Instructional Trend Spotlight: MOOCs
Many of you are busy teaching and/or working and don’t have a lot of time to research trends in education technology and online learning. To save you time, we’ll be periodically sending out snapshots of instructional trends to keep you in the know.

Today's Spotlight Trend: MOOCs

by Heather Leslie

Definition and History of MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) first made their debut in 2008 with an online course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” offered by the Canadian University of Manitoba (Sandeen, 2013). MOOCs are open to anyone which means thousands of people can take the course from anywhere in the world. The way MOOCs are structured can vary but they often include high-quality video content and peer-to-peer learning activities. MOOCs have grown in popularity with the rise of new platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Many universities, including prestigious institutions such as MIT and Harvard, have started offering their courses (some for credit) on MOOC platforms in order to reach a larger nontraditional student audience, enhance their reputations, engage alumni, provide alternative nondegree courses, increase access to education, and diversify their offerings and revenue streams (Sandeen, 2013).


Prevalence of MOOCs

The number of universities offering MOOCs has risen dramatically. In 2016, close to 7,000 MOOCs were offered by over 700 universities to over 58 million students (Shah, 2016). MOOCs have also gained attention in research. The first publication on a MOOC was in 2009 followed by five publications in 2011. In 2013, 102 papers were published, and, in 2014, 180 studies were conducted on MOOCs (Zancanaro, 2017).


Merits and Issues of MOOCs

The proliferation of MOOCs has spurred much debate about their advantages and limitations (Cabrera, 2017). For example, MOOCs offer the promise of democratization of education by increasing access to those with financial difficulties but also fall short of that promise as most people who take MOOCs already have higher levels education (Cabrera, 2017). The benefits for students who enroll in MOOCs include personal and professional development, the opportunity of interacting with students from all over the world, and lifelong learning (Cabrera, 2017). On the other hand, MOOCs have an incredibly high student drop-out rate in which 90% of students never finish the course (Eriksson, 2017). This may look dismal compared to traditional university courses but MOOCs are generally free until the student finishes at which time the student is given the option to pay for a certificate of completion. Therefore, students taking MOOCs do not have as much at stake if they drop out compared to dropping out of an expensive university course that is tied to financial aid, etc. Students can also re-take a MOOC as many times as they like, perhaps until they learn the material, which can be beneficial for tackling difficult subjects. It is worth comparing the completion of MOOCs to the completion of reading textbooks. How many students read their full textbooks from start to finish? Likely not many, due to time constraints. Instructors may have differing opinions about MOOCs but the field of research is still in its infancy and many questions about efficacy in learning and instructional design remain unanswered at this point in time.


Support of MOOCs

The main proponent of MOOCs are the MOOC founders who claim that MOOCs are a “global disruptive force” which will make traditional teaching obsolete as the lecture gets moved to the Internet (Tomte, 2017). Some researchers believe that government-supported Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), particularly in countries that pay for its citizens’ education, will use MOOCs to scale courses for large numbers of students (Tomte, 2017). Universities that are trying to increase enrollment, control their costs, and expand their offerings are also proponents of MOOCs. Some in academia question MOOCs because MOOC developers advocated their message of scale and access rather than pedagogy and quality (Moe, 2014). Therefore, MOOCs designed using active learning pedagogy will likely be an important criteria for MOOCs in the coming years, which will really gage their effectiveness as a global disruptor.



Cabrera, N. &. (2017). Examining MOOCs: A comparative study among education technology experts in traditional and open universities. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18 (2), 48-67.


Eriksson, T. (2017). "Time is the bottleneck": a qualitative study exploring why learners drop out of MOOCs. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 29 (1), 133-146.


Moe, R. (2014). The evolution and impact of the massive open online course. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.


Sandeen, C. (2013). Integrating MOOCS into Traditional Higher Education. Change, 45 (6), 34- 39.


Shah, D. (2016, December 25). 2016 MOOC Roundup Series. Retrieved from Class Central:


Tomte, C. A. (2017). Massive, open, online, and national? A study of how national governments and institutions shape the development of MOOCs. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 18 (5), 211-226.


Zancanaro, A. &. (2017). Analysis of scientific literature on massive open online courses (MOOCs). Revista Iberoamericana De Educacion a Distancia, 20 (1), 59-80.