How Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Work

In Theory: The MOOC Ideal

Back in 2008, two Canadian educators, Stephen Downes and George Siemens, started the MOOC movement. Their course, offered through the University of Manitoba, was something of an experiment. The aim was to demonstrate connectivism, a learning theory Siemens had developed. The class was called Connectivism and Connectivist Learning, and 2,200 students signed up [source: Morrison]. The core of connectivist theory goes like this: In the digital age, learning happens most effectively in networks. It is, Siemens said, exponentially increased by the act, and the art, of collaboration.

In other words, sharing, growing, and forming connections between seemingly disparate information through a network produces greater understanding than consuming it from a single, finite source. Learning by consumption is static, which today means it might be incomplete, or flat-out wrong, by the time the lecture ends or the book hits the shelves.

Learning by collaboration, on the other hand, has no end. In a MOOC, sources of knowledge are endless. Education moves in all directions -- between instructors and students and especially between students and students, establishing an environment in which understanding continually expands and evolves.

That original MOOC, which some would now call a cMOOC, connected instructors to students via forums, blogs, networks, RSS feeds and live peer-to-peer chats. Following a very loosely constructed syllabus, structured learning happened through online lectures and exams, but the self-guided learning was more the point: Instructors provided an overabundance of proposed online information sources – Web sites, blogs, essays, books -- from which each student was to pick and choose in order to create his own path to understanding (check out the PLE sidebar) [source: Marques]. As the 12-week course progressed, the range of "course materials" grew in the form of blogs, Web pages and forum posts created by the students themselves, who also participated in grading and peer assessment.

MOOCs based on that seminal framework flooded e-learning platforms in 2012, created by individual teachers, field experts, training organizations and universities [source: Marques]. A 2013 Princeton course called Networks Illustrated is a good example of a university-offered MOOC, which some would now call an xMOOC. Let's check that one out.