What’s a Mooc?

One thing about technology and language learning never changes: the rate of change and innovation. It’s rapid at its best and a complete blur at worst. I sometimes oscillate between wanting to know all about the latest and greatest applications of technology, innovative pedagogy, and education policy trends and approaches on the one hand; and wanting to hide under the covers and bemoan the seemingly constant trendiness and cuter-than-life movements and acronyms that plague our profession on the other. No Child Left Behind. Blue Ribbon schools. STEM subjects. The “Core.” Web 1.0. Web 2.0. And now, MOOCs. Then again, I guess we’re lucky not to be mired in drill and kill or the Grammar Translation Method. Also, we’re lucky to be part of MFLA, where the K-12 and Higher Ed worlds come together.

So what is a MOOC? Its origin is largely in Higher Ed, and it stands for “Massive Open Online Course.” According to Morris and Stommel, “A MOOC is not a thing. A MOOC is a strategy. What we say about MOOCs cannot possibly contain their drama, banality, incessance, and proliferation. The MOOC is a variant beast — placental, emergent, alienating, enveloping, sometimes thriving, sometimes dead, sometimes reborn” (Morris & Stommel, 2012). Uh-huh. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but let me put it in more concrete terms. The idea is that a course is offered online, usually for little to no charge, no academic credit, and for various reasons such as benevolence, experimentation, or as an alternative to the traditional classroom setting. The idea is that people should use online resources such as learning management systems to collaborate and to promote each other’s learning. Its roots are grounded in the open access movement. Toward that end, it is not a surprise that there are already three large entities building a reputation for hosting MOOCs and refining their application as best practices and shared experiences and reflections occur. These include Coursera (http://www.coursera.org), Udacity (http://www.udacity.com/), and edX (https://www.edx.org/). Coursera is a private company started by faculty and partners with over 30 universities around the world. edX is a partnership among some quite weighty traditional brick-and-mortar institutions such as Harvard University and M.I.T. Given the high profile and visibility of many of the institutions that participate in the MOOC movement, one tends to think that it may have some staying power. Time will tell, of course.

For world languages educators, it is a very short leap from “how exciting” to “how will this work for language education?” After all, teaching certain subjects online is inherently easier for faculty–and mastering it at an acceptable level is easier for students–than other subjects. A review of edX and Udacity’s offerings reveals a heavy orientation toward the sciences, particularly Information Technology and Computer Science. Courses such as edX’s “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming” and “Software as a Service” would on the surface seem to be natural fits for this learning paradigm. Procedural and tacit knowledge, acquired with interactive opportunities and individual study and reinforcement, make perfect sense for topics such as programming. Coursera has gone well beyond that, and through its equally impressive partner institutions (Johns Hopkins, Duke, Columbia…), offers 20 categories of courses ranging from traditional sciences to humanities, social sciences, and the arts. However, a search of all courses reveals only one course related to our profession, and that course is “Natural Language Processing.” Cognitive science and I.T. deserve our full respect, but it’s interesting that so far the 3 most significant purveyors of MOOCs haven’t ventured directly and squarely into world languages. Call me biased, but I’ll bet you agree that language learning is where the rubber really meets the rue.

There are plenty of courses online for language learning, although they tend to be created and hosted by universities for the benefit of their own enrolled students. As such, they are oftentimes really attempts at converting an on-ground course to an online course for the purposes of convenience, freeing up classroom space, or meeting an institutional mission to increase online offerings. Others have truly thought about and mastered the pedagogical approaches and unique requirements of successful online learning. Our profession is starting to take notice as well; a growing presence in professional organizations for those interested in promoting and studying the effective pedagogies and learning paradigms for asynchronous, synchronous, and technology-based language learning has emerged. What appears to be the first language MOOC will begin very shortly in Spanish (Spanish MOOC spanishmooc.com). While, this endeavor appears to be the brainchild of a language teacher working for a technology company and not the result of a collaboration of Ivy League and land grant public universities, there is no reason to expect that the resources, cooperative learning, and use of computer-assisted language learning materials (CALL) will be any less robust. I wonder whether the big 3 are watching.


Coursera. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/

edX. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.edx.org/

Morris, S. M. and Stommel, J. (2012, December 14). A MOOC is not a Thing: Emergence, Disruption, and Higher Education. Retrieved fromhttp://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/MOOC_Emergence_Disruption_and_Higher_Education.html#unique-entry-id-81

Spanish MOOC. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://spanishmooc.com/

Udacity. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.udacity.com/

AUTHOR:  Jeffery Samuels
MFLA Treasurer