What is and what is not a MOOC: A picture of family resemblance (working undefinition) #moocmooc



Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs for short, have been getting a lot of attention recently. There have been several high profile posts (see here for a summary) complaining about the lack of clarity about what constitutes a MOOC (and I think this resulted in a more generalized MOOC backlash). This is an attempt to draw up a picture of what MOOCs look like and what they don’t look like. It is not a definition in the traditional sense (an undefinition, perhaps) but I think it captures the idea.

MOOC: A portrait of family resemblance

What is a MOOC? - YouTube http://t.co/8OyH68wP...

What is a MOOC? – YouTube http://t.co/8OyH68wP Filmpje met heel duidelijke uitleg over wat een Massive Open Online Course nu eigenlijk is! (Photo credit: Trendmatcher)

Let’s consider some features of online education that could be candidates for MOOChood and group them according to how useful indicators of MOOCness they are. This will make it possible to judge how well a given MOOC candidate resembles other MOOCs.

Minimal feature requirements for MOOChood

These features describe all MOOCs. A course has to pretty much meet all of these to be considered for a MOOC.
  • To satisfy the label of massive: Give access to a larger group of students than a single class or institution could (this could be a small absolute number in case of very specialised subjects)
  • To satisfy the label of open: Are open access in the sense of not requiring a test of prior knowledge (though such may be recommended) or enrollment in a larger course of study in an institution (though this may be possible, see below)
  • To satisfy the label of open: Do not require payment just for access to content and peers. But payments for other things (like tutor support, assessment, participation in ancillary events) may not be free.
  • To satisfy the label of online: Use an online method of delivery making the most of what the web medium has to offer. Ideally utilising multiple modes of delivering content (video, audio, text, animation). This could be pre-recorded, live or a combination of the two.
  • To satisfy the label of course: Follow a course of study with time-sensitive elements towards a specified learning outcome or a set of outcomes.
  • To satisfy the label of online course:  Facilitate asynchronous interaction between as many participants as possible. This can be done via course-specific forums (ideally with some curation facility such as voting up and down) or via generalized platforms such as Twitter or Blogs and comments.
I think all courses that are called a MOOC, these days, will meet these criteria.

Salient but optional MOOC features

These features are typical of some MOOCs with a broader interpretation ofopenness. Some people consider these to be essential.

  • Define open and online in such a way that it does away with the constraints of the VLE and having students use the open web
  • Extend definition of open by relying on open content in the strict sense (openly licensed, as well as free)
  • Take advantage of online by providing opportunities for openness by encouraging the creation of new content by participants and/or curation of existing content as part of the learning process
  • Extending the definition of open by encouraging the creation of Personal Learning Networks by participants that break outside the typical walled-gardens of a course

Most connectivist MOOCs (or cMOOCs) will meet these criteria, but most xMOOCs by Coursera, Udacity and edX will not.

Edge features of a MOOC

These features break or bend one of the minimal requirements but might still qualify as a MOOC in some instances if the overall shape is sufficiently MOOC-like. Individual will vary in their willingness to accept something with these features as a MOOC.

  • Untimed learning communities working towards a learning outcome break the course criterion of time-boundedness. This could be because, there are no paced activities – e.g. weekly focus, or no specified end. But with sufficient family resemblance a “course” like this could still be considered a MOOC.
  • Accredited online courses allied with a specific institution may not fully comply with the criterion of open but if they allow outsiders, they will still qualify as a MOOC.
  • Events without any specified learning outcomes might still be considered MOOCs if they specify learning experiences, instead.

Disqualifying properties for a MOOC

These things might have some limited properties of a MOOC but not enough to be considered one. They generally do not have the “look of a MOOC” but are sometimes listed in the same context.

  • Collection of freely accessible learning materials (Khan Academy, iTunes U, Open Courseware) are massive, online and open but not a course.
  • Lecture series without an outcome (LSE public lecturesNew Books Network) are online and open but not a course and may not be massive.
  • A continuous generalized Personal Learning Network is online and open but neither massive nor a course.
  • An online learning or study support community is online but it’s not a course and may not be either massive nor open.
  • Large scale live online lectures/webinars (Michael Sandel, Reith Lectures) are massive and may have some course-like properties but offer limited interaction between participants. But do not have a family resemblance to a MOOC.


Despite much handwringing about how difficult it is to define a MOOC, I think it’s actually not that difficult after all. As with all cases of family resemblance, this picture will evolve over time and will vary with individual perceptions and perspectives. But I think it provides a fairly accurate overview.

I am, of course, looking forward to corrections, clarifications, and howls of protest, in the comments.


This blog post is a result of my involvement in a collaborative writing exercise as part of the MOOC MOOC. As happens on Wikipedia, the actual writing and editing happened by a few people with onlookers pitching in the odd typo correction or a nitpicking point. My contribution was an outline and a table of contents for the doc but when I tried to edit the actual content, I felt, I couldn’t contribute without imposing my perspective on others without an opportunity for an argumentative back and forth. This does not mean, that this is not a good model for creating content but that it requires more time to build a community that can start generating a consensus (like Wikipedia).
My problem with the essay that emerged was that it was too biased towards a normative description of a MOOC. Viz, what it should be, rather than what it is. I am all for a normative account but, I think, it’s worth taking a more descriptive approach first (must be the anti-prescriptivist linguist in me). So, the above, is my fork of that work. (BTW: I think forking and remixing should be an integral part of collaborative writing. A single product of dozens of people writing together will always be too watered down to suit everyone and thus not quite suiting anyone.)
The other problem here (as with so much in the academia) is working with an outdated notion of what a definition should look like, i.e. a minimal and exhaustive description that will exclude or include all possible candidates in a binary fashion. But the world is not like that and trying to define it like that can only lead to needless confusion. We have had a credible alternative for fifty years, so I think it’s time to own up to it and start a movement of undefinitions. Down with Occam, long live Wittgenstein! NOTE: Although, I use the more familiar term “family resemblance”, the analysis above was inspired by George Lakoff’s concept of radial categories from Women, Fire and Dangerous Things.

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