Autor: Blanka Šoulavá (IMS FSV UK)



In November 2012 the New York Times published an article called The Year of the MOOC. At the same time, Coursera, one of the biggest companies offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), overtook both the biggest online social networks as Facebook and Twitter by reaching 1 million users in about only four months, which means six times faster than its competitors. [1]

The MOOCs are one part of revolution brought by the Web 2.0. They are coming at the time of unprecedented globalisation, increasing demand for higher education, universities suffering from significant funding cuts, but also students struggling to pay higher tuition fees (since 2000, in the USA there has been a 49% increase at private universities and 73% rise at public universities).[2] They are also coming at the time of economic crisis, changing demographics of the learners and raising access to both internet and personal technology, which goes together with online social networks development.[3] Those factors pose major challenges both to students and the institutions participating on the traditional higher education system. MOOCs are bringing solutions to many of them.

According to UNESCO statistics, the education in global is a $3 trillion industry, where no player controls more than 1/3 of the 1% of the market.[4] Education is also strongly tightened to the states, since it is often regulated and state subsidised. It is a crucial tool for building a national identity. Then, according to the Article 26 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, education is also a human right. Last but not least, education is an area extremely resistant to social changes created by technology, which basic structure of producing and disseminating knowledge, but also of evaluating students have survived the moveable-type printing press, the Industrial Revolution, the telegraph, radio, television and computers without any major transformation.[5]

This fact poses a fascinating question, what elements brought by the Web 2.0 and embodied inside of the MOOC’s and have the potential to challenge the traditional higher education system, even though it has survived through all major changes created by technology? And does the challenge have an innovative or, rather, a disruptive character?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary analyse what are the crucial elements embodied inside of the MOOCs. For that reason I am going to examine both their innovative and their eruptive nature, trying to show what challenges they pose and face at the same time. In the third part of my paper, I will demonstrate both of them on the comparison of the two different kinds of MOOCs, which clearly show the striking differences inside themselves.


Challenges for Traditional Higher Education System

a)    About MOOCs: Definition, History and Context

Before we can talk about the innovations themselves, it is necessary to introduce MOOCs and put the light on the background and history of them in order to understand their context. MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses. Included among their characteristics is openness, which means that they are available without paying for participation, participation, which means that they demand engagement with other people and last but not least they are distribution of knowledge. Their history is intertwined with the emergence of online learning, open education and access to information. One of the very first MOOCs was happening as an experiment during the fall 2008, at the University of Manitoba in Canada and it was Dave Cormier who first introduced the term MOOCs in 2008, to describe Siemens and Downes “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” course.[6] This course was attended by a group of twenty-five students studying for credit and paying tuition fees, but at the same time it was opened for online learners. As a result, more than 2, 300 people ultimately participated, without paying fees or aiming to gain credit. One of the first companies called Udemy, which was following this development and providing the MOOCs, was founded in 2010. The real boom came in the year 2011, when Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University opened access to the “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” on which participated more than 160, 000 learners. This success was followed by the foundation of non-profit company edX, and also Coursera and Udacity. The development of MOOCs goes hand in hand with the emergence of the concept of flipped classroom, represented for example by Khan Academy, iTunesU or TED.


b)   Challenges for Traditional Higher Education system: Openness and Accessibility

Massive online open courses are innovating higher education by transferring it to the web platform and rapidly making it more accessible, lowering barriers and getting rid of the gate keepers. MOOCs are dealing with three major kinds of constraints represented by money, time and space. The 2008 economic crisis strongly affected the generation of young people, together with the rising tuition fees and inflation of university education. All those factors are creating tensions between the affordability and the value of the university degrees which poses pressure both on education institutions and their professors. The Pew Research Centre survey found in 2011 that 75% of adults say college is too expensive for most of Americans to afford. Moreover, 57% said that the higher education system in the U.S. fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.[7] At the same time the universities are facing spending cuts and upon comparison it becomes clear that whereas a full-time university instructor costs on average $186,000 per year (while having 32 students in class), he or she be in between 6-28 times more effective while teaching a MOOC.[8] It is more than clear that MOOCs represent a cheaper alternative for obtaining and providing the highest quality of education.

At the same time MOOCs are dealing with major time and space constraints and for that reason they are attracting more learners who are coming from the periphery of the traditional higher education. The impact made by technology innovation seems to be much larger on the countries whose citizens do not have an access to the top schools, because the transmission of knowledge needs no longer to be made through the channel of physical college campus. It has been proven by the fact that more than 50% of the people signing for the free online courses are from outside of the USA. For example Coursera, one of the largest MOOCs Company, reported in August 2012 that within its first million users, students from outside of the USA (mainly from Brazil, China or India), represented approximately 62% of the participants.[9] The technical innovations as mobile connectivity, high-quality streaming videos support the shift. The positive effect of democratization of the higher education can be demonstrated by the fact that in one of the first MOOC course on Artificial Intelligence, the highest performing Stanford student ranked 411th position, which means that 410 participants outside of the Stanford University made better results.[10] The higher accessibility of the best education in the world poses a challenge for the local universities, which will no longer have a monopoly of university education in a given area and are consequently forced to enter into competition with the MOOC alternative.

