Spotlight on…Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

When Heather Munroe-Blum, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and former member of the Council’s Board of Governors, retired from her post as McGill’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor in May, she was asked by the McGill Reporter what sort of future she envisions for the university. Her response acknowledges the growing impact of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, which are reshaping the education landscape by allowing thousands of people around the world to tune into university lectures simultaneously, with no tuition fees attached. Dr. Munroe-Blum garnishes her discussion with terms like collaboration, networks, and accessibility, all of which demonstrate her familiarity with a new academic age. These terms also stress the benefits of this innovative teaching approach. As Dr. Munroe-Blum points out: “We’ve had a wonderful collaboration and exploration of how best to express ourselves in this new world of MOOCs, how to bring technology systematically, not episodically, to enhancing the quality of our on-campus learning.”[1]

Testaments like these demonstrate the current philosophy in higher education: innovative teaching technologies are here to stay, however much their format may change from year to year. They may never altogether substitute traditional learning methods but they can at least supplement them. Designed to enhance the learning experience, tools such as PowerPoint, Blackboard, laser pointers, and graphics or pen tablets have been casting a glow in lecture halls for decades. MOOCs may just be the latest in a long line of teaching innovations, and they may also be a passing fancy, but they are by far the most discussed at the moment, and the most popular. MIT physics professor Walter Lewin's courses in classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and vibrations and waves, for instance, are said to have attracted millions of hits through the university’s OpenCourseWare system.[2]

Thanks to advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs), MOOCs reach audiences so vast that not even televised lectures can compete. MOOCs are online, but they are also open — free to anyone with an internet connection and a bit of spare time. Now learners in Brașov or Dhaka can “sit in” on nanotechnology lectures at Stanford University, because MOOCs eliminate prohibitive travel costs, foreign student tuition, and living expenses in far-flung cities. While some viewers show only a passing interest in courses, others watch every lecture and take quizzes. More importantly, they absorb new information that they can either add to an existing set of professional skills or indulge in for the sheer joy of learning.

The format, however, is not without its challenges. MOOCs operate on an honour system in the sense that instructors must trust that students who are learning remotely, with no teacher in sight, will not cheat. In addition, some instructors aren’t willing to teach via webcast, while some schools doubt the economic value of offering a free service. Grading thousands of assignments can be done automatically through engines like edX or Coursera, which allow instructors to create tests that rely on yes/no or true/false responses, but can’t accommodate more open-ended assignments like essays, on which subjects like History and English depend.[3] Peer grading has been suggested as one possible solution to this last problem, but not all instructors and students buy into that model.[4]

Whether or not MOOCs are here to stay, they prove one constant: we are always hungry for innovative ways to communicate with one another. The drive to send and receive information as quickly as possible won’t go away and results in newer, faster, and more efficient technologies. In the case of MOOCs, however, the only real novelty is scale. In a landscape of ICT contenders, that’s notable enough.


[1] Rourke , J. and Sweet, D. (2013, May 30). Another Step in a Great Journey. McGill Reporter. Retrieved July 19, 2013, from

[2] Press release (n.d.). Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2013, January 23). New MITx course by Walter Lewin has potential to be the largest MOOC ever. Retrieved July 19, 2013, from

[3] Duhring, J. (2013, May 10). Massive MOOC Grading Problem – Stanford HCI Group Tackles Peer Assessment. MOOC News and Reviews. Retrieved July 19, 2013, from

[4] Rees, J. (2013, March 5). Peer Grading Can’t Work. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved July 19, 2013, from

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