New and mysterious acronyms appear every day. Most of them we instantly forget but a few get established and even make it into everyday speech. I don't think the acronym featured in this post will get into the Oxford English Dictionary any time soon but the phenomenon it represents is highly relevant in today's education debate.
Meet the MOOC - Massive Open Online Course. It's what happens when formal university education meets informal online learning. A free university level course that uses only online open educational resources where the course content and direction is negotiated continuously by the participants and there is no clear teacher role or predetermined syllabus. The most prominent example of this type of course has been this term's Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge course (known to friends as PLENK2010) run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Rita Kop and Dave Cormier, all leading figures in the open education movement.
The course had over 2,000 participants when it started and although there were considerably fewer there at the end it's important to realize that all concerned had learned different things in different ways. The goal is not to get good grades or even complete a syllabus but to participate and learn. All material on the course is open and it's perfectly possible to go through all the material in retrospect and learn a lot though the key is participating in the discussion and negotiation during the course. Participants' own blogs are woven together with the course wiki as well as synchronous discussion meetings (recordings of these are available).
Here's a short film by Dave Cormier that explains the principle behind a MOOC.
If you want to try out other MOOCs have a look at the collection of courses at Massive Open Online Course. Then there is of course Peer 2 Peer University which runs courses with the same principles of openness but which opts for small enrolled groups instead of being open to all.
You can learn almost everything on the net. The material is there, you can link up with others with similar interests and you can even participate in free courses. The question is whether all this can be incorporated into the structures of formal education and there are ways of getting recognition of what you have studied.