Blog Post

What Is a MOOC?

NB:  I have enrolled in the fabulous online MOOC MOOC--a Massively Open Online Course about Massively Open Online Courses--and hope to contribute all week.   If you want to join over 275 others currently enrolled, here's the url:  And for a digest of the very impressive doings on Hybrid Pedagogy, check out:   Already someone posed, on the etherpad collaborative tool set up by Hybrid Pedagogy, the group organizing this #MOOCMOOC, the question What Is a MOOC?  Here's my first stab at an answer:

Massively Open Courses (MOCs), the analog version,  have been around at least since the late eighteenth century where they served the agrarian population with various farm-based extension courses; they were also conducted in town squares far from major university centers (in Europe, England, Latin America, the US and probably other places as well) by itinerant teachers, often specializing in handwriting and reading.  MOCs got a big wind in the late 19th century, extending the mission of the Land Grant Universities to the populace at large, had another major kick after World War II and the GI Bill, and have had variations throughout the 20th century.  In the post-Sputnik-TV era, MOCs were conducted by some relatively famous profs flying around in airplanes broadcasting lectures down to schools (I know, because that's how I and other young math geeks, huddled together in one "televisual" classroom on the ground,  were taught "New Math" in the Chicago area).  The typical rationale for any form of "correspondence course" or distance education course has been, historically, to extend the mission and expertise of the university beyond the normal walls and environs of the university to a general public, often at reduced or no cost.  This democratizes the expertise of higher education to a larger populace who, for reasons of economics, previous training, age, or mobility, cannot attend universities in conventional ways.  This historical background is useful because it helps us see several features of the present digital or MOOC version of distance education.

Here are some key arguments for MOOCs:

--First, there is the argument by greater good, the shared mission of extending the content or intellectual goods of the university to a much larger populace.  

--Second, is the argument by convenience, the idea that busy, working people might not have the time or material resources to quit their jobs, give up their everyday lives to attend university at regular hours or on a conventional schedule (a recent study of MOOC participants suggested 30-something middle-class white mothers taking business courses is a real target audience).  

--Third, is the argument for retraining, the idea that MOOC's help to retrain a populace that was prepared for an analog economy and now the terms of that economy has shifted and, to be competitive in the job market, people need to retrain themselves and the MOOC's serve that function, being particularly good at teaching technical subjects, including  computational or programming courses, accounting, statistics, Human-Computer Interaction, machine learning, and so forth.   

--Fourth is the argument for cost, the implication that online courses cost less to offer than do face to face courses delivered at universities, community colleges, or for-profits. 

Now is where the differences with past MOC's emerge in the MOOC's.   Newer arguments include:

--Fifth, the argument from prestige, that students can take a Stanford or Harvard or MIT online course for free from a world-renowned expert rather than taking the same course face to face from a hard-working but not necessarily famous prof at the local community college.   Here's where I start to get skeptical.  

--Sixth is where the rationale begins to turn the mission inside out:  the MOOC is an antidote to higher tuition dollars at privates or to taxpayers having to support publics because it is corporate and commercial and, implicitly, therefore more efficient and effective.  

This sixth MOOC argument confuses so many of the previous arguments that it needs to be deconstructed and proven, point by point.  Without venture capital, would MOOCs really minimize costs?  Also, the adage of the Internet is that, if something is for free, you are not the consumer but the product being sold, and that is the seventh and most dubious point I want to interject here about MOOC's:   some do and some don't allow the prof to keep the IP of the course but almost all have a student agreement that allows the MOOC to keep the student's information.   I've heard from the Coursera developers that the business model moving forward might well be, as it is for other MOOC's to sell that student information to advertisers, to future employers, to edu-tech software and hardware developers, to assessment companies, and even to Kaplan-style study companies.  

--Seventh, there's a final argument for MOOC's which I actually find to be the most compelling but it is rarely articulated, largely (I believe) because it's implications would scuttle some of the others in a more expensive way.  That is, you can learn better from MOOC's.   In certain cases, for certain subjects, taught with certain kinds of conditions and attention to such things as attention, retention, applicability, and real-time, challenge-based assessment, I think this is true.   I often tout Carnegie Mellon's statistics course as an example.   I know at least two people who took CMU's statistics courses free and only side-by-side with badly taught statistics lectures at another university (required by their program and for which they paid tuition) and who then aced the final in their f2f class, something they would not have done had they not taken the MOOC at CMU.   

We know the lecture is a poor form of learning-delivery.  It's good for mass inspiration when it is done well but poor for retention and applicability.   In some subjects, MOOC's work.   But if better teaching is the rationale, then course design, the data back end, and other issues need to be front and center.   In the current conversation--especially waged by politicians, Trustees, and commercial vendors--it is not.   I've heard that one of the developers of Coursera, Daphne Koller, is studying learning results from the backend information she is collecting in great quantity.  Her field is the massive analysis of data (she won a MacArthur genius grant for her work in this area) and I know she will be able to learn far more about the learning process from careful analysis of massive amounts of learning data than we know now.    That excites me.  Koller discusses this in a YouTube video:

It is possible, if this is the case, that the next generation of MOOC's will build upon this first generation and make this seventh goal a primary one, not a submerged one in all the collective panic about the high cost (i.e. lack of taxpayer support at publics) for higher education.  Until that happens, there will be a huge variety in the MOOC's that are offered.   Just as we need teacher evaluations to help guide students to the best ones, and to help the lesser ones learn and become better, we really need a Yelp! for MOOCs---MOOCEs (Massive Online Open Course Evaluations):

I have been arguing for a long time that the historical situatedness of the form of education we have now, especially the research university, with its majors, minors, divisions, general education courses, professional and graduate schools, and impenetrable silos dividing the "two cultures," is an anachronism of the Industrial Age.   We desperately need to rethink the structures of our learning institutions for the age we live in now.   I doubt the MOOC will be the answer---but it well may push us to ask the right questions, questions that traditional academics tend to want to avoid.   We can't any longer.   The motives of the MOOC today may be questionable, but it is possible we will end up at a better place in the end than the one we have inherited from the Taylorization of the workforce---and of the educational institutions designed to train students for that hierarchical corporate or factory workplace.

That is one of this moment's great MOOC quandaries.  And one of our challenges.  And, I'm sure, one of the conversation points in our Hybrid Pedagogy MOOC MOOC.   Join us!


Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :






1 comment


You have done a marvelous job highlighting the arguments and concerns regarding MOOCs, but even more important is your articulation of how we need to really look at our current educational model and it's historical background.  I'm an advocate of rethinking the artificial barriers between disciplines.

Your points 4, 5, and 6 are of particular concern.  It may appear that there is less cost in running a MOOC, but when you consider the human capital to organize and maintain facilitation, it goes up.  You're also correct that administration has a confused perspective on MOOCs.  I may be lucky that our school seems to have a more reasonable idea about them, but I'm not inside of their head; so I've come to terms with letting them think about finances and enrollment numbers, and I'll think about the quality of material I'm putting out there.

MOOCs as such are not the end, but only a begining.  The wonder in them is that the MOOC has opened our eyes to different possibilities in building learning opportunties.  I advocate for the adaptation of the MOOC model to fit the situation, personality and audience of a particular course.  The tools and connectivity brought together in a MOOC open doors to other avenues of learning.  In fact, the acronym MOOC may ultimately inhibit instead of inspire (basically when trying to answer What is a MOOC?)