If you don’t already know the term MOOC, you soon will. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses, which a recent New York Times article “Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls” described as “a tool for democratizing higher education.” While some experts think that may be over stating their potential, MOOCs are definitely making their mark on higher education.  

Simply defined an MOOC is an “open” course in which the participants are distributed and course materials are dispersed across the web. The course is typically large and, most important, free for participants. As Wikipedia explains, “the course is not a gathering, but rather a way of connecting distributed instructors and learners across a common topic or field of discourse.”  

But MOOCs are not new, but they are certainly receiving a bit of hype these days. Case in point: bloggers on The Chronicle of Higher Education point to the “mania for MOOCs clearly played a small but important role in the dismissal of UVA President Teresa Sullivan.” [She has since been reinstated.]  

Indeed, the literature shows that MOOC champions and connectivism theory (on which MOOCs are largely based) thought leaders George Siemens and Stephen Downes have been touting their potential on elearnspace dating back to the early 2000s. Likewise, major universities such as MIT, Stanford, and Harvard have been distributing MOOCs for years. But the movement seems to have found its watershed moment with the success of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence class last fall in which some 160,000 students enrolled.  

Advertisement

Experts say several factors have helped propel MOOCs to the center of the education stage, including improved technology and the exploding costs of traditional universities. While the vast potential of free online courses has excited theoretical interest for decades, in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree.  

I am sure that most of you are already familiar with MOOCs—and many have either offered or participated in one. Even so, it’s good to hear what others saying about what some are calling a major trend for 2012.