Massive Open Online Course – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

Where did MOOCs come from?

This section briefly describes the genesis of the MOOC phenomenon. The first course labeled as an MOOC was created and taught by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, two well-known pioneers of online learning working in Canada. Siemens and Downes share an interest in education and models of learning, with particular affiliation to a theory of learning called connectivism. Siemens is a leading academic working with this theory, while Stephen Downes in particular had long experience of working at the cutting edge of e-learning practice, leading initiatives in OER, personalized learning, and other areas, and is a respected commentator on some of the most challenging topics of the future of online education.

In 2008, the team taught a traditional, fee-paying course to 25 students at the University of Manitoba but also made the radical and far-sighted decision to open up access to the course to anyone who wished to join it online. About 2200 people joined the students on the course. The course topic was Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, connectivism being an educational theory that emphasizes the importance of connections between people and knowledge. The Internet and social media allow new possibilities for exploring connectivist approaches, as they enable communication between very large groups of people to happen quickly and easily, so the subject matter was ideally suited for the experiment that was to take place.

The hope and expectation of Siemens and Downes was that by opening up the course to a much wider and nonselective group of students, it would provide a rich and fertile ground on which to test out connectivism in practice, bringing together a small cohort of students following a formal educational route with a much larger and more diverse group of interested individuals.

So did it work? It was clearly a fascinating experiment and it comes to life as we read Downes’ updates on his experience of teaching the course (Downes, 2008) and subsequent reflections by Siemens and others (Fini, 2009). Downes muses upon the student responses to the course materials, which included weekly videos of himself and others, live discussions sessions (run twice in order to cope with the range of time zones in which students were based), an online discussion forum, and the overall course delivery system, which he adapted from his online newsletter system. Like many ground-breaking initiatives in online learning, this was a live and raw experiment where the teachers had to wrestle with technical systems to “bend” them to work how they wanted and had to carry out their own administration—registering students online in batches—as well as creating digital course materials just days or sometimes hours before they went live.

Some years after the course was taught, it is still considered to have been a success on two levels. First, as an approach to learning and teaching with a large cohort of distributed students, it proved itself to be successful: the use of the digital medium made it easy to gather data about how students interacted with the course content and their level of contribution to class discussion and other activity, such as writing blog posts. The data revealed that students were contributing to discussions, creating content, and engaging with their peers.

Second, the experiment has been considered by many commentators as a successful example of both a different way to construct a course with a much broader cohort and a new philosophical approach to the way that higher education courses are structured and delivered. It is the seed that was sown through this single experiment that has led to the fervor and strong opinions about MOOCs in the last 2   years.

Siemens, Downes, and others spent time and effort reflecting upon their experiences and attempting to describe the theoretical distinctions of their model. In doing this, they coined the terms cMOOC (connectivist) and xMOOC (traditional, see below). cMOOC is exemplified by the original MOOC that was run in 2008; a cMOOC is taught according to connectivist principles, combining open learning with distributed content. The connectivist network is at the heart of a cMOOC; it may be offered outside a traditional academic institution by a network of interested and specialist individuals, and the student has a lot of autonomy to govern their own interaction with the course and its content, choosing the content that they wish to interact with and the nature of their own participation.

About 2   years after this first MOOC ran, parallel activities were taking place at some of the leading institutions in the United States that would converge with the MOOC experiment to create the phenomenon that we see today.

Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng were both teaching traditional courses in Computer Science at Stanford University and wished to introduce elements of educational technology in order to improve the learning experience for the students (Leber, 2012). They began to experiment with what is now known as the “flipped classroom” model, where traditional, campus-based students use educational technology resources such as online lectures and digitized experiments to prepare for their classes in advance, and use the face-to-face time for deeper interaction with their peer group and teachers. At the same time, Sebastian Thrun, who also taught at Stanford, was carrying out an experiment in online teaching similar to the much earlier Siemens and Downes experiment, but which was making news by attracting some hundreds of thousands of online students.

Learning from these separate experiments converged together and the terminology developed by Siemens and Downes was adopted more widely to give a name to what was seen as an exciting experiment that promised (or threatened) to subvert the traditional models of higher education.


The MOOCs with which we are most familiar today, and which we might describe as traditional MOOCs, are a form of xMOOCs. These are MOOCs that follow a more traditional structure and delivery approach, are probably offered by a recognized academic institution, and are where the course is highly structured and with clear expectations for how the student will engage with the course (see Table 1.1 for more details about the two types of MOOCs).

Table 1.1. The attributes of xMOOCs and cMOOCs

xMOOCscMOOCsScalability of provisionMassiveCommunity and connectionsOpen access—restricted licenseOpenOpen access and licenseIndividual learning in single platformOnlineNetworked learning across multiple platforms and servicesAcquire a curriculum of knowledge and skillsCourseDevelop shared practices, knowledge, and understanding

Yuan, Powell, and Olivier (2014).

It is useful to understand the terminology and the part that they plan in the genesis of the MOOC. However, the boundaries between the two types of MOOCs are becoming increasingly blurred as more MOOCs are developed, and as new types of MOOC emerge that include characteristics of both types. xMOOCs or cMOOCs will not be referred to specifically through this work, instead as is the norm, generic term MOOC will be used to mean both.