Image courtesy of Mathieu Plourde, Wikimedia Commons

What are MOOCs?

A few years ago, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were touted as “the next big thing”. They have developed since then and are part of the current education landscape. Who are they aimed at? Can university faculty members take an existing MOOC and use it in their own courses? How open are MOOCs? Where can you find them?

A MOOC is a course (teaching a specific subject or topic) available online via the Internet, aimed at unlimited participation (hence massive) and open in so far as anyone can enrol (no formal admission process and normally no charge). They are produced by universities, companies (Microsoft, Linux, Canvas, Blackboard) and non-profit initiatives (edX), and are aimed at anyone who wishes to learn about the subjects covered. Most MOOCs are distributed via course providers such as Coursera and Udacity. The extent to which they are considered ‘open’ has changed over time, but also depends on how they are presented online. When they first emerged, MOOCs were typically open in two ways: in enrolment and the fact that their constituent materials were openly licensed. By about 2012, many MOOCs no longer had openly licensed materials available, so their open-ness had diminished (Vollmer, 2012). As most MOOCs available now are not openly licensed, you cannot simply take one (or part of it) and use it in your own course. We suggest other ways in which you might use MOOCs below.

In a previous post, we discussed OpenCourseWare (OCW) as a ‘subset’ of Open Educational Resources (OER). We contrasted OCW with MOOCs, and here we provide a table showing the differences between these two educational tools:


Adapted from Martinez, 2014

A common criticism of MOOCs is their very low completion rate: often as low as 5 to 15%. Critics suggest that such a low rate indicates that learning from MOOCs is usually minimal. However, some specialists are beginning to refer to MOOCs as one of many forms of digital content, proposing that they should be compared with podcasts or educational news sites on the Internet instead of facilitated educational experiences similar to university courses (Ahearn, 2018). Other educationists note that MOOCs could help to widen global access to higher education, but they need careful research to assess the learning experiences that MOOCs can offer (Laurillard & Kennedy, 2017).

How can academic staff best use MOOCs?

Despite being not fully open, university academics can still make use of MOOCs as part of an interactive mix of educational experiences. They can be useful in various ways:

  • As professional development for you: you might find that enrolling on a MOOC provides you with recent developments in your own field, which you can later incorporate into your courses.
  • As a refresher for your own courses: High quality MOOCs often include recent research or cover topics in innovative ways. By enrolling on a MOOC, you can rethink your own courses, making them more relevant and enriching for your students.
  • As a supplement to student learning: You can review MOOCs in your subject areas, and encourage your students to enrol, even if it’s only for a section of the course. You can get them to engage fully and critique the MOOC as part of the learning experience.

The open access article Twelve tips for integrating massive open online course content into classroom teaching suggests various innovative ways in which you might incorporate MOOCs into your teaching.

Where can you find MOOCs?

MOOCs in English are produced mostly by universities in the US, Europe, and Australia. They can be found on some university websites, but the better place to search is through course providers, which collaborate with universities and other organisations. These providers are now marketing themselves as online learning platforms, and some of them charge for the courses – this is another way in which the open-ness of MOOCs has changed. Examples of such platforms are CourseraedX, and Udacity. If you want to find a MOOC relevant to one of your own courses, the best way is to use a browser and enter “MOOCs in ”. You can then choose from your search results to examine them further.

Relatively few universities in Africa run MOOCs. Exceptions to this include the University of Cape TownUniversity of the Witwatersrand, and the African Leadership Institution. More institutions are likely to run courses as MOOCs or using online learning platforms in the future. The OER Africa website hosts some MOOC-related resources, such as:

In summary, MOOCs appear to have become less open since their original inception before 2012. They can be used by academics in higher education as a form of professional development, and as a supplement to the courses they offer. MOOCs can also assist students wishing to access courses within higher education that otherwise might not be available to them. 


Ahearn, A. (2018). Stop Asking About Completion Rates: Better Questions to Ask About MOOCs in 2019. Available online at

de Jong, P., Pickering, J., Hendriks, R., Swinnerton, B., Goshtasbpour, F. & Reinders, M. (2020) Twelve tips for integrating massive open online course content into classroom teaching, Medical Teacher, 42:4, 393-397, DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2019.1571569 (Open Access)

Laurillard, D., & Kennedy, E. (2017). The potential of MOOCs for learning at scale in the Global South. Centre for Global Higher Education, working paper series, Lancaster, UK, 42

Martinez, S. (2014). OCW (OpenCourseWare) and MOOC (Open Course Where?). In Proceedings of OpenCourseWare Consortium Global 2014: Open Education for a Multicultural World.

Vollmer, T. (2012). Keeping MOOCs Open. Available online at

For more articles in this series, click on the links below.