What is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) all about?

Massive Open Online Courses represent a young paradigm of e-learning within the higher education sector, which has become more and more popular and widespread since 2011. For a better understanding of the term MOOC we would like to start with spelling out this acronym.

M assive       Potentially thousands or even tens of thousands of people participate, which means a highly scalable mode of teaching from the viewpoint of an instructor. There is a huge diversity with respect to geographical, cultural or biographical background among participants, which results in multiple perspectives and ideas within the learning community.
O pen       Everybody can participate as long as he or she has a sufficient internet connection and a valid e-mail address. There are no formal or institutional access hurdles. Participation in the course is free.
O nline       Participation is conducted completely online and so is the course maintenance by the teaching staff. Modern web technologies enable access to multimedia learning resources, working on tasks to apply one's knowledge and interaction between participants within a virtual learning community. All these features are browser based without the need to install multiple applications on one's local machine.
C ourse       Some structural elements from the traditional education setting are preserved, other aspects differ completely: In most MOOCs there is an official starting and closing date and typically a new chapter is released each week. This provides some structure to ensure all learners are on the same page. In sharp contrast to the traditional lecture setting, within a specific week learners are free to choose when (in the morning, late at night?) and where (at the breakfast table, while commuting to work, or in the library?) they spend their time to browse the learning resources and work on tasks. They communicate asynchronously with the other participants to discuss the content and help each other with open questions. Curriculum design emphasizes breaking down each chapter into smaller chunks of information about specific concepts. Participants receive instant and automated feedback about one's knowledge acquisition.

To sum it up, Massive Open Online Courses are a low-threshold (since web based and without any access hurdles) and flexible (learning independently from time and location) mode of learning within the higher education or vocational training sector - and an excellent opportunity for lifelong learners.
In contrast to more traditional modes of e-learning, which in essence have often been used simply for distributing text based learning materials, a MOOC emphasizes usage of multimedia resources like videos, animations and info graphics, enables quizzes for instant feedback and allows interaction within a diverse global learning community. Just going online is not a sufficient criterion for high quality teaching and learning. But designing a MOOC within an integrated online platform allows to bring up the fundamental question about what a good learning experience consists in and to carefully examine the learning process.

In more detail: The MOOC experience at openHPI

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Courses at openHPI range from topics like internet security and offering programming workshops for beginners to more complex classes about latest developments in database technologies for advanced learners. All these topics reflect the fields of research Hasso Plattner Institute is renowned for.

Taking a MOOC at openHPI involves the following features:

  • Using a bunch of short videos each week, the instructor explains theoretical concepts and their interrelation and demonstrates how to apply the knowledge.
  • Self-tests are integrated with every learning unit and enable the learner to get direct feedback about his or her understanding of the acquired concepts.
  • Programming tasks support the application of theoretical knowledge and foster skill development.
  • Peer assessment allows the teaching team to ask open questions and to integrate practical tasks which can hardly be graded automatically. The evaluation is done by other course participants by means of given grading categories. Peer assessment on openHPI can be either structured as an individual peer assessment (work is submitted by every participant individually) or in a team (team peer assessment).
  • Communication within the course forum or smaller online learning groups also supports the learning process: Within a MOOC setting with thousands of participants the professor cannot communicate with the students on an individual level. But it is quite probable that another course member will have a good answer to open questions. And (flipping around the perspective) explaining to others in one's own words requires elaborating the deep structure of the content and thus promotes deeper understanding.
  • All those participants committed to get a Record of Achievement additionally work on weekly homework and participate in a final exam.

All those aspects are visualized in our animated introductory video.

While we offer our own courses about IT topics on openHPI our well-developed technical platform is also used by other MOOC initiatives: On openSAP there are different courses for vocational training; in 2015, Hasso Plattner Institute set up the platform mooc.house to give interested companies and institutions the possibility to offer their own courses. For the World Health Organization (WHO), Hasso Plattner Institute provides another instance of the same infrastructure called OpenWHO. WHO uses this interactive knowledge-transfer platform to offer online courses to improve the response to health emergencies.

A short history of MOOCs

The genesis of MOOCs partly roots in the Open Course Ware movement.

In the late 90ies some universities like the MIT and Carnegie Mellon in the US and the University of Tübingen in Germany began to provide recordings of some lectures online. In essence, the open course ware movement with its mission of opening up higher education to the general public was much about giving free access to already existing learning resources.

The openHPI project at Hasso Plattner Institute also roots in our tele-TASK project, which is an integrated system to easily record a lecturer's talk alongside the accompanying presentation slides. Since then, almost all lectures and talks with visiting scholars at Hasso Plattner Institute have been digitized.

A MOOC is more than just providing learning resources

Will it be possible to enrich learning resources with other didactic features such as providing practical tasks to apply one's knowledge and giving instant feedback about one's learning process, as well as fostering interaction of learners within a virtual community? This question was asked around 2010 by Sebastian Thrun, in those days professor for computer science at Stanford University. He began to offer a course about artificial intelligence online and resonance was positive in that an incredible high number of around 160,000 learners from around the world joined this class, some of them participating actively and some at least checking out some parts of it. Since then, Thrun concentrated on providing more courses which not only transfer learning resources from the classroom, but structure curriculum and design content explicitly for the online medium. With the work by Thrun and other scholars, the MOOC was born.

In 2012, other teachers and institutions began to offer Massive Open Online Courses about higher education content as well, and different platforms have evolved building a new e-learning ecosystem. Those initiatives often came from universities in the US, but also Germany was very early part of the movement. The first MOOC on openHPI ran in the summer of 2012.

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