c)    Tackling Build in One Size Fits All Approach but Offering a New Set of Data

The MOOCs are also able to collect completely new sets of data, which might help to tackle the build-in inefficiency given by the one-size fits all system of higher education. Thanks to technology, it is now possible to track not only the data before and after the process of higher education, but crucially, during it, allowing the teachers to better adjust their teaching to the needs of the students. It is now for example possible to see what part of the course poses major obstacles to the students or monetize the data and provide the recruiters with the list of the best participants, as we can already see in the case of Coursera.

d)   Replacing the Hierarchy by Network

Another crucial innovation embodied in the MOOCs is networking. As will be demonstrated in the case study, so called connectivist MOOCs are transforming not only the way of dissemination of knowledge, but mainly the process of its creation, which is highly decentralised, interactive with interchangeable roles of teachers and professors and highly dependent on the activity and creativity of the participants of the course, who are using different technological tools to enhance learning. This innovation is turning the traditional teaching and learning systems upside down, because it destroys the hierarchy. As was demonstrated, MOOCs have the potential to positively influence traditional higher education system and bring plausible solutions to many of its problem. However, they are also facing barriers to their development.


Challenges of MOOCs

The most radical supporters of the MOOCs present them a revolution in the tertiary revolution and future substitutes of the physical campuses and universities. As I have already mentioned, MOOCs present an attractive option, but I would also argue that they cannot be seen as equivalents or substitutes for the whole education system. Moreover, such a replacement is not the goal of MOOCs, and for that reason it is more important to evaluate the barriers and obstacles for achieving their further development.

a)    MOOCs Lack Face-to-Face Communication

Critics the MOOCs often emphasise the fact that they are lacking the face-to-face communication of small university classes as well as the two way interaction between student and professors. Even though they attempt to replace it by different kinds of online forum, the massiveness of the courses represents a major obstacle for them. Universities also create social capital and network of contacts and connections between the students by doing different kind of activities, not only by attending the courses. The MOOCs are enriching the learning process by communication via different channels and online social networks, however those are not interchangeable with the real life on campus.

b)   Sustainability of MOOCs

The question of monetization presents also the differences between the biggest MOOC companies depending on whether the companies are for profit (Coursera, Udacity) or non-profit (as for example edX or P2PU). The companies demonstrate a wide array of choices, ranging from the so called freemium course where the course itself is free but the graduation certificate is paid or monetization of the information for potential employers as for example recommending certain amount of students who proved to have the best results (Coursera charges for referrals to its best students), to the option favoured by Google, in which the basic product is given away gratuitously whilst premium add-ones are charged. The problem of monetization leads me to another issue the MOOCs are facing and it is the assessment and issue of the quality.

c)    Quality, Assessment and Cheating

MOOCs critics also often emphasise that they are not providing the same quality of higher education as traditional universities, facing assessment problems, high drop-out rates and cheating. The problem of quality of online courses is one of the most frequent coming from inside of the university environment. For example in May 2013, 58 members of the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences expressed scepticism over MOOCs in a letter to their dean, concerning about the impact online courses will have on the higher education system as a whole.[11] A similar letter was sent from the members of the philosophy department at San José State University in California to Michael Sandel, professor at Harvard University, presenting a refusal to his pilot online course on social justice, which combined online learning with classroom teaching proffered by edX, stating that “online education is threatening serious compromise of quality of education”.[12] Even though many elite institutions have taken a central role in the MOOCs, the University of Oxford says that “MOOCs will not prompt it to change anything”. At the same time the University of Cambridge says “it is nonsenseto see MOOCs as a rival.”[13]


Case Study

In this case study I compare two examples of different kinds of MOOCs. Even though both of them share common challenges as before mentioned, it is possible to find a striking difference between the kinds of innovations they are bringing to the higher education system. In the case study I will follow the structure of the first part of my paper, first of all I will demonstrate the innovations on the example of MOOCs, which are backed by the big companies and top universities and which as I argue embody innovations suitable with the traditional education system. Then I will continue and present the so-called cMOOCs, which are based on the principal of networking and connectivism, bringing disrupting innovations to the traditional structure.

a)    Courses Offered by Coursera

The MOOCs courses which are offered by the majority of MOOCs providing companies as for example non-profit company edX, which is a joint project of Harvard university and MIT or Coursera, which was founded by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from the Stanford University in April 2012. Coursera has currently more than 5,6 millions of users, from 190 countries, and employs 107 different providers of courses among which belong the best universities in the world. Its most popular class has been attended by more than 240, 000 students.[14] Even though Coursera and other big companies slightly differ in the way that are financed or whether if they offer institutional credits, in general, they are providing the same kind of courses to the initial AI course from the year 2011.[15] Its aim is to empower people with education and it is based on a traditional view of dissemination knowledge, whereby students mostly duplicate and consume the information, and the role of the teacher merely only enriched by the technology, whilst he remains the central source of the information. In other words, the way of learning is still a one way process, based on mastery learning, covering a large range of topics. The most common tools are shorter videos, inspired by the concept of Khan Academy. The assessment is usually automated or peer and self-made, which is especially important in fields like Humanities, Social Sciences or Business, where students evaluate and provide feedback of each others’ work. The main innovation is therefore in scaling. Companies like Coursera are enhancing massive participation, in most of the cases open access. They also provide forums as a platform for additional communication between students. But in general, the process of education itself is not being significantly transformed, but rather, innovated.

