NOU 2014: 5

MOOCs for Norway— New digital learning methods in higher education

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2 The Commission’s definition of MOOCs

2.1 Characteristics of MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are offered via the Internet. They are provided free of charge to a large number of people and are accessed by the user logging into a website and signing up.

MOOCs differ from traditional university studies, firstly by their open access. Basically, the only prerequisite for participation is access to the Internet. Secondly, MOOCs are characterised by scalability; the courses are organised in such a way that they can easily be scaled in line with the number of participants.

The courses are likely to use brief video teaching sequences, quizzes, variants of peer review and machine-graded multiple choice exams. The courses may also utilise user-generated learning and the course participants may be able to network amongst themselves, most likely by using various digital services for sharing and interaction.

The first provisions called MOOCs started in 2008. The literature is characterised by a debate of what distinguishing features a course must have to be called a MOOC, cf. Chapter 6. Broadly speaking, the debate revolves around the content assigned to the various parts in the MOOC acronym. The debate also concerns the desire to assume ownership of the term and the phenomenon.

There are different opinions of what it means for a MOOC to be massive. Some emphasise that the course must have a very high number of participants, others emphasise the growth potential due to the courses’ scalability.

The fact that a MOOC is open may be understood to mean that the offer is free or accessible to all without requiring formal qualifications. Many also link the openness criterion to learning resources, i.e. whether the MOOC uses open academic content.

The course concept is also ambiguous. Certain people believe that there must be set start and end points. Others emphasise that the course leader role is given a certain content or that course participants must complete a concluding test and thus document what they have learned.

2.2 The Commission’s definition

The Commission has chosen to base their definition of MOOCs on the following characteristics:

  • offers that are web-based

  • offers that are scalable as regards the number of participants

  • offers that are open.

The mandate tasked the Commission with considering MOOCs and similar offers.

The field is undergoing rapid development, where new offers, course models, players and business models are continuously envolving. The didactics used in MOOCs are continuously developing. The MOOC offers, such as they appeared in 2008, are vastly different from the majority of MOOCs offered in 2014.

Today we can already see various types of evolved MOOCs. These offers have some of the characteristics mentioned above, but not necessarily all of them. Internationally, several MOOCs have been developed with exams and credits that may be included as part of a degree in higher education. There are also examples of entire degrees being offered as MOOCs, e.g., a MOOC-based master’s degree programme in computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA. Such provisions have both a course fee and qualification requirements for admission. Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) are another example of evolved MOOCs, with restrictions on the number of participants. This could e.g. be courses offered to a company for internal skills development. Courses are also developed where the main focus is on experimenting with contents and pedagogy, with the object of developing more efficient digital learning methods. Some offers emphasise a higher degree of social interaction as a learning tool, while other offers facilitate individualised, tailor-made learning processes through adaptive learning. Adaptive learning entails using systems that check what a participant knows about a subject, retrieves relevant learning objects from a database, tests goal achievement and demonstrates learning progress over time.

In recent years there has been a rapid development in the use of technology for learning purposes. The Commission is of the opinion that MOOCs are part of this development, which will continue with unabated strength in the coming years.

The mandate tasked the Commission with investigating which opportunities and challenges result from the development of MOOCs and similar provisions. By “similar provisions” the Commission means courses which have evolved from MOOCs and that share the characteristics of the original courses. In order to include “similar provisions” in their definition of MOOCs, the Commission applies the following clarifications of the three characteristics mentioned above:

  • The Commission has chosen to include courses with varying degrees of transparency. This means that the Commission will include courses both with and without course fees, qualification requirements for participation and use of open learning resources.

  • The Commission operates with a wide course concept. This means that the Commission includes both continuing and further education, as well as credit-awarding degree programmes lasting several years with the characteristics mentioned above.

The Commission believes that the recommendations in the report will be more useful with a definition describing a changing phenomenon, e.g. a definition emphasising the overall common features of MOOCs. Consequently, when the Commission in this report refers to MOOCs, this also includes “similar provisions” as described above. Where it is necessary to distinguish between different types of MOOCs, for example with and without exams and credits, this will be emphasised in the Commission’s considerations and recommendations.

The Commission is of the opinion that MOOCs should be seen as part of a development which ultimately relates to the educational opportunities brought about by new technology. The Commission feels that technology has the potential to change educational practice, and ensure better and more effective learning. How MOOCs may contribute to increasing the quality of higher education is, in the Commission’s opinion, a very important aspect of the development of MOOCs.

The scalability of offers makes it possible to gather a great number of students in digital networks. This creates new premises for web-based learning. An integrated use of different types of technology, such as video formats, social media and new learning platforms, provides new prerequisites for use of digital media in education.

MOOCs are increasingly being applied as part of campus education. This shows that technology facilitates other ways of organising educational progress and the contents thereof, making it possible to combine the best from campus education with new types of web-based courses (blended learning). The evolution of MOOCs is therefore also a question of how MOOCs can be combined with other learning activities.

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