The Tech Behind MOOCs

“Remember the MOOCs? After Near-Death, They’re Booming.”

That was a May 2020 New York Times headline.

Massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, became a phenomenon in 2008. Early platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udacity sought to completely overhaul the concept and delivery of higher education, offering free means of learning from top institutions. These courses were accessible to practically anyone with an internet connection.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students sought to study with world-class institutions like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. But as challenges emerged, enrollment began to decline.

Perhaps in response to the pandemic, the MOOC movement was recently revitalized. This edTech innovation now has a new life — and, thanks to technology, it has the power to once again revolutionize education at all levels.

The Tech That Supports MOOCs

Digital Content

The backbone and very essence of MOOCs is the digital content it includes digital readings, video lectures, graded assessments, social networking, and much more. This content is often self-paced and accessible via a library or your account on the platform.

Online Forums

Often, MOOCs offer an online forum where peer learners can ask and answer one another’s questions, get help with assignments, exchange ideas, and pick one another’s brains. These discussion forums give students an opportunity to engage with others, lending a personal touch to a usually impersonal method of teaching and learning.

Educators sometimes engage in these forums, too, offering responses to questions, posing critical thinking questions or topics, or otherwise sparking and continuing discussions.

Big Data Analytics

Big data is the result of tremendous innovation in technology, which has produced an abundance of data. MOOCs, like other platforms, collect information, which specialists can analyze and transform into meaningful insights.

They can, for example, assess performance and progress in given courses and offer guidance on how to make changes for better outcomes.

Predictive Analytics

Meanwhile, predictive analytics can be used to assess students’ learning and predict completion rates and how given individuals will perform in various courses. By analyzing information like assignment completion, the number of logins, and so on, systems can anticipate who is likely to see success in given courses and who won’t.

Using this information, the system could autogenerate messages to coach at-risk students or otherwise provide guidance to steer them toward completion, as well as warn them as to their current progress or lack thereof.

Artificial Intelligence

AI plays an integral role in MOOCs. It’s leveraged for a wide variety of purposes, such as auto-grading assessments. Additionally, it can assist with personalizing coursework and course progression. For example, by analyzing student performance, the technology can offer suggestions, including types of courses that might interest students in the future.

Moreover, AI can offer guidance and assistance through means like chatbots.


MOOCs are lauded for their many benefits, which include:

• Accessibility to a wide variety of learners
• Self-paced learning
• Low-cost or free education model
• Short timespan
• Collaborative environments
• Flexibility
• Breadth of topics

Criticism of MOOCs

Still, MOOCs aren’t without their critics. One of the main critiques of this education model is that there is usually a lack of interaction between students and their instructors. Typically, courses are taught asynchronously, which means that instructors and pupils don’t even share screens and material at the same time. Many believe technology simply can’t replace the personal connection required for learning.

Moreover, teachers don’t actually do the grading of assessments most of the time. While automation and peer grading may suffice in some cases, there are others, such as those in some humanities courses, where a human touch is necessary. Students won’t receive personalized feedback, either.

All of this summarizes a chief complaint of MOOCs: They tend to be highly impersonal.

Another complaint is that MOOCs have previously seen relatively low completion rates, especially compared with other higher education models. Perhaps the low-stakes nature of these courses could account for dropouts, or maybe it’s due to the aforementioned lack of interaction. Whatever the reason, this is something those who design MOOCs must strive to address.

MOOCs of the Future

College and university enrollment fell by more than 3% between fall 2019 and fall 2020 across the United States. This suggests that students could be beginning to question the value of higher education, and they’re left wondering if the steep price of a college education is worth the investment.

Could MOOCs be the solution? With so many topics available, some learners are turning to the model to upskill, relying on a more cost-effective solution for the education on the subjects they really want to learn.

While MOOCs are certainly not without their flaws, they have come a long way in the more than a decade they’ve existed. And as higher education sits at a precipice, MOOCs may very well over be the answer to the challenges of teaching and learning.

The Tech Behind MOOCs was last updated December 2nd, 2021 by Oscar Jack