Define 'MOOC'

The author of this book on crowdsourcing took a bold move in trying to define the term in a way that would make it clear when one entity (like the t-shirt company Threadless) should be considered an example of the phenomenon while another (like Wikipedia) should not. And since I'm writing a title for the same book series on massive open online courses, I've been trying to similarly define MOOC in a way that would clarify what should be covered by that term and what shouldn't.

While it's tempting to just fall back on the acronym and say that if a course is massive, open and delivered online then it must be a MOOC, once you dig into the details, it turns out that each one of these words is either ambiguous or open to challenge.

For example, at what point do you move from being really big to "massive?" 1,000 students? 10,000? 100,000? And are we talking about enrollees, active students or course completers? And even if we ignore the debate over whether or not MOOCs represent a genuine Open Learning resource and just define "open" as free of costs and other barriers to entry, do we really want to set up a system whereby business decisions, like the ones made recently by Udacity, turn whatever we studied from a MOOC to a non-MOOC experience?

I suppose "online" is relatively unambiguous (although even there you can make the case that initiative like Coursera's Learning Hubs are creating a hybrid online/offline environment), but I would say that even the word "course" is up for grabs. For instance, if a million people download an iTunes lecture series there's no disputing that this is pretty massive, open (i.e., free) and online. In which case, it must be how we define the term "course" that would lead most people to say that listening to iTunes lectures represents something different than taking a MOOC on the same topic (or even the same course offered by the same professor) delivered via a Coursera or edX.

I've written before about the perils of making such a distinction, so I won't repeat those arguments here except to say that while MOOCs do tend to package together more of the material we associate with a course, it's not at all clear why we should reward one type of online learning with the title MOOC just because it includes a few crappy multiple-choice tests alongside recorded lectures.

In which case, perhaps we should just make things easy on ourselves and say that only courses from prestigious colleges and universities delivered via Udacity, Coursera and edX get to be called MOOCs. But like the term "massive," what threshold do we have for "prestigious?" And who gets to decide which colleges and universities should be considered in that club? Maybe we could let the MOOC providers make these choices, but even here the field is starting to crowd up with new entrants like FutureLearn and iversity (not to mention Canvas and even Udemy) forging their own partnerships and releasing their own products which they proudly call MOOCs.

While pondering these matters, it struck me that this challenge to define MOOC was comparable to defining other vague terms (such as "bald," "sharp" or "beautiful"), in other words it's a philosophical issue. For example, the struggle to determine the threshold for "massiveness" is the same as trying to figure out how many hairs separate a bald from a non-bald person (a challenge resulting from vague premises called the Sorites Paradox, if anyone's interested).

In fact, the struggle to define MOOC illustrated above derives from the fact that we're trying to come up with an empirical definition based on the observable and/or measurable characteristics of a course (components, requirements, enrollment numbers, etc.) to see if it deserves the MOOC label or not.

But what if we instead decided to separate MOOCs from non-MOOCs based on their purpose, rather than their observable elements (in other words, take a teleological vs. empirical approach to the problem)? In that case, the challenge would be to find that unique something that MOOCs have been created to do that separates them from all other forms of online learning.

Educating people won't cut it, given that this is the telos for all teaching (online or otherwise). And even educating lots of people for free doesn't provide enough distinction between a MOOC and every other form of free learning (including the aforementioned iTunes U example).

But if you listen to the people who brought us the MOOC movement; the pioneers in early MOOC-type projects or the leaders of today's MOOC organizations, each one of them stresses that MOOCs are really an experiment in which each new massive open online class serves as both an educational tool and research project designed to see what works and what doesn't as we try to push the envelope with technology-supported education.

So if all of our empirical attempts to define a MOOC are ending up in contradiction or absurdity, perhaps we should embrace a definition that puts purposeful educational research and experimentation at the heart of the MOOC project and then take a look at who gets to be (or stay) in the club and who has not yet paid the entrance fee.