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MOOCs: A quick background

Bryan Alexander /

For those not deeply immersed in the intersection of education and technology, here is a summary of the historical arc of MOOCs.

Most new technology is adopted in two stages. First, we extend practices from older media and traditions, “copying and pasting” them onto new technologies. Next, we identify new affordances organic to the new medium, and build upon them. For example, early films looked a lot like stage plays transferred into a new medium, until we figured out that the camera could move and we could also create special effects.

MOOCs are, perhaps, the first instances of Web-based educational technology to step into that second stage. They create something native to the Web that takes advantage of what the Web can do, rather than simply trying to mimic a classroom virtually. As Jim Groom puts it, MOOCs might be the first truly Web-native form of teaching and learning.

MOOCs first appeared in 2008. We can divide the subsequent movement into two currents: cMOOC and xMOOC.

The first MOOC was a cMOOC, taught by two Canadian scholars, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, who decided to make a bricks-and-mortar class available online to anyone who wanted to take it—and 2,000+ people did. CCK08 was designed to be used by people who used social media. Content was available through RSS feeds and a newsletter curated by the instructors, but users also participated via Twitter, Second Life, blogs and other venues. They used hashtags to make it easy to identify class content. CCK08 was a seminar about connectivism, the educational philosophy they were exploring in this class—hence one explanation for the “c” in “cMOOC.” That prefix may also stand for “constructivist,” since that was the class’s pedagogical principle. Learners created meaning and learning by interacting and building content.

Three years later, a different kind of MOOC appeared from American research universities, dubbed xMOOCs, where the “x” stands for expanded. The x prefix also refers to the subsequently popular edX MOOC platform, launched by Harvard and MIT. These xMOOCs differ from cMOOCs in that they deal with a much larger audience, often at the scale of tens or hundreds of thousands of learners. Scale is, indeed, what xMOOC platforms really claim as their triumph. They are also designed to focus on pushing out content to learners, mostly through video; interaction mostly occurs between individual learner and content, rather than between peers. xMOOCs are, in short, broadcast-oriented, not geared toward individual learners.

With both MOOC currents in play, we began to see MOOCs take off in 2012. Growth occurred in earnest with new businesses built to host and support them, and venture capital began investing significant amounts of money. University after university dove into MOOCs, with leading faculty members creating and teaching classes, largely in the xMOOC form.

Last year, we hit the high peak of media attention, with the New York Times declaring 2013 as the Year of the MOOC. And inevitably, following this peak we then experienced what H.G. Wells calls “the great disillusionment.”



As we head into the future, a number of scenarios are possible for what MOOCs might become:

  • MOOCs may supplement face-to-face classes, providing complementary content.
  • MOOCs may lose their open nature and become MOCs. The sign of this will be content available only for a fee.
  • cMOOCs and xMOOCs could fuse and synthesize, with xMOOCs becoming more socially engaging, thereby improving retention and completion rates.

Whatever their evolution, MOOCs are a very important development for the library and higher education communities to track and evaluate.

About the Author

  • Bryan Alexander

    Bryan Alexander

    Bryan, a Senior Fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), is a futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant and teacher working in the field of how technology transforms education. His areas of focus include social media, digital storytelling, mobile devices, gaming, pedagogy, scholarly communication, forecasting and the future of academia.