MOOCs: pros and cons of a new way of learning

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Imagine being able to study a course at one of the most prestigious universities in the world like: Oxford, Yale or Harvard? This is possible in a simple way through MOOCs.  Over the last two years online learning has experienced a significant boom because of the MOOC learning paradigm. A MOOC simplifies distance learning because of its open, collaborative, massive and free nature.

The acronym MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses, which are designed by leading professors of the most prestigious universities in the world and made freely available to the general public at no cost—becoming a perfect complement to traditional learning. The MOOC philosophy is “the liberation of knowledge so that this reaches a wider audience”.

A MOOC is a type of online learning course geared towards the remote education of a very large volume of online users. For distance learning can be considered as MOOC as such, the following set of characteristics must be fulfilled:

  • Teaching structure in course format: structured towards learning with a series of evaluation tests as proof of MOOC participation and completion.
  • They must be open and online:  with accessible materials available for free.
  • Massive access: there is no restricted enrollment, i.e. enrollment is unlimited.


The term MOOC was first coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier to refer to the course by George Siemens and Stephen Downes: “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08)” (Connectivism and Connected Learning). Afterwards with the collaboration of Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander, this group began to offer lots of courses such as: CCK09, CCK11, Future of Education, PLENK, etc.  Subsequently these courses were highly successful and new initiatives began to emerge.

In 2011 there was a momentous event in the history of MOOCs, the former professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Stanford, Stephen Thrun, together with Peter Norvig, offered to collaborate for an open online course in their field of expertise.  Almost 120,000 people signed up for this course. Spurred by this success, Thrun decided to leave Stanford and started the platform: Udacity, a free online university for sharing knowledge.

Afterward there were other large platforms emerged for MOOCs such as: Coursera and Edx. Coursera was created by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng and is currently one of the most important MOOCs platforms because it endorsed by universities such as Yale, Princeton, Michigan or Penn. Alternatively we have Edx, created by  MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Harvard and Berkeley Universities joining.

In Spain, the first MOOC initiative was Crypt4you, a course in cryptography for programmers of the Polytechnic University of Madrid, directed by Dr. Jorge Ramió and Alfonso Muñoz.

Currently in Spain there are 25 universities offering MOOCs. There are also lots of MOOC platforms and aggregators. Here are some of them:


  • Edx
  • Coursera
  • Udacity
  • MiriadaX
  • Canvas Network
  • Uned Coma
  • Uni MOOC



  • Free access to courses offered by the best universities in the world, we remove the barrier of space and money. The only limitation is time, since courses usually last between 2-4 weeks, however during this period you will have all the means available for taking the course.
  • Although the time for enrollment expires, in most cases courses are usually repeated every so often and you will have the opportunity to sign up in the future.
  • The requirements for studying a MOOC are minimal and the charge in many cases is free (some have a cost, but these are reduced).
  • Both teachers and students can share a lot of resources such as lectures, videos or any material of interest related to the course.  Based on this material, students discuss, send their answers to the exercises and discuss the responses of others. The goal is to build knowledge through communication among students.
  • Potentially contribute positively to our personal brand, as we can gain some kudus depending on our contribution to the group as well as connect with people sharing our same interests. An online community can be created.
  • Facilitate both personal and professional development; it not only expands our knowledge through the collective experience but it is also a good way to network as you can interact with other teachers and peers.
  • Many courses are in English, which is a great opportunity for improving this competency.
  • Institutions /companies may find it beneficial to offer these courses, since the brand is strengthened. In companies, this is a good way to supplement the training programs organized by the HR department, thus reaching all employees, while providing very specific technical training.


  • The main problem of these e-learning courses is the high dropout rate. According to a recent survey undertaken with a million users of the Coursera platform, only 4% of students enrolled for a MOOC complete it. At the same time 50% only take one lesson. This is attributable to the fact that this is not a standard course, such that each person sets their own learning pace leading to possible drop out if they are not motivated enough.
  • The evaluation method is not entirely clear. How can you evaluate a course with more than 120,000 students? Each college or platform has different assessment methods, but it is still not very clear as to which is the right one. Besides, there is no personalized supervision of students.
  • The difficulty of achieving course certification, as for some you are requested to pay extra fees.


There are conflicting opinions as far as the future of MOOCs is concerned. On one side, we have an industry that believes that if these courses are able to overcome the current challenges and complications, we will see a new model for university education.

In contrast, according to a January 2014 study, the EUA (European University Association) believes that although the relevance and impact of MOOCs in recent years is apparent, it is impossible to replace traditional education. However, these may end up being another complement to it, but never a substitute.

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