Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs) in Higher Education

I have written before about the fact that massive open online courses (MOOCs) can play a complementary role to that of traditional teaching within higher education. There are a number of platforms offering these courses now, and academics should certainly consider including components of MOOCs in their teaching. Here are a few of the platforms:

My own institution, the University of Leeds, has partnered with one of the newer MOOC providers: a UK-based group of universities called FutureLearn. These courses represent the most recent evolution of MOOCs, away from simply posting standard lectures and quizzes online and towards the production of MOOC-oriented materials that make the most of the distributed learning environment. This includes a lot of great multimedia content, auto-graded quizzes, animations, discussion boards, and a whole lot more.

PictureAs of April 2013, Udacity offers 24 courses.  The platform grew out of a highly popular engineering course that was run out of Stanford University by Sebastian Thrun.  In 2012 Udacity launched with just two courses (one in building search engines, and the other on programming robotic cars).  Courses involve watching recorded lectures and then answering quizzes on the material.  This is supplemented through homework which encourages the application of the techniques that have been learnt.  One course is currently accepted for credit at some universities.


EdX was founded by MIT and Harvard, but now includes a wide range of institutions from around the world.  These institutions began by offering 12 courses in 2012 but that number is projected to increase considerably.  EdX charges for certificates of completion, and their courses are not yet recognised as credit-bearing at universities.


Coursera is the largest of the MOOC providers.  Backed by venture-capitalists, rather than by universities, in May 2013 Coursera contained 70 partners who contributed 374 courses.  At present it isn’t clear how Coursera will make money, and they work individually with each of the partners to provide individual agreements.  Five courses are currently considered as credit-bearing in the US.

An Example of Use


As part of a core section of a university programme, students are required to attend “key skills” classes.  These are fairly common in UK universities, involving small group discussions based around research skills, careers, and any other topics that the tutor decides to cover.  As part of one of these sessions, a tutor decides to focus on critical thinking.  Rather than doing huge amounts of research on an area that is not her/his speciality, the tutor decides to use a Coursera MOOC as the starting point.  S/he asks the students to enrol on “Critical Thinking in Global Challenges“, a MOOC run by the University of Edinburgh.  This MOOC lasts five weeks and requires 3-5 hours of work per week.  After each of the MOOC classes, the tutor discusses the session with the students.

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