The buzz surrounding Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has been getting louder since 2012. Few people even remember that the first MOOC was hosted in 2008, long before the hype of 2012. The original MOOCs were all about connecting people and enabling them to learn. The xMOOCs of 2012 posed challenges largely because they focused much more on delivering learning content to people rather than on networked learning. Some assessments and monitoring of progress have been incorporated into MOOCs, even into the xMOOCs of 2012, but is this really new?

The first online learning courses became visible to the public in the late 1990s when learning management systems such as WebCT were developed, but even these were also not the first online courses. Online courses were offered much earlier than this, using online technology MUDs (multi-user domains). These were mostly text-based environments where a few people could meet up at a pre-determined time to speak via text-chat. The graphics of the virtual world had to be described in words at that time, because the bandwidth and computers could not present graphics as they do today.

The biggest differences between the learning management systems (LMSs) of the 1990s and the MOOCs of the 2010s are the scale and the acceptance of larger numbers of learners. When LMSs first emerged, they tried to emulate the face-to-face classroom with 25 or so learners. Educators argued that no more than this number could be effectively taught at one time. If this is the case, one may wonder how 400 people could be taught in an auditorium!

MOOCs have broken the numbers barrier. It has been shown that thousands of people can be provided with learning content at the same time. With the advances in technology, bandwidth and computing power, thousands of people can complete questionnaires online and submit them for automated assessment. There is little new about the concept of multiple-choice assessments as these were used in classroom and traditional distance education settings decades earlier.. MOOCs are beginning to include ways to network people better, which may help to improve their reputation as viable learning environments.

It might be that the evolution of the MOOCs will increase the numbers of people who are able to access useful courses, and the emerging systems of networked learning and assessment will help many people to develop new skills. The numbers are increasing due to cleverer use of technologies that are currently available. Older, more tried technologies such as print, telecommunications and online learning have been used as far as they can and the MOOC is just one more step in the evolution towards expanding learning opportunities.

Submitted on 1 January 2014. First published on

Are MOOCs really "new"?