MOOC – the online education platform

Further training courses, free of charge and open to all interested parties – a dream of the internet. With MOOC (massive open online courses) the ideal of access to education for all becomes more and more of a reality. You can now take courses online on all sorts of topics, provided you have internet access and you can motivate yourself! However, the online courses are not only dry explanatory videos, or lengthy technical texts. Many MOOCs make use of the internet and offer learners interesting options for studying, including exchanges with other participants. What are the advantages and disadvantages of massive open online courses?

What is MOOC?

The internet has always been a place for exchanging knowledge. Today more than ever, people are asking the internet for information. “Googling” has been an established term for a while, and Wikipedia is the online authority of choice for many users. The knowledge of the world is available to everyone online. But most of the time you are left to your own devices, and with the wide range of material out there, it’s often overwhelming to pick out the relevant information – unlike in a course.

Schools and universities are quite different – you work with classmates, or at least have people working on the same thing, and you’ll most likely have a course leader to structure and explain the contents to you. A MOOC tries to combine the advantages of both worlds – interactivity paired with the open access of the internet.

The acronym MOOC stands for “massive open online course.” The four parts of the term provide a good approach to the essence of online seminars:

  • Massive: Thanks to the ever increased digitization of resources, massive open online courses don’t have to deal with the restrictions of physical educational institutions. That means that there is no limited number of participants. As a result, MOOCs can host between 100 and several thousands of students, and can truly be described as “massive.”
  • Open: There are admission restrictions for universities in many faculties, depending on grades or experience, and other factors may contribute to people choosing not to go to university – such as money. Massive open online courses are free, and are open to anyone, regardless of income, culture, or educational background. Anyone with internet access can take part in the courses.
  • Online: The seminars function completely via the internet. MOOCs therefore have a lot in common with distance learning universities. Learning materials are available regardless of location. This is combined with the numerous possibilities of e-learning. The internet-based publication of the materials gives teachers the opportunity to use digital resources.
  • Course: MOOCs are often not just presentations. Most of the courses are based more on the concept of a course or seminar. Instead of simply absorbing information, students are involved in the whole process. Many massive open online courses include homework, and some even a final exam.

MOOCs have been around since 2008, when two pioneers in e-learning, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, launched the first massive open online course on the internet. Its topic was still directly related to the principle behind learning via the internet: “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.” From there, more and more scientists have followed the example, and made teaching materials and lectures publicly accessible. MIT and Stanford University, in particular, recognized the potential of MOOCs early on and offered courses online.

Private companies have also recognized the opportunities. For example, Udacity and Coursera offer platforms for attending courses at university level. The companies themselves do not create their own massive open online courses, but work together with lecturers and universities. These platforms are usually offered free of charge. However, participants can take an exam at the end of a course and receive a certificate if they pass – this usually incurs a fee.

The range of MOOCs is highly diverse. While the first courses on the platform were mainly related to computer science, seminars in pretty much all subject areas are now offered. The courses aim to communicate their contents comprehensively and expertly. Some (e.g. a large part of what Udacity offers) are designed to prepare students for their careers and are more practically oriented.

What kinds of MOOCs are there?

Not every massive open online course is built up in the same way. Two kinds in particular have emerged in recent years, namely cMOOCs and xMOOCs. In addition, there are so-called bMOOCs, which are a combination of online and offline courses. What is the difference between these types of MOOC?


An xMOOC is very similar to the principle of a classic lecture. Lecturers and professors explain the topic in video contributions and provide additional teaching material. The teacher or professor is at the center of the course. On most platforms, courses are based on this principle, with some variation on this theme. Since xMOOCs require little activity from learners, it is not surprising that most students register for these courses. The “x” stands for “extension” and is derived from the designation of online courses offered at Harvard University.


In the cMOOCs, the “c” stands for “connectivism” – connectivism is understood as a learning theory that presumes that human beings are connective, and connectivism understands learning to be the creation of connections. The focus here is on students becoming active themselves. The lecturers provide materials (including video clips they’ve made), and motivate students to make their own contributions. These can take the form of blog posts, videos, or even podcasts. However, this is not obligatory. This MOOC form was originally thought up by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.


The “blended” MOOCs combine on-site instruction with an online complementary course or material. The latter is freely available to the general public (like other MOOCs). Students will discuss and further explore the findings from the MOOC in their seminar. The MOOC module does not have to have been created by your own faculty. It is also conceivable that lecturers will select foreign MOOCs for their students, and then look at them in the seminar.

How long does an MOOC take?

The length of MOOCs is usually based on seminars such as those found at universities and further educational institutions such as adult education centers. Across several months, the students devote themselves to the course topic. Although the dissemination of teaching materials via the internet would in principle make it possible to participate in courses at different times and on an entirely individual basis, most massive open online courses begin at a fixed time and also end with a joint final examination. Sometimes each participant can decide for themselves at what pace the individual lessons are to be completed, in other cases they work together at weekly intervals from lesson to lesson.

