Chapter 1: Overview of Online Courses

Modern online courses are an extension of older forms of distance learning, going back to mail and correspondence courses of the 1700s (Harting  & Erthal, 2005). These courses were followed in the 1900s by radio, telephone, and television-based educational efforts (Harting & Erthal, 2005). Computers were used to deliver educational programs as early as the 1970s, even though the technology was often a hindrance. However, with the rise of personal computers, better Internet connections, and digital video technology in the 1990s, many universities began offering more courses online (Harting  & Erthal, 2005). While this shift meant that online learning became more available to anyone with an Internet connection, these courses were often offered to select groups of learners. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, various groups and universities began creating open learning or learning for all initiatives with the aim of taking learning beyond the silos it was often contained within (Harting & Erthal, 2005).

The first course to be called a “MOOC” was taught by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2008 (Kovanović, Joksimović, Gašević, Siemens, & Hatala, 2015). This course, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08), was labeled a “Massive Open Online Course” after the fact by Dave Cormier. Attracting over 2200 students, CCK08 was really meant as an experiment in connectivism rather than massive learning. In 2011, Stanford University created their own MOOC – Introduction to AI, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig.  This course attracted over 160,000 students, along with massive media attention as well. The New York Times called 2012 the “Year of the MOOC” because several well-financed MOOC providers came into existence, most notably Coursera, Udacity, and edX (Kovanović, Joksimović, Gašević, Siemens, & Hatala, 2015). Hype for MOOCs has died down since then, but there is still considerable interest in what they mean for education now and in the future. Despite the insistence of some, MOOCs will not destroy or disrupt universities, but they have already begun to make many examine exactly what teaching at scale means.

As MOOCs grew in popularity, different terms were created to label these different versions. The most useful were “xMOOC” – used to describe teacher-centric courses as “eXtension” of a traditional course – and “cMOOC” – used to describe more student-centered connectivist courses (Downes, 2013). Many other terms such as MOOC2.0, MOOC3.0, etc have been proposed, but these ideas have found little usage in most contexts. Another term that has been proposed is SPOC – short for “small private online course” (Fox, 2013). This term was first used for a more business-oriented approach of creating and licensing courses rather than what some refer to as “traditional” online courses that are also typically smaller and private (but not always).

Traditional online courses come in many varieties, from small cohort models to large “lecture hall” courses of hundreds. Some of them are also considered “blended” or “flipped” in that they meet partially in person and partially online. Some traditional online courses even integrate open features like Open Educational Resources (OER), social networking tools like Twitter, and collaborative learning. For the sake of clarity, in this handbook the term “online courses” will refer to any course that is offered partially or fully online to a specific set of learners (like enrolled learners at a University or company), while the term “MOOC” will refer only to those courses that are considered MOOCs. There are many places that regular online courses and MOOCs overlap, and many places that they differ. This book will explore both in the upcoming chapters, focusing mainly on regular online courses while highlighting any unique considerations for MOOCs as needed.



Downes, S. (2013, April 9). What the ‘x’ in ‘xMOOC’ stands for [Google+ post]. Retrieved from

Fox, A. (2013). From moocs to spocs. Communications of the ACM, 56(12), 38-40.

Harting, K., & Erthal, M. J. (2005). History of distance learning. Information technology, learning, and performance journal, 23(1), 35.

Kovanović, V., Joksimović, S., Gašević, D., Siemens, G., & Hatala, M. (2015). What public media reveals about MOOCs: A systematic analysis of news reports. British Journal of Educational Technology. 46(3), 510–527.


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