Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been around long enough that most people in the training industry have at least a general understanding of what they are. But there is still some confusion about how they differ from more familiar forms of elearning and online courses.
In particular, a question I’m often asked is: “What’s the difference between a MOOC and a learning management system (LMS)?”
The basic answer is that an LMS is a platform for hosting a course, while a MOOC is the course itself. A MOOC can be run on an LMS, but it doesn’t have to be. In the same vein, an LMS can be used to host a course that is not a MOOC. Misunderstanding often creeps in because the major MOOC platforms — Coursera, edX, and so on — involve both an LMS and a MOOC. For example, if you take a course on Coursera, you are taking a Coursera MOOC that is hosted on the Coursera LMS.
In general, however, I don’t think the real question is about the difference between a MOOC as a course and an LMS as a platform. I think what people are asking is about difference between MOOCs and the types of courses that are typically run on LMSs. So here I’ll identify seven main areas where MOOCs and traditional LMS-style courses differ and point out what these differences mean for corporate training.
Small versus large (or massive)
In theory MOOCs can accommodate an unlimited number of learners. In practice most corporate training MOOCs are not open to the general public. However, they are still much larger than traditional courses, involving hundreds or even thousands of learners distributed across multiple locations.
Discrete versus continuous
Traditional courses hosted on LMSs are usually discrete entities, meaning that that they start on a particular day, end on a particular day, have particular due dates, and so on. Like instructor-led training (ILT), this is usually a result of the instructor cost and schedule.
MOOCs can be run this way, but they can also be offered on an ongoing basis to accommodate staggered enrollments. For example, the same orientation MOOC can be used (at the same time if needed) for new hires who start a week or a month (or a year) apart.
Content versus context
This is a common distinction that is made. Traditional online courses focus primarily on content. They are similar to ILT in that content is delivered, and then learners are tested on the content. MOOCs are much more about context. The content is still the centerpiece, but the learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum — it takes place in a context of interactions with other learners through discussions, projects, and collaborations.
Individual versus group learning
Like elearning, most traditional online courses are individual pursuits. MOOCs can be individual pursuits, but their real effectiveness as learning environments comes from the collaboration and teamwork that they make possible.
Static versus dynamic
The context versus content aspect also speaks to the nature of the course. Traditional courses are static — the content, learning activities, and so on are designed before launch and the same for every learner, every time. This is not necessarily true of MOOCs. Instead, through the discussions, collaboration, and sharing that are part of the MOOC context, the course can change over time.
For example, many MOOCs require learners to write blogs or find content that they then share with one another. This means that the course materials and discussions can change as a product of user-generated content and knowledge sharing. In addition, because MOOCs are based on the concept of bite-sized learning, individual learning objects can easily be replaced to keep up with current knowledge and best practices.
Just-in-case versus just-in-time
By now, you’re probably starting to notice a pattern. Traditional courses — which are discrete and static — are offered just-in-case. This means that learners work through the material, but then may or may not have the opportunity to use their newly acquired knowledge before they’ve forgotten it.
Since MOOCs are continuous and dynamic, they provide the opportunity for just-in-time learning: learners can access the course materials when needed and they can access them long after the course has ended. Learners can potentially login on an indefinite basis to participate in discussions and share knowledge. This is a feature that is currently underused, but in essence it allows a MOOC to serve as a topic-specific internal knowledge base where employees can connect with subject-matter experts for answers and solutions.
Pre-defined versus emerging organically
This point is similar to those above, but it refers to how the course is designed and developed. Usually, with traditional courses, instructional designers start with a set of learning objectives and then work with subject matter experts to develop content to help learners meet those objectives. The course is designed with an authoring tool, loaded into an LMS, and then everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best. It’s a pre-defined, pre-built package based on assumptions that may or may not be correct, but the results aren’t analyzed until the end (if they are analyzed at all).
MOOCs tend to be much more organic. For example, if instructors notice that there is a lot of discussion about a particular topic that indicates confusion, they can easily create new videos, add new materials, or introduce new discussion topics. In this way, MOOCs are able to respond organically to learners’ needs better than traditional courses.
If I had to distil the essence of what differentiates a MOOC from a traditional course offered on a traditional LMS into one word, it would be this: flexibility. MOOCs are flexible in a way that most other learning formats simply aren’t. As corporate training struggles to keep up with changing knowledge, changing technologies, and the changing demands of learners, this flexibility is key to developing training programs that are effective, engaging, and meet your company’s needs.
Copyright 2015 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.
Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc
.– Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual. Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bryantnielso