What is a MOOC?

The term MOOC was coined in Canada in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). The original MOOCs were online courses promoted by proponents of open educational resources (OER), for the free dissemination of educational resources, using learning designs that connected teachers and learners in networked environments. George Siemens (2008) and Stephen Downes (2006) led a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (also known as CCK08), in which 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba, as well as over 2,200 online students from the general public who paid nothing, participated in the online course.

The MOOC concept became more widely known through international media coverage of later offerings of online courses from Stanford and MIT, which attracted hundreds of thousands of learners, from almost every country. However, MOOC remains a loosely defined term with key qualities: M=massive, O=open (i.e., accessible—as in freely available and discoverable), O=online, C=course. Each term has been subjected to varied interpretations since the inception of MOOC experiments and discussions. The least ambiguous term is “online.” A learner must use a laptop, desktop or tablet computer or a smartphone to gain access to a MOOC.

For our purposes, we can consider a MOOC to be an online course that requires no prior qualifications for entry, can be accessed by anyone who has an Internet connection, and includes large or very large numbers of learners. These MOOC participants experience a course with various combinations of content, activities, peer­to­peer interactions, mentor interactions and tests. If participants fulfill certain basic criteria related to performance, they often receive acknowledgement in the form of digital badges or certificates.


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A Policy Brief on MOOCs by Commonwealth of Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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