MOOCs of Every Shape and Size

[important]The Social Media Lab will be examining Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as part of the new SSHRC-funded research initiative “Learning Analytics for the Social Media Age”. The first post will offer an overview of MOOCs and the major providers. Later posts will provide additional insight into the technical and pedagogical features of MOOCs, including learning analytics features.[/important]

MOOCs of Every Shape and Size

Two years ago, the NY Times boldly proclaimed 2012 to be “the year of the MOOC.” Since then, there has been a whole lot of hemming and hawing over exactly what these strange “MOOC” creatures are and what business, if any, they have in academia. Simply put, most Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a re-imagining of the more “traditional” forms of e-learning that came into their own during the mid-1990s, where each course is designed to be taken by hundreds or even thousands of distance learners. Of course, this definition is not a catch-all as there is still a considerable debate over what makes a MOOC a MOOC. There are basically two main types: cMOOCs and xMOOCs.

cMOOCs  are free, open, and decentralized student directed learning structures where the only firm grounding is in the main theme or idea being explored. Conversely, xMOOCs bear a striking resemblance to the type of online courses one might expect to find in most major universities.

xMOOCs are generally hosted on a centralized platform that includes standard features like video playback, discussion boards, practice quizzes, course reading materials, etc. Courses are instructor-lead and usually conform to a linear, week-by-week learning model. Most xMOOCs are hosted by commercial or non-profit organizations. While some can trace their roots back to academia, others are the progeny of Silicone Valley start-ups.

What makes MOOCs such a big deal is that they are both big and a deal. Many MOOC courses enroll thousands of students and are offered for free or at a significant discount compared to their university counterparts. Aside from the exciting idea of accessible education, the unprecedented scale of MOOC courses offers a challenging, but potentially rewarding new avenue for educators.

One of the problems with being at the fore of the “next big thing” is that, eventually, everybody wants in. The past two years has seen the advent of many young companies looking to capitalize on the growth of MOOCs. The infographic below provides a snapshot of the current MOOC climate:


It should be noted that Khan Academy is not factored into the above infographic. This is because KA is a MOOC precursor that is more like an expansive educational resource than an actual MOOC course provider. Regardless, it remains a powerful tool for educators looking to supplement their lessons with peer-reviewed practice materials. It is also important to mention that although Udacity originally had a higher education focus, it has recently moved toward employment skills.

There’s a MOOC for That

MOOCblog1logo Clearly, the MOOC market is exploding and the abundance of choices can be daunting. However, as the infographic demonstrates, not all MOOCs are created equal. Most MOOC providers target specific learner groups. Additionally, Udacity’s MOOCs are all made in-house, and so third-party instructors are unable to create/upload original course material. Based on these considerations, an educator or institution of higher learning looking to host a MOOC with original content has four main choices: Coursera, Canvas Network, Udemy, and EdX.

Before continuing, it is important to note that MOOCs do not differ significantly between providers in terms of core features (discussion forums, video lectures, and automated quizzes). The following section will briefly comment on the significant or unique aspects of each provider.


Coursera is partnered with 85 institutions of higher learning worldwide and provides University-level learning material free of charge. It also boasts the most users of all MOOC providers which means that Coursera can offer content creators a high degree of exposure.

While potential instructors must be a representative of a partnered University and have permission to host a MOOC using their university brand, Coursera does provide an FAQ which details the robust set of features available to instructors. This includes a comprehensive in-house Learning Analytic tool-set.

Official quizzes and short answer assignments are auto-graded, while longer assignments are peer evaluated. Peer evaluation enables individual feedback in the large-scale MOOC environment and also gives students the chance to learn by enacting a teacher role. To encourage consistency, Coursera suggests that instructors provide a clear grading rubric for assignments and also perform a “ground truth” assessment that acts as a benchmark grade to measure the accuracy of peer grading.

Canvas Network:

Canvas Network is a distribution platform for MOOCs developed using Instructure’s “Canvas” Learning Management System (LMS). Canvas is an open-source and highly customizable course builder that enables the inclusion of external applications into courses. This allows instructors to create a more unique course experience. Instructure also provides an excellent guide to help familiarize both students and instructors with Canvas.

What makes Canvas Network a little different from its competitors is that it allows universities who are already using Canvas to build a MOOC using familiar software. In this sense, Canvas Network functions more as a storefront window that advertises MOOCs which are still hosted by individual institutions. This arrangement allows an institution to promote its brand and retain a consistent feel with its pre-existing online courses. That said, an institution must satisfy a set of “best practices” guidelines in order to be featured on Canvas Network.


Udemy provides a platform best suited for individual instructors seeking to monetize their skills. As such, many of the MOOCs promoted on the website are priced between $29 – $99. All of the MOOC courses are created independently on Udemy’s free to use platform by instructors who then receive a percentage of the revenue. There is a lot of freedom in terms of course design, but instructors must meet minimum requirements. Udemy also provides a course-building MOOC for potential instructors. It does not have an in-house Learning Analytic tool for instructors, but it does allow instructors to download student data for use in other analytic tools.


EdX is a little MOOC provider with powerful parents. It is a non-profit created by Harvard and MIT that offers courses from a variety of notable institutions. EdX Edge is a separate site that functions like a testing ground for “prototype” MOOCs. This encourages developers to become familiar with Studio, EdX’s course building tool, or to try new or radical approaches in a limited public environment. Like Coursera, access to Studio is restricted to instructors from a university that is part of the xConsortium or “selected guests.” However, anyone who has signed up for a free EdX Edge account can take part in a MOOC building course that showcases the features available in Studio.

EdX lessons are grouped into tight, multimedia packages that allow an instructor to transition seamlessly from video lecture, slides, quizzes, and discussions. For example, a question posed in a video can be answered by the learner, who sees a breakdown of how other learners answered the question, and is then invited to take part in an asynchronous, in-lesson discussion about the response. Such integration helps to simulate the immersive experience of a physical classroom.

Another unique feature of EdX is the ability to auto-grade long essay questions. While this process remains highly controversial, it would be a great benefit to an instructor looking to teach a Humanities MOOC that favours long writing assignments over short answer quizzes.

Stay Tuned

The next post in this series will take an in-depth look at the learning analytics offered by MOOC providers and discuss how such data can be used by instructors to create a better learning experience for their students.


Written by Lee Wilson.  With editorial contribution from Anatoliy Gruzd and Philip Mai.