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MOOC courses: What are they and what are the alternatives?

If you’re researching online learning courses, whether alongside other academic courses, as a preparation for higher education, or just to extend your understanding in your subject, then you will have likely come across MOOCs and MOOC platforms. Standing for Massive Open Online Course, MOOCs have become more and more popular over the last decade.

In this article we will consider in some detail what MOOCs are, what the alternatives are, and what the future holds for education more generally.

What is a MOOC course?

Covering a range of topics, MOOCs are generally free, meaning anyone can register and learn from them. They are often offered by well-respected universities and other organisations, and made available through central MOOC platforms, such as Futurelearn, EdX, and Coursera.

To complete the course you'll watch short videos which give key information and context, read short articles, post comments on course activities, and get involved in discussions with other participants.

Facilitators tutor some MOOCs while others are self-accessed. Many MOOCs also feature activities, which involve students creating and sharing their own content such as videos, audio recording and images with their peers.

The length of the MOOC, how many study hours you need to commit and what you receive at the end of the course, will differ depending on what you study and where. You need to do your research and make sure you can commit the time to get the most out of the course.

There are usually no entry requirements for MOOCs. Therefore, you can take part regardless of your academic background, where you live, or your financial circumstances. Because they take place online, attendance of MOOCs can be very large indeed. You might find yourself learning with thousands of other people, and a key criticism of them is that they can be very westernised, meaning they aren’t as accessible for students from some parts of the world.

What are the alternatives to MOOCs?

While MOOC platforms may seem like a good option for flexible learning, a key drawback is that MOOCs are self-contained, so they often don’t feed into a degree or other qualification.

Despite their potential to support learning and development, MOOCs have very high attrition and drop-out rates. Even though the number of learners who enroll in the courses tend to be in the thousands, only a very small proportion of enrolled students complete their chosen course. Many MOOC courses and platforms are often quite generic, unlike much of online learning, which is tailored to specific topics or subjects.

Distributed Open Collaborative Courses

There are alternatives to Massive Open Online Courses, both direct replacements and wider alternatives. One alternative is Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCC). They suggest that knowledge might be better acquired by avoiding a central singular syllabus, but rather when knowledge and expertise is spread between all participants and does not not just reside with one or two individuals.

Self-paced Online Courses (SPOC)

Another alternative to MOOCs is the Self-paced Online Course (SPOC) which provides a greater degree of flexibility than most. Students can decide on their own pace and with which session they would like to begin their studies.

Blended learning

There is also blended learning. For a long time, students have been able to earn degrees online through universities and colleges. Blended learning, on the other hand, uses technology to enhance traditional learning environments. In blended classrooms, professors use classroom time to interact with students and use the Internet to deliver lectures, typically as webinars.

Here is the definition of blended learning, courtesy of the Innosight Institute: A formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path and pace, and at least in part at a supervised meeting away from the home.

Online Learning

Online learning, as the name suggests, is conducted 100% online. Students participate in a virtual learning environment, where they watch lectures and seminars, access student resources and submit assignments digitally. More often than not all contact with tutors and fellow students is conducted online via discussion forums and email.

Online students may have more contact with their fellow students online than they would in the regular environment. There are many ways for students to interact online: discussion boards, e-mail, group activities, etc.

The future of education is broader than MOOCs

Generally speaking, education is expensive, takes a long time, and the results can vary. Online learning has been trying for years now to complement the way we learn to make it more effective,measurable, and accessible. The result is that there are now a number of tools that help create interactive training courses.

The future of education is difficult to predict, and while MOOCs serve a purpose for many, they will never fully replace the more personalised, specialist education of university and other online learning platforms. Therefore, the future looks much broader than MOOCs alone. Many theories exist as to how education will evolve, and micro-learning and personalised learning are two compelling arguments.


Micro-learning focuses on the design of micro-learning activities through small steps in digital media environments, which already is a daily reality for today’s knowledge workers. These activities can be incorporated into a learner’s daily routines.

Unlike “traditional” online learning approaches, micro-learning often tends towards push technology through push media, which reduces the load on the learners. Therefore, the selection of micro-learning objects and also pace and timing of micro-learning activities are of importance. Micro-learning could be an important shift that avoids the need to have separate learning sessions, since the learning process is embedded in the daily routine of the student. It is also perfectly suited for mobile devices where long courses can be overkill.

Personalised learning

Personalised learning is the tailoring of method, curriculum and learning environments to meet the needs and aspirations of individual learners. Personalisation is broader than just individualisation or differentiation in that it affords the learner a degree of choice about what is learned, when it is learned, and how it is learned. This may not indicate unlimited choice since students will still have targets to be met. However, it may provide learners the opportunity to learn in ways that suit their individual learning styles and multiple intelligences.

Choose a MOOC alternative that suits your ambitions

There is no doubt that the variety of online learning and online courses will continue to increase rapidly. Technology is more readily available and people’s desire for flexibility in their learning means that it will suit them all the more. But where MOOCs quite often let students down is in the lack of human contact, specificity, and personalisation, which gives rise to an array of alternatives.

For those seeking a personalised and specialised learning experience, it is important to select an online learning provider that meets your academic needs and supports your long-term ambitions.

The online courses that Cambridge International Academy delivers are designed with this in mind, providing knowledge in specific subjects, with specialised courses, taught by leading experts from each field.

If you would like to find out more about the online courses that we provide, please contact us today.

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