Catalyzing Science with Open Data — E-Learning with Massive Open Online Acronyms

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are part of the open data and open source movement. Many view MOOCs as a disruptive innovation within education because these free, online learning modules challenge conventional norms and status-quo learning styles. The line between teacher and student becomes blurred, as many MOOCs rely on students to teach, grade, and co-create teaching materials. In a MOOC, we are all teachers and students.

MOOCs vary widely. They can cover any topic and come in diverse, multi-media formats. As a result, there is an ever-increasing diversity in MOOC-related acronyms (see below).

Types of MOOCs 

DOCC: Distributed Open Collaborative Courses
cMOOC: MOOC, where the “c” stands for “connectivist” to reflect the connection that learners build together when co-creating distributed content materials, answering questions, and/or collaborate on joint projects that typically extend beyond a conventional video-lecture format.
xMOOC: MOOC, where the “x” stands for extended (e.g., TEDx, EdX) content that is designed to augment other learning experiences like university courses.
MOOD: Massive Open Online Degree

MOOCs often involve multi-media curriculum with distributed content generation. They can involve two-way exchanges via video, social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), textbook and content generation, research, teaching, assessment, and/or certification. Interaction is a key feature. Automation is important for scalability of MOOCs: grading is often computerized or a combination of computerized evaluation with peer grading and peer reporting. MOOCs empower learners to be in charge of their own learning content and pace. They also potentially threaten existing business models from private tutoring to higher education degrees.

Personally, I like MOOCs… with caveats.

When I think of MOOCs, I think of sock puppets. Specifically, I think of the Pets.com sock puppet from the height of the 1990s dot-com bubble, which imploded in spectacular fashion, losing $300 million in capital investment. Yet 15 years later, a large and rapidly growing group (over 20%) of American pet owners buy online, increasingly using online stores and auto-ship services to conveniently deliver pet food and supplies direct to home. It is easy, saves time, and is affordable. Ironically, the Pets.com investors lost but the Pets.com business model ultimately prevailed — after the technology infrastructure caught up to the forward-looking vision, which took many years.

So it is with MOOCs, it seems.

Only a few years ago, universities scrambled to emulate Harvard, Stanford, and other early adopters with Coursera, EdX, and open education platforms with the promise of free, online courses for the world via MOOCs. Education’s “next big thing” had arrived as a great global equalizer in access to information and opportunity.

Beginning in 2013, however, reality and expectations seemed incongruent. Tech leaders and education CEOs postulated that MOOCs could be amidst a hype cycle—currently overhyped yet under-delivering with low completion rates (<10%) and nebulous value, so doomed for a “trough of disillusionment” (figure) before plateauing to some future normal of MOOC value. With less than 10% of participating students actually finishing the coursework, perhaps MOOCs are best viewed as complements to existing education systems, designed to augment—not replace—conventional learning systems.

"Gartner Hype Cycle" by Jeremykemp at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg#/media/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg
“Gartner Hype Cycle” by Jeremykemp at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg#/media/File:Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg

So, with tempered optimism, I am a fan of MOOCs. They are extremely valuable in theory, yet pragmatically probably a decade ahead of interactive learning technologies to serve society and higher education as we wish. However, their time will likely come.

Right now, before the “plateau of productivity,” MOOCs have potential to disproportionately benefit the international community as growing numbers of global citizens gain Internet access. For example, the Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) framework for ecosystem-based adaptive management has a growing international community. It aims to train 10,000 LME practitioners with MOOCs that complement existing trainings and capacity building programs. This LME MOOC extension has a good probability of success because the LME community has an existing and captive audience, built up over 30 years, that wants education — but lacks access to LME training programs. For LME practitioners and global citizens, especially those from developing nations, MOOC credentials and/or short-term course certifications can disproportionally help to set apart resumes and job applicants. Today, approximately half of U.S. MOOC enrollees are international students who do not speak English as a first language.

Education effectiveness remains an open question, yet MOOCs undoubtedly extend learning to new demographics beyond traditional education for new audiences around the world. MOOCs inherently equalize access to information and open education. Even in their infancy without any “right formula” for MOOC efficacy, our education system can expect MOOCs to augment the learning environment through multi-media exploration and open-source principles.

Planning and preparing a MOOC can be challenging. If you are planning a MOOC, there a few things to consider to maximize your chances for success:

  • Pick an interesting topic.
  • Clearly define your target audience(s) with consideration of multiple audiences. Explicitly consider the primary audience(s) and also passive learners—those who complete a few lessons yet not the full course.
  • Clearly define MOOC expectations with completion goals/certificates/value, based on defined target audiences and user needs.
  • Don’t underestimate the time and effort needed. The average MOOC takes over 100 hours to prepare before materials go online, plus course teaching time. Good ones take longer.
  • Build in multi-media feedback loops with social media, physical meetups, or other tools for two-way engagement.
  • Iterate and adapt with user feedback and user-generated content.

We still have much to learn about how best to design MOOCs, which only reinforces some of the key tenants underlying open-data, open-source, and open-science movements. We are all students. We are all teachers. We are all life-long learners.


Have a MOOC you’d like to share? Please tweet link to @khoney with hashtag #openscience.

Cover photo credit: thinkmedialabs / CC BY-NC 2.0

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