MOOC ado about nothing?

I’m sure you’ve seen the word “MOOC” flying around online. You might even have Googled it. But really, what is a MOOC and – as I’ve casually borrowed from the bard – is it really much ado about nothing or is it perhaps the answer to decentralising, democratising and globalising training and tertiary education?

Straight off the bat, yes, I believe it is – that previous question wasn’t the bait to entice you to read the rest of this article. Here’s the bait, there are some important hurdles in traversing the great outdoors in the world of MOOCs, here are some of them.

What is “open”?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses (Tracey 2013), “Massive”, “Online” and “Courses” are all easily understandable parts of that acronym, but the vague part of it is the word “Open”. “Open” sounds positive, and for the most part, it is.

There’s a variety of ways to think about this definition of “openness”. The emphasis might be on some positive aspects of MOOCs, for example, that there is no financial cost (true) or that no previous qualifications are necessary to sign up for the course (as they would be in a university or college). But regardless of all those aspects, the best way to think about it is that “MOOC providers will not deny anyone from signing up for the [online] course” (Tracey 2013).

This means that to access a MOOC, one needs to have an internet connection, obviously a computer and – probably most importantly – the time to complete the course as it progresses towards completion. There are fewer barriers to consider that with a college or university degree/course.

MOOC providers

to access a MOOC, one needs to have an internet connection, obviously a computer and – probably most importantly – the time

Most of the large MOOC providers offer a mix of free and paid online courses. Udemy and Coursera, two of the largest online course providers, offer both MOOCs and paid courses from some of the world’s best educational institutions.

I speak from personal experience when I say that a lot of effort will be spent just trying to find the MOOC that you would like to complete, or alternatively, waiting around for a course that is applicable to your interests or vocation to pop up. Especially if you consider the fact that, as a South African, many of these courses are in US dollars, which means the exchange rate makes it an enormous expense.

Sign ups

You will sometimes be forced to sign up if you would like to view the full details of some courses. Information about the pricing or the course outline is sometimes hidden from a casual browser. This isn’t necessarily a barrier, but if you would like to compare different platforms, this lack of transparency might require you to sign up to a handful of providers.


MOOCs aren’t always accompanied by academic accreditation (you might read something like “Note that the Course Certificate does not represent official academic credit from the partner institution offering the course”) and if they are, it might be an unnecessary step backwards – depending on where you are in your career or level of education.

This is when it gets a little tricky, because these courses are open to an international market, it can be somewhat difficult to plot where the course might fall in your country’s national qualifications framework (in South Africa the South African Qualifications Authority uses the code NQF Level 6 for a National Diploma, NQF Level 7 for a Bachelor’s Degree, etc. for example, but that same qualification is measured in many different ways in other nations).

And? So?

This largely means that, at present, most MOOCs are merely a form of supplementary education; something to beef up your CV or resume, or perhaps something to use as a training tool in your organisation. It would be incredibly difficult to complete a qualification entirely made up of MOOCs. Obtaining recognition from a university or a similar institution, like a Department of Higher Learning, would probably require the same amount of effort as completing the courses themselves.

MOOCs have enormous potential, and as they grow, might hold some serious weight in the attempts to decentralise tertiary education. At the very least universities and colleges are starting to offer accreditation through these platforms, and that in itself is a promising sign. Perhaps one day, we’d be able to complete an entire doctorate with just MOOCs, who knows?


Tracey, R. 2013. The Definition of a MOOC.
Coursera. Writing Professional Emails and Memos

Author: Simon Pienaar

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