b)   The Connectivist Courses Like CCK08

The second group of MOOCs are represented by the so called connectivist MOOCs as for example CCK08 course. The CCK08 course was one of the first MOOCs in the history, facilitated by George Siemens and Stephen Downes from the University of Manitoba in Canada. The course was offered both formally and also online to all those interested at no cost. It was attended by 2,200 participants and attracted mainly adults, informal learners and other students not concerned with course completion.[16] The crucial principle of the cMOOCs is networking and the main difference is that the participants are teachers and learners at the same time. They are provided with basic materials in the beginning, but the learning process is mainly dependent only on their activity and ability to use different platforms both for creating and searching for information. For this reasons, the networked classroom, based on a network of relations in order to develop massive interconnectedness, is transforming the traditional view on knowledge, which is that case more dependent on learners creativity; and the tutors fulfilling a merely auxiliary role of guidance, helping to explore the network, facilitate interactions and share information. There is a visible shift from highly structured hierarchical course, where students are dependent on tutors, to open network and self-directed learners. It also has been proved that the networks created between the students of the cMOOCs persist for a significantly longer time than those between xMOOCs.[17] They are bringing to the education system a breakdown of both boundaries and hierarchy.



As I examined in my essay, it is necessary to be very precise and differentiate between types of courses. Despite their recent development, we can find fundamental differences in their principals. Part of the MOOCs represented by the AI Stanford like courses also known as xMOOCs presents a facelift of current higher education system, where the main innovation is scaling, because the economies of internet are allowing the dissemination of the top quality education to develop. They are offering a huge potential for overcoming the constraints of money, time and mainly space, showing a horizon of possible solutions for the potential students both inside and outside of the campuses of the best universities in the world. Elite institutions are taking a lead trying to master the new technologies brought by the Web 2.0, before those technologies will master them. The MOOCs are making the best courses more open, accessible, while getting rid of the gatekeepers in the form of different constraints. Despite of the faces criticism because of their impact on quality of education, they are also disposing a completely new set of data, which brings potential to more personalised learning challenging the inefficiencies in the build in one size fits all system. Those data have the potential to change the education in similar ways as data from online social networks and web generally changed the marketing. As I examined, MOOCs do not only have an innovative character, but they have also brought the elements the Web 2.0 into tertiary education, in other words, the elements of networking, which are transforming the roles of different actors. Networks are replacing the hierarchy of university education, transforming the role of the professor and the student so that they are becoming almost interchangeable. The participation and interaction are crucial in defusing hierarchy. There are many challenges facing the MOOCs, among which are questions of quality, assessments and last but not least, of how the models may be monetized.

Facing the rigid character of education, it would be very audacious to claim that the MOOCs have the capacity to replace physical campuses and universities outright. Nevertheless, given the rapidly growing popularity of the MOOCs and the problems faced by the traditional education system together with the eruption the Web 2.0 has caused in other deep-seated fields of industry by its diffusion of power, rising transparency and accessibility, destroying economic space and time constraints, we can claim that whichever entity succeeds in catching up with the changes, will have enormous influence on the future development of higher education, its opening, flattening and democratisation. MOOCs themselves are merely the horizon of the irreversible shift in higher education brought by the Web 2.0.


Bibliography and Notes


[1] How Coursera Beat Twitter and Facebook to 1 Milllion Users,

[2]Long, Chrissie. 2013. The changing face of higher education: The future of the traditional university experience. Kennedy School Review 13, : 58-62, (accessed November 28, 2013).

[3] According to the Unesco calculation, more than four new 30, 000-student universities per week would have to be constructed to accommodate the children who will reach enrolment age by 2025.

[4] Five Bright Ideas –

[5] The future impact of the internet on higher education : experts expect more efficient collaborative environments and new grading schemes, massive online courses ? The shift away from on-campus life 2012

[6] MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education A Xhite paper By Li Yuan and Stephen Powellpage 5


[8] The rise of MOOCs and the Threat and Opportunity in BE

[9][9]Regalado, Antonio. “Online Courses Put Pressure on Universities in Poorer Nations.” Technology Review 116, no. 1 (January 2013): 64-65. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 28, 2013).



[12] Digital Learing: look, then leap, Michael M. Crow, Nature 499, 275-277 18 July 2013, published 17 July 2013



[15]“MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education A Xhite paper By Li Yuan and Stephen Powell” (accessed November 27, 2013).