I’m in the Mood for MOOCs

To describe new massive open online college courses, we need new words

Illustration: Roman Muradov

We started talking about what it meant to have lots and lots of people learning together. Somewhere in there, I called them a massive open online course, for which I have been often chastised. —Dave Cormier, education researcher


If you decided to learn a piece of music, a piano concerto, say, you’d likely start by getting a copy of the score to study. However, what if you came away from that study with only the knowledge that the score consisted of 1432 A notes, 1268 Es, 745 G-sharps, and so on? Have you learned the piece? No, of course not—it’s not the number of notes that matters.


That’s kind of the idea behind a new theory of learning called connectivism. To the connectivist, a branch of knowledge isn’t a set of isolated facts to be memorized. Instead, it’s actually a large set—or really a network—of connections, and learning is nothing more or less than traversing them. In the same way that you become proficient in a piece of music by playing its notes in order in an expressive way—that is, traversing its connections—you become proficient in a subject by participating in it. You see and appreciate the connections inherent in the subject, even creatingnew connections based on your experience.


This learning-by-doing approach has been called activity theory, and it’s finding a home in many 21st-century learning environments because technology makes it so much easier to actively engage in a subject’s connective knowledge. For example, you can document your learning in a free blog hosted by Blogger or WordPress; you can engage other people who are also learning (or have already learned) the topic through Facebook or Twitter; you can use online resources to store and share bookmarks related to the field; you can even create your own wiki.


Alternatively, you can sign up for a MOOC, a massive open online course. MOOCs are free, open to anyone, and designed to handle an extremely large number of students. You might think that MOOCs would cover only esoteric subjects offered by obscure schools, but that’s not the case. Such august institutions as MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Caltech have offered online courses recently. These are not off-curriculum pet projects but rather actual degree courses offered simultaneously to a few tuition-paying students on campus and to thousands of would-be learners auditing online. (At least for now, only the tuition payers earn credits toward a degree.) Most of these courses get a few thousand online participants, although an artificial-intelligence MOOC given by Stanford in late 2011 filled a whopping 160 000 virtual seats.


The materials created for these courses are called OpenCourseWare. They are “open” in the sense that they’re shared freely online, although they tend, at least at the MOOCs run by those big-time institutions, to have fairly rigid frameworks in which the materials themselves are defined in advance and are unchanged as the course progresses. However, other MOOCs—particularly those run by private companies such as Udacity—tend to incorporate open design principles that enable participants to control what they learn, how they learn it, and whom they interact with during the course. In this way, the MOOC becomes a kind of network of learners who spontaneously form new connections and even help direct the course and its objectives.


Of course, MOOCs have their detractors. Some call them monstrous open online courses. They complain that they’re chaotic and prevent meaningful student-teacher interaction and, if expanded to any meaningful degree, will lead to mere broadcast education and ultimately to an undefined MOOCopalypse.


Until recently, e-learning was most prominently associated with the novelty degree—a degree from a nonexistent university or college (or sometimes a fake degree from an existing university or college). Now we might be heading into a golden age of virtual education, where high-quality courses are available to everyone and not just those who can afford US $40 000 a year for tuition. Now that’s a tune I’d like to study.


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