MOOCs are not just about watching a recorded lecture. They accompany students over a long time and should therefore not be confused with webinars. Although these are also seminars that take place via the internet, these are usually short events, and the course is usually completed after one hour.

What makes up an MOOC?

There are no set rules for how to structure MOOCs. Depending on the type of MOOC and the topic covered, the materials used in the course differ. The context of the course and the learning objective also play an important role in how a massive open online course is structured. Video recordings of the lectures and accompanying text material are almost always included.

  • Videos: The most common element that can be found in all forms of MOOCs are video clips. Since lectures can’t be listened to live, teachers create videos in which they talk about the material. It turns out that several shorter clips are more popular with learners than long lectures.
  • Texts: As with offline studies, course participants are provided with technical texts and other teaching materials. These can accompany the content of the videos, or enable independent studying.
  • Tests: In many MOOCs, tests form part of the syllabus. These may crop up only once or twice, or occur on a weekly basis. The aim of the intermediate examinations is not to distribute grades and put pressure on the participants, but to give everyone the opportunity to check their individual learning progress.
  • Tasks: Many MOOCs also require homework. In these massive open online courses, participants deal more extensively with the topic. However, since it is not possible for any lecturer to check thousands of papers, peer assessment is a common method used in MOOCs.
  • Communication: Especially with cMOOCs, communication between the participants is very important. In many cases, the course provider already provides a suitable forum, but it is not uncommon for participants to network via social media and form independent learning groups. Google hangouts or similar techniques are often used to communicate within the groups. Some even organize meetings offline.
  • Participation: Participation also plays an important role, especially with cMOOCs. Since these offers depend strongly on the input of the course participants, it is important to motivate students to create their own content. No specific format has to be adhered to. For example, participants often create their own blogs on the topic of the course and discuss the content with other students.

One problem so far has been successfully countering fraud attempts during tests. Since each course participant takes the exam on their home PC, monitoring is more difficult than in a familiar examination situation on site. To verify that the right person is taking the exam, webcam images and keystrokes are being evaluated. The latter method, introduced by Coursera, analyzes the way someone types. Each person has a unique way of typing.

Advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs

MOOCs sound great on paper, and indeed many people all over the world are enthusiastic about the concept, both on the part of learners and teachers. However, along with the benefits, there are also some disadvantages to taking a massive open online course.

For students:

The advantage for learners is obvious: self-determined, without restrictions, without costs, everyone can learn what they want. People who have so far been cut off from higher education also have the opportunity to continue their education at the highest level. Few people have the opportunity to attend a seminar with a professor at Stanford University. MOOCs make this more accessible. But there are also disadvantages to the concept, in that the learning process is different from that at school or university.

You need a lot more self-discipline to keep up the course and you have to expect less supervision during your studies. MOOCs are usually so well attended that lecturers cannot take time for every single student. In addition, in most cases the successful completion of the course is only rewarded with the knowledge gained. Although the commercial platforms in particular also offer certifications, their impact on the labor market is still relatively small. Some are already working on recognizing credits for MOOCs at universities, but this project is still in its infancy.

Pros Cons
Free No real certificates on completion
Location of the course is irrelevant No individual feedback
No participation cap Not much pressure to pass
Flexible times Computer and internet must always be available

For teachers:

MOOCs also offer some advantages for teachers. For example, you can make your teaching content available to many more people than would be possible in classroom seminars. This is not only ideal from an idealistic point of view, but also helps to improve your own academic reputation – and this applies both to the lecturers involved and the university for which they work. So far, however, this has only been done on a voluntary basis. One disadvantage is that seeing as most massive open online courses are offered via non-university platforms, data protection is often not secure. Coursera in particular was suspected in the past of passing on participants’ data to third parties.

Through the collected data, however, teachers can see at which point they lose students. This can ultimately ensure that the teaching is improved – and as long as the data is kept secure, it is a great format for online teaching. On this note, however, the high number of dropouts should also be mentioned. Only very few participants who start a MOOC follow it to the end. However, this does not necessarily mean that a massive open online course is not worthwhile. The fact that the course is free means that many students will start it as a trial, and don’t intend to finish it in the first place. However, even if the courses are theoretically accessible to everyone, for many people a previous education is necessary in order to be able to successfully follow the material.

Another disadvantage is that for publication on the internet, different copyright regulations apply than in a closed university environment. Certain materials which might be allowed for teaching use in a university environment may not be available for MOOCs due to copyright restrictions. This limits the possible materials for the courses.

Pros Cons
Data analysis Issues concerning data security
Improving the courses offer Copyright issues
Publicity for the university Additional work
Integration of MOOCs in teaching on site High drop-out rate