Massive Open Online Course: Meaning, Structure, and Top Platforms

Massive Open Online Course: Meaning, Structure, and Top Platforms

5 mins readComment
Syed Aquib Ur
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager
Updated on May 23, 2024 20:10 IST

You must be a tech-savvy student, professional, or lifelong learner. Certainly, you must have heard of Coursera and edX. If you have come here, you may also have started or completed some free online courses. Did you know these are MOOCs, aka Massive Open Online Courses? The sites that offer these online courses for higher education are MOOC platforms.

Massive open online course

E-learning in massive open online courses has come a long way in the last 16 years. Coursera’s official website mentions that it has 148 million registered learners today. The adoption rate of free online courses all over the planet has increased over the years, and there are no signs of slowing down. 

In 2024, the global market size of MOOCs is USD 13.2 billion. It is projected to rise up to USD 212.7 billion by 2034, a study from FACT MR says. This is primarily because of widespread internet adoption and more international universities partnering with platforms such as Coursera and similar. 

So, if stats show that online courses will be more valuable in the coming years, you should know what a MOOC is. This blog should also help erase common misunderstandings about a massive open online course. 

What is a Massive Open Online Course?

MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, is a model of higher or continuing education that is free (open) for a large (massive) number of global learners connected via the Internet (online). Educators (instructors or educational institutions) create learning content through video lectures and study material, which is accessible to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. 

Origins of MOOC

How it all began

2008: First Coinage of MOOC

Stephen Downes and George Siemens offered the credit course Connectivism and Connectivity Knowledge (CCK08) in 2008 for the Certificate in Adult Education (CAE) at the University of Manitoba. At the time, 2,300 students participated online. 

In the same year, Dave Cormier from the University of Prince Edward Island coined the term MOOC to describe the open course offered by Downes and Siemens. 

Downes, later in 2012, published an essay on the concept of the open course at the National Research Council Canada, titled Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on meaning and learning networks

According to Downes, the main difference between a traditional course and a MOOC is that the learning is ‘voluntary’.
You decide that you want to participate, you decide how to participate, then you participate. If you're not motivated, then you're not in the MOOC.” (Downes, 2012). 

Downes speaks of two elements after observation. 

  1. Learning through Distributed Technology—In this model, the learning activities are not centralised but dispersed across multiple sites and services. 
  2. Four Principles of Effective Networks - Autonomy, diversity, openness, and interactivity are the four principles. 
    • By embracing autonomy, the MOOC empowers learners to chart their own paths. 
    • Diversity ensures that multiple viewpoints contribute to a richer understanding transcending any perspective. 
    • Openness fosters the free flow of ideas and knowledge. 
    • Interactivity facilitates learning through dynamic connections and networked exchanges.

2012: Year of the MOOC

In late 2011, Stanford University professors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, popularised free courses online. According to the International Journal of Digital Library Services, Thrun's course enrolled a remarkable 90,000 students, while Norvig's offering garnered an even more astonishing 160,000 enrolments. 

Seeing that success, Thrun and Norvig started Udacity in February 2012. 

Following that, Andrew Ng and Daphne Collar, also Stanford professors, started off with the platform Coursera around April of the same year. 

Then, edX, a mashup of Harvard and MIT, was founded in June 2012. 

Structure of Massive Open Online Course

The teaching and learning structure of a MOOC is slightly different from that of regular courses. The learning experience and course materials may also be slightly different. 

Course Format of MOOC

  • MOOCs are online courses taught to large numbers of students with minimal professor involvement.
  • The course follows a structured format similar to traditional online courses, with a defined syllabus, learning goals, and area of study.
  • Course content typically includes video lectures (often short 6-12 minute segments), readings, assignments, quizzes, and tests.

Delivery Method of MOOC

  • Video lectures are interspersed with interactive elements like multiple-choice quizzes. This is one of the main elements of the Coursera MOOC platform 
  • Short video segments allow students to control the pace and revisit content.
  • Online discussion forums facilitate the exploration of topics, collaboration, and building a learning community.
  • Some MOOCs may have optional in-person meetups for local participants.

Student Experience with MOOC

  • Open enrolment for anyone with internet access, little-to-no admission requirements.
  • Requires self-motivation, proactivity, and time management from students.
  • Students contribute to discussions, which correlates with better performance.
  • Course duration typically ranges from 4 to 12 weeks, with some self-paced options.

Assessment and Completion with MOOC

  • Assignments and tests are often auto-graded or peer-reviewed.
  • Students who pass may receive a certificate of completion.
  • No formal applications are required, just registration for the desired MOOC.

Top MOOC Platforms of 2024

For online learning, you can trust the platforms below. 


With university and company partnerships, it offers a range of MOOCs across various domains. Its online degree programmes, such as its renowned executive MBA courses, are not free to audit. But the specialisations and courses are. 


edX partners with some of the top universities and B-schools to offer a range of free to enrol courses online. Additionally, when you take any free Harvard online course today, you will see that most of the certifications are provided by edX. The courses are free to enrol in, but some of the certificates are not. 


It mainly partners with European universities, and all their courses are mobile-friendly. While many FutureLearn courses are free to audit, learners can choose to pay for unlimited access, a certificate of achievement, or even pursue online degrees and credentials from partner universities.


Offering free courses by professors from IITs, NPTEL offers the best short courses on technology and management. Its courses are self-paced, allowing learners to progress at their speed and schedule, accommodating different learning styles and commitments.

Have a look at the top free government courses online, too!

Always Upskill with Job Relevant MOOCs

Hope that you have a better idea about massive open online courses and the best platforms that have them. 

To excel in your career, consider upskilling with MOOCs regularly. 

It is also important to consider the learning outcomes of the MOOCs you enrol in. 

On Shiksha Online, find the best online courses for your specific domain, compare the certificate costs, read reviews (when available), and make informed decisions for your education and career.

About the Author
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager

Aquib is a seasoned wordsmith, having penned countless blogs for Indian and international brands. These days, he's all about digital marketing and core management subjects - not to mention his unwavering commitment ... Read Full Bio