What is a MOOC? A Glossary of 28 Common MOOC Terms

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A theme that emerged in the sessions at the Learning with MOOCs Workshop was the need for collaboration across industries to continue to improve the effectiveness of MOOCs.

Each industry had a unique perspective and an ability to obtain unique data sets that will help us reveal the true value of MOOCs.

We hope that this Glossary of 28 Common MOOC Terms helps you as you learn about online learning and think about how to design and develop MOOCs for your organization:


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1. MOOC – MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. They typically include a collection of many of the following learning objects: video lectures, online readings, problem sets, quizzes, and student interaction. The goal of MOOCs is to reach a much larger audience than traditional courses can accommodate and to foster interaction between people with similar interests across the world. Here's an example of a MOOC we built for SmithsonianX. 

2. SPOC – SPOC stands for Small Private Online Course. In contrast to MOOCs, SPOCs represent a blended teaching approach that utilizes the power of online platforms in more intimate, traditional course settings. San Jose State is one college that has initiated a SPOC partnership with edX and has had promising results so far. 

3. xMOOCxMOOC stands for eXtended Massive Open Online Course. These MOOCs are based on traditional university courses. The advantage of xMOOCs: They significantly broaden the number of students who can be exposed to university-level courses. The disadvantage of xMOOCS: Critics argue that xMOOCs are inferior to the university courses they mimic because they eliminate teacher-student interactions and involve limited student-student interactions.

4. cMOOCThe ‘c’ in cMOOC stands for connectivist, which represents the nature of cMOOCs. Stephen Downes, co-founder of one of the first MOOCs, coined this term to create a distinction from the ‘xMOOCs’. Rather than being delivered by an individual instructor, as in traditional university courses, cMOOCs involve groups of people learning together. In this environment, participants are all considered teachers AND learners, which stands in contrast to the structure of xMOOCs, where each individual is either a student OR a teacher. 

Not clear on the difference between the xMOOC and cMOOC? Check out this xMOOC vs. cMOOc  post for the best distinction.

Learning Destination Sites

5. FutureLearn - FutureLearn is a platform developed by the UK’s Open University in 2012 that delivers MOOCs. It partners with British universities and aims to engage a British audience with a British-oriented version of a MOOC platform. Like Coursera, FutureLearn provides courses from a wide range of disciplines.

6. CourseraCoursera is a for-profit platform for online courses developed by Stanford University’s Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. The courses on Coursera are often adapted from existing university courses by professors and Coursera staff. Coursera MOOCs span a range of disciplines and are available through a mobile app.

7. UdacityUdacity is a for-profit organization developed by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsy that offers MOOCs. Udacity originally focused on technology and science courses that were presented in a traditional university-type structure. However, that focus has shifted to courses intended for professionals.

8. edXedX is a platform for online learning that provides MOOCs. It was founded as a non-profit with open-source software in 2012 by MIT and Harvard University. In addition to hosting a number of free online university courses, edX also analyzes data on its use to contribute to broad research efforts in mechanisms of learning and MOOC optimization. 


9. CMS –CMS stands for Content Management System, which is a tool that can facilitate the development and implementation of MOOCs. CMS, which has been available since the late 1990s, enables content to be published, edited, and organized. The system is a popular application for MOOCs because it is conducive to collaborative work efforts and does not require hand coding.

10. LMS – LMS stands for Learning Management System, which is another application tool for implementing MOOCs. An LMS provides infrastructure that enables not on the creation and delivery of instructional content, but also the ability to track progress and collect all relevant data during the duration of a MOOC or traditional on-campus course.

11. Canvas -Canvas is a network developed by an education technology company called Instructure. Canvas provides open online courses that are provided by institutions all over the world. It provides a platform for teachers and students to connect and build and use educational resources.

Confused about the difference between an LMS like Canvas and a Learning Destination Site like edX? Use the 6 Types of Online Learning Platforms to get a deeper breakdown of the two platforms. 


12. XBlock  XBlock is a software tool used by edX to build courses. Written in Python, it enables course creators to build custom components into their MOOC courses.  Here's a 1-minute explainer video with a few examples of Xblocks Extension Engine developed.

13. LTI - LTI is an acronym for "learning tools interoperability". LTI was built to in response to the complexity associated with building online courses. Because different platforms offer different options and resources, course developers may want to use pieces offered by different platforms. LTI allows for this type of mix-and-match function during course building so that students can use one site for their course that integrates information from multiple platforms. The downside to this approach is that LTI does not change the appearance of tools provided by different platforms, which can make the look of the site inconsistent.

Science and Theories

14. Pedagogy – Pedagogy refers to the science of education, including the design of learning environments and study of their relative effectiveness. It is also used to define different approaches to teaching and learning, eg a connectivist or constructivist pedagogy.

15. Constructivism – Constructivism is a theory that argues that learning occurs as a dialogue between prior knowledge and new material. To achieve meaningful learning outcomes learners must “construct” their own concept and update or revise it based on whether or not their interpretation was valid. A good example might be applying the scientific method to a different situation than the one you learned it in. Constructionism is Seymour Papert’s variation on this, but they basically mean the same thing. Project-based learning, learn-by-doing approaches, and simulation learning are all inspired by Constructivism.

