Massive Open Online Courses — otherwise known as MOOCs. What are they? Why were they created? And how effective are they in the face of all the criticisms against them?

A MOOC is essentially an open course, free of charge, open to anyone with an Internet connection. MOOCs are the latest advancement in online education and distance education, and have been adopted by some of the top universities around the world.

MOOCs are set apart from other models of distance and online education by the scale that they manage to reach. Some courses have hundreds of thousands of enrolments. This illustrates the true potential of MOOCs for not only domestic students, but also students in the global south, where higher education may be inaccessible to the majority of the population.

MOOC platforms

There are a couple of main platforms that supply Massive Open Online Courses:

Edx is a company created by Harvard and MIT that hosts nine main courses mirroring the campus courses taught by the universities. It is currently focusing on hard sciences and mathematics. Students do not receive credit from the university.

Coursera is the largest MOOC platform, with over 200 courses. Courses cover a large range of topics, from the hard sciences and math to classics, history and other humanities subjects. The courses are made up from input for academics and professors from thirty universities.

Udacity is a middle range provider, with roughly 19 courses. One thing that sets this provider apart from the rest is that you are allowed to spend as long you want completing the courses. They also have a distinct no textbook policy.

Finally, we have the OERu, coordinated by the OER Foundation. They are an independent not for profit network that offers free online courses for students worldwide. They also partner with several recognised institutions to create an affordable way for learners to gain academic credit. What is special about this platform is that it is based in Dunedin, New Zealand and is run off truly open principles. One of the founding principles of the organisation is to provide for those who are excluded from the formal education system.

Kinds of MOOCs

As well as the different platforms that supply MOOCs there are also broadly three different kinds of MOOCs:

xMOOCs are usually offered in a very similar format to the traditional university model. Traditional universities especially in America, especially Ivy League universities are the driving force behind this model. Learning is primarily focused on rote learning, where there are a variety on lectures on a range of topics that can range from 3-30 minutes. There are tests and assignments that are computer graded; very little direct instructor feedback or discussion is provided.

CMOOCs are based on a constructivist approach that views knowledge as a networked state and learning as the process of generating those networks. There is a large range of topics and themes are very broad to allow for more learner engagement in areas that they want to learn more about. Content is delivered through lecture-based videos but there is a lot more emphasis on discussion forums, conversations with other participants and feedback from experts.

QuasiMOOCs only very broadly fit in the definition of MOOCs. These are web-based tutorials that house a large range of Open Education Resources. An example of such an organisation is the Khan Academy. These are not technically traditional courses and are more a range of loosely related educational resources that are collected together under one theme or skill.

Why MOOCs?

But why were MOOCs created? And what criticisms exist around their use? In essence, MOOCs are a response to the opportunities and challenges of changing technology. Education is a fundamental right enshrined in many pieces of both domestic and international legislation and multiple organisations are constantly working on being able to increase access to education and the quality of education.

When they were first launched, MOOCs appeared to many as a near infallible tool that could help the spread of quality education to both domestic students unable to afford higher education and excluded students in the developing world. However, MOOCs have not been without their problems or criticisms.


One of the largest problems with MOOCs is the grey area surrounding copyrights. The question of who owns what content becomes very complicated, especially as there are so many different parties involved. Early examples of MOOCs used open Creative Commons licences, such as BY-NC-SA, which allows students to share, redistribute and remix the course material, as they liked so long as they licensed the new material they created in the same way.

What is truly scary about the copyrighting issues with MOOCs is the claims that some third party platforms have over copyright of individual intellectual property. The major three platforms claim an exclusive license to use, distribute and reproduce and modify intellectual property, including the right to use all student material for commercial purposes. This effectively claims ownership over the intellectual property from all people who are party to the courses. Interestingly, it is also these platforms that have the tightest restrictions on copyright regarding the material that they create and distribute to their members.

Drop Out Rates

One of the largest problems with MOOCs is the large drop out or non-completion rate. If MOOCs were used for the purpose of specifically gaining a qualification or recognition of completion of a topic, then it would make sense to judge their success on the basis of drop out rates.

However, research shows that there is a large range of reasons that people enroll in MOOCs – some of which is purely interest based, which means that the completion of that course is not necessarily what they are aiming towards. Dropouts rates will obviously become more or an issue where institutions consider providing course credit to a MOOC participants.


MOOCs are free – so how will they be sustainable? Third party platforms that host these courses need to get their funding from somewhere; without additional funding, it will become harder for them to host the same kind of free courses that they currently do. The idea of introducing fees has been floated. However, this would remove one of the most fundamental aspects of MOOCs: that they are free and therefore accessible.

Should we endorse MOOCs?

All this discussion brings us back to the question that in the pursuit of open education are the innovations such as MOOCs really open and something we should endorse? In their title, MOOCs claim to be open; at present, though, it is clear that most MOOCS are not as open as they might initially appear.

It is still unclear whether MOOCs are just the educational buzzword of the moment or whether they will become a sustainable and effective method of delivering education. But it is certain that there are still a number of issues and criticisms for them to overcome before they are reflective of the principles of truly open education.

Victoria Rea is a law student at Victoria University of Wellington. She is also an intern for Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand

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