What is a MOOC?

Spot Illustration: Nick Simson

By John W. Lacey
If you’ve been around the higher education water cooler recently, you’ve probably heard about MOOCs. MOOCs, or “Massive Open Online Courses” and pronounced like a cow mooing, are a hot new platform for delivering education, and they are creating quite a stir in academic circles. But, despite some voices of concern about MOOCs putting traditional higher ed out to pasture, these open courses present a unique opportunity.

MOOCs are a convenient and inexpensive way to brush up on skills, explore interests and advance professional and personal development. The key properties of MOOCs include: open to all, free, online (mostly), no required meeting time, and some or no formal credit available for students. Did I mention these courses are free? In May and June, I had my first MOOC experience when I registered for a course through Coursera, a company that helps traditional universities build and deliver MOOCs.  I selected “How to Become an Effective Writer” developed by Mt. San Jacinto College.

For five weeks, I committed myself to experience the complete course. This meant watching all video lectures, taking quizzes, completing every reading and homework assignment and engaging my peers in discussion forums. I nearly accomplished this feat. OK, so I may have skirted more than a few of the basic assignments and failed to follow up on some discussion threads. But, that’s the brilliance of these courses. You control your level of involvement based on your desired outcome. Each week a new lesson opened up for participation. During the week, students work through material at their leisure and pace, which rounded out to about 15 minutes per day for me. At the end of some of the lessons, students were encouraged to post their work for peer-to-peer reviews, giving both the writer and reviewer an opportunity to hone their skills. This is one of the most unique aspects of MOOCs: Your work, thoughts or ideas are exposed to students from all over the globe, providing you with fresh perspectives and ultimately refinement of your craft.

If a writing course sounds ho-hum to you, take heart. There are a myriad of courses offered through Coursera and thousands of others offered by competing MOOC companies and universities. A course I am currently following is “How to Reason and Argue” developed by Duke University. To find out more, simply start by searching “Coursera” or “MOOC” in your web browser.


John Lacey is the advertising manager of the Tennessee Alumnus and author of the new children’s book Smokey Tails: Smokey and the Southeastern Jungle.