagues in the area of action analytics. ( It could also be that the answer looks like something the University of Washington just announced on July 18th: that they’ll be offering “enhanced” MOOCs with more student learning assessments built in. It’s too soon to know exactly what that will look like, but it’s an interesting idea.


A dream that I have is that we would find a way to package the MOOCs so that we could deliver an accredited degree program to those whose only option for access to higher education is through MOOCs.  How would this work?  In many ways, it’s like the old PBS courses where the Corporation of Public Broadcasting invested a great deal of money in developing high quality course content and then it was left to a faculty member to make additions to this content so the course met the level of academic rigor.  I see nothing but possibilities with MOOCs if we can find creative ways of packaging the content in ways that lead to meaningful certificates and degrees.


The other piece that I think needs clarification comes from one of the statements in Mr. Weissmann’s article: “But the deals Coursera announced Tuesday may well prove to be an inflection point for online education, a sector that has traditionally been dominated by for-profit colleges known mostly for their noxious recruitment practices and poor results.” This isn’t so much a clarification as an opportunity for illumination.  At the Summit for Online Learning sponsored by UPCEA and ACHE ( last September, one of the speakers indicated that one of the biggest challenges we have with online learning is the perception that all online courses are offered by for-profit institutions with the reputation indicated by Mr. Weissmann.  Therefore many of the regulations out of the Department of Education and legislation related to online learning target the practices of these institutions. The reality is that the online market place is crowded with regionally accredited institutions, both non-profit and for-profit, who are delivering accredited online programs in a high quality fashion.  And many of these institutions are contributing to the research on online learning that has improved the development of courses and programs and to student learning.


Our challenge continues to be informing and enlightening decision makers (national and state legislators), the press, and others that there are many insitutions establishing and following best practices for online learning and that it would be most helpful if they could help support institutions to rise to these best practices so that we can provide access to the promise of education to as many people as possible.



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