What's the difference between a MOOC and a regular online for-credit course? That's the question asked by David Wiley in a post entitled Koller, Thicke, and Noble: The “Blurred Lines” Between Traditional Online Courses and MOOCs. Most people would answer that scalability is the key feature of a MOOC with tens of thousands of participants signing up for the most popular courses. However there have been many massive online courses even before the four-letter acronym was invented, for example the popular summer math refresher course, Sommarmatte (site in Swedish), run by several Swedish universities for many years. Here hundreds of high school graduates refresh their math skills helped by student mentors in the sort of peer learning that many MOOCs are working with. So if scalability is nothing new what then is so special about MOOCs?
Wiley presents a long list of common features between MOOCs and online courses and concludes that the main difference is the type of platform:
The more I think about it, there seems to be only one practical difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses – the platform they are offered on. Online courses are offered via Blackboard and Canvas, while MOOCs are offered via Coursera and EdX.
In a traditional online course, the lead brand is the institution, followed by the faculty member, with little or no consideration for the LMS the course is offered in. (Have you ever seen an ad for a traditional online course that touted (or even mentioned) which LMS the course was offered in?)
By contrast, with MOOCs the lead brand is the LMS – you’re taking a course on Coursera! It happens to be offered by MIT. And there is probably a list of “Course Staff” buried at the bottom of the About the Course page.
Is the MOOC movement really about rebranding education? I don't see higher education being swallowed up by MOOC consortia but there are certainly concerns about who owns what and how the major consortia will be able to use their vast amounts of student data for future learning analytics applications. I don't see the present MOOC consortia as a threat and there is clearly an interest in the courses they provide. However, as I have written in several previous posts, there must be alternative paths available. It's perfectly possible for a university to go it alone and offer an open and scalable variant of an existing online course. Whether they label that as a MOOC or not is irrelevant, it's the openness that matters. Wiley sees the adoption of open licensing and the resultant sharing, reuse and adaptation of learning resources as the alternative path forward allowing greater access and improving quality through co-creation and peer review of resources and methods. MOOCs in their present form are simply one of many variations in online education. How we interpret the word open is the key issue to investigate in 2015.