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massive open online course: a course of study offered over the internet which is free and has a very large number of participants

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The term MOOC is attributed to two academics, Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander. They coined the word in 2008 to describe an open online course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” that was being run by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes from the The National Research Council, both in Canada.  


Distance learning is nothing new, but the internet and fast broadband have opened up possibilities undreamed of by those who devised and took correspondence courses, or even the founders of the Open University, the innovative institution set up by the UK government in 1969 to offer university education to those who had missed out earlier in life or whose personal and professional commitments prevented them from attending a traditional university full-time. MOOCs are distinguished by several characteristics: course content is made available online; participation is generally free and open to all, although grading and certificates may be charged for; collaboration and discussion are facilitated and encouraged through a range of online tools and platforms; and the number of participants is potentially unlimited. The ‘massive’ part of the name links MOOCs with other online phenomena such as MMOGs and  MMORPGs, although the ‘m’ in those initialisms stands for ‘massively’ rather than ‘massive’.


MOOC education is survival of the fittest.”
(Keith Devlin, maths professor)

“A lot of education workers were very sceptical about what computer scientists were doing. It was only after the first visible success of MOOCs that they started to take it seriously.”
(Andrew Ng, scientist)

Related words

access course, evening class, foundation course

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

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