MOOC: A Brief History

7 minutes


Updated June 8, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

George Siemens,* a research and writer, introduced a term Connectivism in a paper in 2004.*

Connectivism is a theoretical framework for understanding learning. In connectivism, the starting point for learning occurs when knowledge is actuated through the process of a learner connecting to and feeding information into a learning community. The learning process is cyclical, in that learners will connect to a network to share and find new information, will modify their beliefs on the basis of new learning, and will then connect to a network to share these realizations and find new information once more. Learning is considered a . . . knowledge creation process . . . not only knowledge consumption.

Connectivism can best be thought of as a learning theory that is built on the following foundations:*

  • Learning happens through interaction with your network.

  • Information will be updated constantly. Hence, the curiosity to know more is more important than what you know already.

  • Learning can happen outside ourselves as an entity.

To explore this theory, he conducted an experiment in 2008 by creating a course titled CCK08: Connectivism and Connective Knowledge and opening it for enrollment to students outside the University of Manitoba, free of charge. This was the first time such an idea garnered a massive response, with thousands of students enrolling in it.

While that train began early on, another train, the more popular one, began its journey in 2011 when two professors from Stanford University hosted their course CS271: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence online and opened it for world-wide enrollment, free of charge. This time, over 160,000 students enrolled. It garnered wide media coverage. There were two other courses, along with the one above, that had 104,000 and 65,000 students enrolled respectively.

statsThe now famous learning platforms Udacity and Coursera were in fact founded by the professors behind these courses at Stanford.* This led to such a huge growth that 2012 was dubbed “the Year of the MOOC” by The New York Times.*

We call this a different train because while the philosophy behind George’s idea involved loose structure and immense community interaction, platforms like Udacity and Coursera have a tight structure with some voluntary interaction.

Remember Professor Walter Lewin? Remember his physics experiments? He is the guy who proved the conservation of energy phenomena by releasing a 15.5 kilogram pendulum at zero speed from his chin to demonstrate to the world that the pendulum cannot go higher when it returns from the swing.* If it had, it would have crushed his jaw, and perhaps his brain as well! Which is why his phrase, “Physics works, and I’m still alive!” became quite popular.

If you remember him, you’ve already experienced the concept of MOOCs early on in life. Online learning is on an unstoppable path, and you need to leverage it to your fullest right now.

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statsToday, MOOCs are affiliated with 900+ universities and have reached more than 110 million learners. In 2019 alone, 2,500 new courses and 11 online degrees were launched.*

Even better, we will help you think about how to take courses.

When you’re thinking about what courses to take, use the following verticals as a guide:

Domain specific: As the name states, these are the courses that will help you most directly with your graduate school. If you are about to begin your degree in physics, then look at your coursework and see if any of those courses are available online. You don’t need to do this for all of them. We are only recommending that you pick the course that seems most challenging and do some preparation beforehand for it.

Hot topics: We’ve all heard the buzzwords: artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, gene editing, next gen 5G technology, quantum computing, etc. Yet, do you really understand what they mean? Probably not. These are the buzzwords you hear because these are the topics that will in one way or another shape our future. 5G technology will introduce applications we can only imagine right now: doctors conducting virtual surgeries, autonomous vehicles swarming the road, and factories filled with connected robots.* Taking a course on these topics will certainly help you appreciate them better.

Mind-expanding: For lack of a better term, this refers to courses that are in no way directly related to your major, but can be highly useful in expanding the scope of your thoughts and give you more to think about. If you are, say, a chemical engineering student, some example courses would be Ethics and AI, Health and Nutrition, Marketing for the Digital Age, and Behavioral Psychology. None of those will help you with your exams (unless you’re really creative), but they all come in handy in your life.

Now, pick one course each from each of the verticals above, find a platform where it is offered, and take it.

Courses are simply one of the ways to educate yourself. There are always other mediums such as books (both paperback and digital), articles, papers, and community forums. All of this is simply to stimulate your mind to think in the right direction.

The underlying premise is that you should use this time to be your own teacher.

In the previous two chapters, we helped walk you through the best practices to successfully get your loan and visa. Those were non-negotiables without which you cannot enter or live in the host country. Compared to that, this chapter might seem trivial to you. Online profile, networking, e-learning… can’t this all wait?

It can, but do you want it to?

There are two kinds of graduate students: those who scramble to get through the day, and those who are prepared well to shine through the day.

You decide which one you want to be.

With that, we’ve reached the very end of this journey. Just one more left to go.

Final Thoughts on Preparing for Grad School

Kudos on completing the longest chapter in the book! And for reading till the very end. Getting your loan and visa is undeniably important. It’s non-negotiable. You need them. However, among all that work, don’t forget the things which will make your life so much easier. That’s what this chapter is about. Life at graduate school is on overdrive, all the time. Don’t expect a pause; rather, use the time now to prepare.

First, we looked at how you can create a stellar LinkedIn profile. We went through each of the fields in detail to talk about the best practices. The journey doesn’t end with creating one; it begins with it. Once you create a profile, begin planting the seeds of networking by finding potential connections via groups, university pages, and company pages. Then, reach out with preferably a personal message without asking for favors. And of course, use the platform to keep your community engaged.

If you have time and some unquenched curiosity, you can enter the world of MOOCs by taking online courses on topics related and unrelated to your major. This is a great time to be alive and learning. You have access to some of the best minds in the world at your fingertips. Use this downtime well.

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