What is a MOOC? 100k people want to know.

One of the most discussed recent trends in education is the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. This model of free and open university courses is now offered by education giants such as Stanford and M.I.T., and has strong early connections to UPEI.

The acronym MOOC is usually credited to Dave Cormier, UPEI’s Manager of Web Communications and Innovations and a prominent blogger and podcaster on education technology. It came out of a podcast Cormier hosted with Dr. George Siemens, a professor at the University of Athabasca, and Stephen Downes of the NRC, who together offered the first MOOC in 2008 through the University of Manitoba. Advocates for open shared practices in education, Siemens and Downes decided to open up the course to anyone who was interested in the subject.

“As soon as the course was opened, 2,300 people signed up,” explains Bonnie Stewart, an education PhD student at UPEI who has participated in and facilitated MOOCs, as well as written about MOOCs for Inside Higher Ed and The Guardian UK. “Everything was open in that course, including the course outline and materials. Paying students received credit, but most people were just along for the learning experience.”

MOOCs have since exploded in higher education. Stanford offered a course in the fall of 2011 that had more than 160,000 registrants. The instructor of that course left his tenured position to found a company aimed at making MOOCs truly massive in their impact on higher education. Several models of MOOCs have emerged, offering free courses in subjects as diverse as cryptography and Chinese history. Models in which participants receive accreditation are being developed.

Cormier and Stewart, along with Siemens and Dr. Sandy McAuley of UPEI’s faculty of education, were awarded a knowledge dissemination grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, or SSHRC, to research the emerging phenomenon. One of the outcomes of that research was a series of online videos explaining MOOCs. The first of these, entitled simply “What Is a MOOC?,” recently passed 100,000 views on YouTube.

“That was created in 2010 with the help of UPEI videographer Neal Gillis,” says Cormier. “Since it was created, a lot has changed in MOOC theory. Some universities have taken it in a different direction, and you can see some of that discussion in the comments thread beneath. Still, the video’s a good introduction to MOOCs, and has led to a lot of great discussion.”

Stewart points out that many of the early MOOCs were on emerging fields, with teachers and participants drawing on information freely available on the Internet. Participants got different kinds of value from the experience, depending on their willingness to participate and their goals. “They originated to enable networked learning in areas where conventional courses didn’t exist,” she explains.

Now, bigger MOOCs are increasingly taught like traditional correspondence courses, except through video. While Cormier says MOOCs can be an excellent model for offering education to large communities of people, the shift to transmission modes of teaching makes them a very different phenomenon, with different implications for higher education.

“We initially thought of them as a giant 12-week learning party,” says Cormier. “The host invites anyone to come, saying you can eat as much of the chips and dip that you like. Want to bring something yourself? You’re more than welcome.”

MOOCs, now frequently hailed as the next big revolution in higher education, are still shifting and evolving. What they will become isn’t clear but Cormier and Stewart are co-writing a book with George Siemens, for release later this year, on MOOCs and the forces driving change in higher education.