What is a MOOC and what does it do?
A MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, is a form of online learning that has challenged the concept of the traditional classroom. It is a free, Internet-based technology that supports large-scale participation in an effort to democratize the learning process (13). MOOCs offer wide access to a range of educational material, often at the level of higher education, and are interactive, collaborative learning events in which students, instructors, and even universities have stake. Unlike the university classroom, however, a single instructor may support a class with thousands of participants. This type of MOOC is considered a content-based MOOC in that it delivers significant pedagogical content which may range anywhere from computer science and calculus to English and psychology. The technology also overlaps with characteristics of both network- and task-based MOOCs, as it incorporates the use of networks and initiates tasks or assessments for the learner (15). Below is a video created by Dave Cormier, a researcher who coined the term ‘MOOC,’ that further expounds on the technology:

Influence from OpenCourseWare
In 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced an initiative called OpenCourseWare to make MIT course material free and accessible for Internet users (14). Its aim was to make written documents and videotapes of lectures public in an effort to disseminate knowledge, yet still retain intellectual property ownership of the material. As an antecedent technology to the MOOC, OpenCourseWare served as a foundation for the MOOC concept and medium.

MOOCs are courses in which Internet users may enroll and actively participate, i.e., users complete a series of assessments and receive electronic feedback as opposed to simply viewing the “stale cataloging of content” of OpenCourseWare (13, 16). Additionally, the MOOC medium is primarily lecture-based through brief, recorded instructional video-- an offspring of the videotaped lecture approach of OpenCourseWare. The KhanAcademy, a website with individual lectures on a wide range of academic topics, as well as London School of Economics lecture videos are additional examples of more recent open courseware applications.

In turn, MOOCs have evolved into more robust offerings that go beyond making content publicly available.

How does a MOOC work?
Any student-- either worldwide or on-campus-- or educated professional that has Internet access can access a MOOC. Content-based MOOCs of the higher
education industry are generally hosted by a third-party technical platform and students may access them through that particular platform. For these course offerings to exist, universities select among their offered educational content and create a lecture-based, interactive course to be hosted by the platform.

Students select among the course offerings and register, or enroll, in a course that interests them. As one participant of thousands registered for the course, the student then engages with the material by watching the short lectures and completing assignments within those lectures (22). These assignments are then graded either electronically or through the use of networks, whereby students participating in the course crowd-source ideas and provide qualitative feedback. As the course nears completion, the student usually must take a final exam to validate his or her learning. Increasingly, technical platforms that support MOOCs are allowing students the option to receive a course certificate upon passing of the final assessment for a fee.

The “Big Three”
Three organizations, or technical platforms, referred to as the “Big Three” currently dominate the higher education MOOC market. They include Coursera, edX, and Udacity.

As the most largest of the three, Coursera aggregates MOOCs from 35 universities within the United States and abroad. Coursera is a for-profit organization that chargers viewers for certification and charges other universities for the use of its MOOCs in the classroom. Co-founder Daphne Koller, in a recent Wharton interview, explains that Coursera has a university base that allows the firm to offer a transformational educational experience.

edX is a highly exclusive MOOC technical platform with 160,000 users. This MOOC platform provides courses from Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, and UT. As a non-profit organization, edX relies on philanthropic funding and is also looking to expand to other elite universities to compete with Coursera.

Udacity is the unique platform in the sense that it is not university-based. It is an educational institution itself, as professors and instructors (not universities themselves) may upload MOOCs. The goal of Udacity is also different, as it aims to prepare student users for employment. To this end, the firm has partnered with twenty technology firms in order to expand users’ employment opportunities.

A summary of the "Big Three" is as follows:

University Affiliated?
Ohio State
Hong Kong University
John’s Hopkins
… others
UC Berkeley
(Wellesley College joining soon)
Individual Lectures or Full Courses?
Number of University Participants
4 (soon to be 5)
Is it a MOOC?
Almost 2 million
For/Not For Profit
Not-For Profit
Not-For Profit

What MOOCs do not do-- at least not yet
First, MOOC platforms generally do not grant university credit. Policies imposed by participating universities inhibit MOOC users from using the online technology to attain a college degree. However, recent news shows that this policy might change in the coming months and may, in fact, be a source of future development for the technology. The American Council, for example, has begun to consider MOOC courses offered by accredited colleges as course credit.

Second, with the large scale of the MOOC comes limited interaction between the instructor and the student. As a result, MOOCs are unable to offer students extensive feedback from the qualified instructor hosting the MOOC. Instead, students rely on a social network of the MOOC students mainly through discussion boards and online forums.