The Language of MOOCs

In which I find "MOOC" doesn't adequately describe massive online open stuff any longer.  Even the acronym -- massive open online course -- doesn't seem quite right.

June 7, 2012

Lately when I write about MOOCs (and I admit, I do write about MOOCs a lot lately), I feel the need to attach a bunch of adjectives to clarify what I mean by the term: the Stanford-model MOOC. New MOOCs. The OG MOOC. The ur-MOOC. The MOOCs-come-lately. VC MOOCs. Tech MOOCs. Mother of all MOOCs. Change11. DS106. MOOCGuffin (I just totally made that up. Sorry.).

Regardless, it’s clear to me that there’s a failure of acronyms here -- too bad since acronyms are supposed to serve as an obvious shorthand, spelling out the initials of exactly what we mean. As in: MOOC. Massive Online Open Course. It’s clear what we mean by the term. Except it isn’t.

  • “Massive” How do we define “massive”? How big? How many students? How much participation? Do we rate everything in terms of the Stanford AI class now? In other words: less than 100K isn’t “massive,” it’s just “really big.” How does this relate to class size on campus? See: Virginia Tech geography professor John Boyer’s massive (offline) World Regions class.
  • "Online”: This is self-explanatory, right? This is what distinguishes a MOOC from the example above. But even here I wonder if we need a subscript or something to indicate that there are also offline versions – whether they’re the official, for-credit courses on campus (See: DS106) or they’re informal study groups.
  • “Open”: This is the worm-hole of meaning. Open enrollment? Openly licensed content? An open-source tech platform? Open-ended classes? Open transparency on the university (or startup) offering it about their mission and their trajectory?
  • “Course”: C is for cookie. C is for course. C also stands for connection, connectivism, community, credit, and/or certificate. Take your pick. But whichever you choose as the C in MOOC shapes greatly the MOOC itself, I’d argue.

Doug Holton has suggested other acronyms: MOOLE, for example. A massively open online learning environment. He points to MMORPG too (that is: massively multiplayer online role playing game) as an alternative to how we frame the MOOC.

All this is helpful for my thinking about MOOCs as a “thing” == a phenomenon and/or an instructional and/or connectivist model. But it does little to help me as a writer and user of acronyms. I still need to do a better job distinguishing connectivist MOOCs from the Stanford model without each blog post going into details about what I mean by that. I suppose that’s what footnotes and links are for – where history and references are given. I don’t know.

As for me, from here on out, maybe I’ll just use the domain MOOC.ca to refer to MOOC’s connectivist origins – a top-level-domain homage to the Canadians involved. (Which means, yes, Stephen Downes. You do need to update that site.)

But there must be other acronyms and better word choices. Chime in, please.


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