Friday, November 24th, 2017

So, what is a MOOC, anyway?

Posted on March 13, 2013 in News
By Nathan Mooney

Sokvonny Chhouk

“A threat and an opportunity,” USM Professor of Linguistics Wayne Cowart said of MOOCs. Though it sounds a bit like a cuddly science fiction creature, what Cowart was referring to is actually a hot topic in higher education lately –massive, open, online courses or MOOCs.

For some, the idea of giving away university-created content in a free, albeit creditless, online setting is unsettling. However, the number of students that MOOCs attract — often hundreds of thousands sign up for a single course — has made it a topic that demands attention.

“As scary as it sounds when Stanford says ‘We’re going to enroll 200,000,’ it’s very unclear just what the nature of the threat is to an institution like USM,” said Cowart. “We should respond in whatever way seems to be making sense.”

The term has gained attention in business and university sectors in recent years due in part to a few large-scale online campuses made up entirely of free and open online content. The most notable of these have courses sponsored by the nation’s top centers for higher learning: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University and Harvard University. However, many courses are offered without connection to a university by companies with commercial interests.

The commercial backing for MOOCs and the web-based institutions that provide them is driven by the sheer number of users who flock to the websites for free education. Coursera, the largest of the three most prominent purveyors of free online courses, has over 2.5 million users and is currently partnered with 62 universities from across the globe. Coursera is a for-profit company that helps universities make their content available online.

Two of the other foremost websites for free online courses are EdX and Udacity. EdX is a joint venture between MIT and Harvard University, and it has recently added courses from UC Berkeley. Udacity was started by former Stanford professors, though much of its content has no affiliation with a university.

Each site does have small costs associated with it, but the charges are generally for features beyond the free interactive course content itself. One site charges less than $100 for a proctored webcam exam, and many offer expedited ways to obtain credit for a course through the sponsoring university at an extra cost.

Khusro Kidwai is the director of online teaching and learning at USM. He is helping to determine to what extent USM might take cues from the successes of sites like Udacity and Coursera. Kidwai came to USM with a doctorate in instructional systems and last worked at Pennsylvania State University. Penn State took a very open approach to the quickly changing landscape of online education and has placed a large amount of its original course content online, free of charge. “We will be doing it for very different reasons,” said Kidwai of USM’s future with the open online model of education compared with some of the bigger name universities he has worked with.

Kidwai explained that it is important for USM to be proactive about what it stands to gain from the sudden movement of people and investment dollars toward the evolving massive online campus model. “It is key for all of us to do the best we can to keep relevant so we can steer the market in the right direction.” He said that USM’s decision to consider experience gained from a MOOC as it would any other potential transfer credit has set the foundation for further development and involvement with online based coursework. “If you can demonstrate competence you should be able to give credit for it.”

Joyce Lapping is the director of prior learning assessment at USM. Her office helps facilitate transfer credit decisions, but does not actually set the bar on what life experience, or a MOOC course, might translate to in terms of USM credit. “All the policy decisions are made by the appropriate faculty,” she said, “we process and facilitate.” Her office was first pushed to consider transfer credits for MOOC based academic experience when three students asked last year to gain USM credit for a course taken from a massive, free, online outlet. “We felt we needed to have a policy.” There will still be an assessment of the knowledge by the appropriate faculty member, and credit will only be granted within degree majors that currently exist at USM.

Kidwai said that there is a plan to offer the content of a few USM courses online for free, and without credit, in the future — though he couldn’t yet say what courses they would be. “So many people, the provost, the president, they’re all in,” said Kidwai of the interest level in adapting lessons from the MOOC phenomenon to USM, “they wanted to be at the table.”

Kidwai said that USM plans to offer all of the content for a few courses outside of the traditional framework of Blackboard so that anyone worldwide can access the course materials. The assessment portion of the classes and peer-teacher interactions will still be exclusively available within Blackboard to enrolled USM students as has been the case with current and past USM online classes.

The University of Maine System doesn’t have an example of a free and massively-attended online class at the moment. However, the University of Maine at Presque Isle does have a program called UMPI OpenU, which resembles the MOOC phenomenon in concept and execution, though it lacks the enrollment numbers to be called truly “massive.”
The UMPI website currently lists 10 courses offered through OpenU for the spring semester and seven in the summer. The free online courses offered through UMPI are mostly in the English department, though the political science, history and professional communication and journalism departments are also represented.


  • It’s a very interesting and exciting time for higher education, especially people who are passionate lifelong learners. It is getting so easy to learn from the world’s best professors and universities and now MOOCs provide a course-like structure around that learning with a community of thousands of other students from all over the world. It’s hard not to be excited by the portabilities There are of course some teething pains – the one I’m most interested in is the credibility of the learning from employers’ and other stakeholders’ perspective. MOOCs are wonderful for those that learn for learning’s sake, but currently their certificates of completion aren’t too valuable for career progression; employers usually won’t accept them. I think the key issues are that they can’t be sure it was really you that did the work (and online exams) or how hard you worked for the course (1 hour a week? 10 hours a week?). I actually co-founded a company trying to solve that problem ( – community driven certification for MOOCs credible enough for your CV). We just need a new type of certificate that can support online learning, relying less on the institution’s brand (e.g. Stanford/Oxford/etc) and relying a lot more on the work that the student produced as proof of learning and expertise These tools are coming so I think these issues will start to shrink. I think there is going to need to be a culture shift in terms of what constitutes ‘formal learning’ – hopefully people will start to believe that it doesn’t just stop when you graduate!