Running a MOOC: Secrets of the World’s Largest Distance Education Classes

Written by: Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti
Published On: January 18, 2013

What can distance education do that traditional classroom instruction cannot? Among other things, it can master time, space, and physical capacity on a scale impossible for a face-to-face class. The best example of this is the MOOC.

A MOOC, or “massively open online course,” is a distance education class that potentially involves hundreds if not thousands of participants, all joined for the purpose of studying a given topic. According to Wikieducator, a MOOC “integrates the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an acknowledged expert in a field of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources. Perhaps most importantly, however, a MOOC builds on the active engagement of several hundred to several thousand ‘students’ who self-organize their participation according to learning goals, prior knowledge and skills, and common interests.”  

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The first MOOC was held in 1997 and enrolled an estimated 150 students.  More recently, in the summer of 2011, the University of Illinois Springfield offered eduMOOC, a class on “Online Learning Today…And Tomorrow.”  Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning Research and Service at the University of Illinois Springfield, was involved in this effort that enrolled more than 2,500 students.  He believes that MOOCs demonstrate some of the advantages of online learning and that they offer a chance at education to people around the globe.


Schroeder explains that, while the possible size and geographical range of a MOOC might make some pedagogical practices impossible, it invites others. “They are massive. There is no way to have one-to-one interaction, but study groups pop up around the world,” Schroeder says. 

These spontaneous groupings of students are one of the hallmarks of a MOOC, and they lend a certain serendipity to the class. Schroeder tells of one group of participants in eduMOOC that met at a McDonalds in Christchurch, New Zealand, because the restaurant was a convenient place to access wi-fi service. He also explains that the MOOC made use of social media in ways that traditional classes typically do not. For example, presentations by experts were part of eduMOOC, and during the presentations students could tweet questions under a certain hashtag.

Schroeder sees a number of benefits that could accrue to institutions that participate in or run a MOOC. A MOOC, he says, delivers “learning that is spread around the world,” allowing “colleges to highlight their programs and faculty” to a wide audience. A MOOC can put the strengths and features of a particular school or program on display, allowing the school to reach out to audiences that might otherwise not have had exposure to the school.

A MOOC takes advantage of the connectivist theory of learning, making its pedagogical approach different from that of a traditional face-to-face or even traditional online course. In a paper accepted for presentation at the 6th Annual Chais Conference 2011 on instructional technologies research at The Open University in Raanana, Israel, Dalit Levy of the Kibbutzim College of Education characterizes connectivism as it compares to other learning theories. Levy explains that learning in connectivism occurs “within a network” and is “social and technologically oriented.” Learning is influenced by “diversity of network, strength of ties, and context of occurrence” and transfer of knowledge occurs, in part, by “growing the network.”  

As a participant in a MOOC, Levy experienced first-hand the value of learning by interacting with other MOOC participants through the chat function active while the main speaker presents. He describes his learning experience as follows:

“Over and over again I have found myself thinking about the best way to put my emerging ideas into short sentences, as chat windows allow for limited and focused type of communication. Shortly after managing to put ideas into words, an immediate feedback from other participants might appear in the chat room, and the skilled presenters might even note what is going on in this back channel and refer to it. Therefore, as an active participant in the chat discourse one exposes herself/himself to new and rewarding learning opportunities in the back channel.”

The future of MOOC

The future of the MOOC appears to involve even larger-scale efforts than ever. Just this fall, Stanford launched a MOOC addressing artificial intelligence that attracted an estimated 100,000 users and increased the profile of the university. It also brought a robust discussion in the media and in several online discussion platforms about how the gigantic class would hold up in comparison to traditional courses. Would the facilitators be able to develop ways to grade so many students, or at least open up ways for students to self-assess their competency? How would the course impact the value of the traditional Stanford degree?  These are questions that arise as the concept of the MOOC is explored. 

Some MOOCs are also exploring the idea of awarding some sort of credit or recognition to students who take the course in a certain group or cohort. MIT has recently announced the launch of a suite of courses, under the name MITx, which will culminate in a certificate of completion for students who demonstrate competency. The courses will allow participants access to online labs, self-assessment, and discussions with other students. The program will build on the framework established by the school’s groundbreaking OpenCourseWare. In a statement in The New York Times, Anant Agarwal, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, said, “The technologies available are much more advanced than when we started OpenCourseWare. We can provide pedagogical tools to self-assess, self-pace, or create an online learning community.”

Naturally, a school with a very prestigious profile, such as MIT, must be cautious of diluting the value of its traditional degree, so it has announced that the certificates will be offered through a not-for-profit organization with “a distinct name.” Nonetheless, it stands as the first move into an environment in which students can learn through the unique structure of a MOOC and still amass credentials that may be useful in the work world.  

Developing a MOOC

While it seems that putting together a MOOC could be a daunting task — and it typically is, in the case of courses that ultimately attract 100,000 participants — Schroeder notes that eduMOOC didn’t require as much up-front time as one might expect. “We started developing the MOOC three weeks before it started,” he says.

Accommodating a potentially-large population also means making some economic decisions about the course management system. “We used a totally open online delivery system [for a] totally open, free environment,” Says Schroeder. This is for some very practical reasons, as demonstrated when one thinks of a MOOC the size of the one from Stanford. “You probably can’t expand your Blackboard license by 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000,” he notes.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Distance Education Report 16.3 (2012): 1, 2, 7. Distance Education Report is dedicated to helping you improve your online learning programs, from the "big picture" to the nuts and bolts.