16. Pasteur’s Quadrant – Pasteur’s quadrant refers to a hybrid approach to traditional scientific research strategies. Much of the research is categorized into the specialized categories of “basic” research or “applied” research. Basic research is research aiming to discover the nature of things, whereas applied research attempts to solve real-world problems. Research in Pasteur’s Quadrant is thought to provide both basic and applied research value. This quadrant is often used to describe and classify research studies in education:

Pasteur's Quadrant

17. Behaviorism – Behaviorism is an educational theory that suggests that standardized tests provide a reliable measure for students’ knowledge. The idea arose with the development of public schools and the challenge of comparing the relative success of different teaching techniques. Critics of the behaviorist approach argue that not only do standardized tests fail to demonstrate the true ability of each student, but our reliance on them leads to inefficient teaching practices that focus on success on these tests. Some critics also shun the administration of anxiety-provoking exams.

18. STEM - STEM is an acronym for ‘science, technology, engineering, and mathematics’. A similar term is MINT, which refers to mathematics, information sciences, natural sciences, and technology. ‘STEM’ is most often used in discussions on education policy in response to the perceived lack of participation in technological careers, despite the increase in open positions in relevant fields.

Learning strategies and educational approaches

19. Informal Learning - Informal learning, as opposed to formal learning, does not involve specific objectives or structure. Instead, informal learning refers to a more passive type of learning that often occurs through experience and in unplanned ways. Making education feel more informal, as can be the case with gamification, may be an effective strategy for improving student performance.

20. Gamification -Gamification refers to the strategy of presenting information in a manner that is entertaining to enhance engagement and the ease with which information is attended to and learned. Gamification is relevant for learning in general but is particularly important as MOOCs are developed because MOOC technology presents a new opportunity to gamify content in a way that the traditional classroom is unable to. Gamification capitalizes on the human aspects of reward to make learning more enjoyable and increase motivation to do exercises required for content mastery.

21. Cognitive Load -Cognitive load refers to the amount of attention and cognitive resources required for the consideration or solution of a problem. Executive functioning and working memory are thought to be the primary functions of cognitive load, and resources related to these functions are limited in the brain. Cognitive load is important in education and particularly in the MOOC movement because taking into account cognitive load during course design can significantly improve course efficacy. Specifically, presenting material in a manner that reduces cognitive load for students while allowing them to grasp new information and concepts, can improve learning by reducing cognitive load. Perhaps the best known and most widely implemented research on cognitive load has shown that the average person can remember only seven “chunks” of information (such as the seven digits of a local phone number) in the short-term. Thus, bombarding students with more information is not likely to be helpful, but providing less is not particularly efficient.

22. A/B TestingA/B testing is the term that describes the process of assessing differential effects of two separate ‘treatment conditions.’ With MOOC development, A/B testing allows instructors and researchers to determine which one of two courses or which one of two separate implementations of a course are more effective in meeting specific goals, such as student engagement or performance.

23. Blended Learning - Blended learning refers to educational approaches that use both traditional classroom settings and online resources. Proponents of blended learning point out that blended learning can capitalize on advantageous aspects of both the intimacy and interaction in the traditional classroom and also the unique learning tools afforded by modern technology.

Bonus: Flipped Classroom -  The flipped classroom is a type of blended learning ad is also known as the backwards classroom or inverted classroom. In the flipped classroom, students learn content before class, through online lectures. This exercise replaces what used to be time spent doing homework. During the day, in class, students do problems and are therefore able to get more guidance from instructors on the actual application of the material associated with the course. Advocates of flipped learning point to the modified role of the teachers when this strategy is employed. Rather than interacting only with students who ask questions in the traditional classroom, instructors interact with all students in a flipped classroom. 

24. Instructional Design Services - Instructional design is the systematic development of instructional specifications using learning and instructional theory to ensure the quality of instruction.  This work can be sold as a service, in case the organization producing the online learning program does not have these resources in house.

Standards and resources

25. OER – OER stands for Open Educational Resources, which refer to free teaching resources, such as documents and media files. Since OERs are openly licensed, they are free and limitlessly distributed. Though traditional educational materials are protected by copyrights, a significant amount of educational intellectual property is now more flexibly licensed through Creative Commons.

26. Creative CommonsCreative Commons is a non-profit organization that promotes the sharing of copyrighted works through free legal licenses. It was founded by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred in 2001. With Creative Commons, creators can structure the ways that their work can be shared by others, and people can choose works to license based on the works themselves and the specific rights they receive from the license. The effect Creative Commons has had on the use and law surrounding intellectual property has been met with both praise and criticism. Those championing Creative Commons applaud the enhanced access at reduced prices, while those against the organization claim it may ruin the foundations of our copyright system and stifle creativity by reducing motivation to create works that will generate little revenue for the creator.

27. SCORM - SCORM stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model, which was created as part of the Office of the United States Secretary of Defense’s Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative and defines standards and specifications for e-learning.

28. OLI – OLI stands for Open Learning Initiative, which is a grant-funded program at Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University aimed at improving the quality of teaching. The initiative provides high quality courses for people who want to learn how to teach effectively. The courses integrate evidence-based strategies to teach individuals the science of teaching and learning. The courses also contribute data, the analysis of which can improve our understanding of the learning process.

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