A Brief History of MOOCs

The term MOOC was coined  to refer to a course developed by Stephen Downes and George Siemens entitled Connectivism and Connectivity Knowledge in 2008.  Their intention was to exploit the possibility for interactions between a wide variety of participants made possible by online tools so as to provide a richer learning environment than traditional tools would allow. 25 students attended the course on the campus of the University of Manitoba, and a further 2300 from around the world participated online. MOOCs with an emphasis on interactions and connectivity are now called cMOOCS. 

In the fall of 2011, Stanford offered three courses for free online.  Peter Norvig and Sebastien Thrun  offered their Introduction to Artificial Intelligence to an initial enrollment of over 160,000 students from around the world. Over 20,000 students completed the course. These xMOOCs focused less on interaction between students and more on exploiting the possibilities of reaching a massive audience. 

Thrun founded a company called Udacity in February 2012 which began to develop and offer MOOCs for free. In April 2012, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, two other Stanford CS professors, started a company called Coursera which partnered with universities in preparing and offering MOOCs.

MIT developed the MITx platform for offering MOOCs, which was renamed edX when a partnership with Harvard was formed. The non-profit edX consortium which develops and offers MOOCs now has over 30 university partners, including McGill. The consortium has made available an open source version of the platform which can be used and developed by other institutions and individuals.  The consortium also carries out research into learning using new technologies by analyzing data it obtains from students in the courses. Indeed, the consortium is an outgrowth of an earlier MIT project engaged in such research. 

More than 4 million students have enrolled for Coursera MOOCs; both Udacity and edX have enrolled over a million students in their MOOCs. Udacity partnered with San Jose State to offer for-credit courses which were not free but were very low cost and blended MOOCs material with support from on-campus professors and teaching assistants. Such success had Sebastian Thrun suggesting that in 50 years there might only be 10 institutions offering higher education.

However,  the San Jose State experiment was less than successful, with pass rates in some courses significantly lower in the blended courses than under the traditional model. Furthermore, there is a high dropout rate of over 90% in most MOOCs. In November 2013, Thrun stated that Udacity had a “lousy product” and that they would refocus on vocational education. In contrast, Anant Agarwal, the president of the edX consortium, insists that students and universities are benefiting from the provision of MOOCs.