Massively Open Online Courses have slowly garnered attention. Called MOOCs, these courses are offered to anyone at no charge. Since they began on college campuses in 2008, large numbers of people have been taking these courses.

When 12 more top universities announced on Tuesday, July 17, that they will offer some of these online courses, the higher education community woke up to the reality that MOOCs will be a part of education's future.

“[Tuesday's] announcement is a pretty loud call to action for other universities," said Jonathan Becker, assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. "What it mostly does is it legitimizes these kinds of courses."

The 12 newest universities are California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, UC San Francisco, University of Edinburgh, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Toronto, University of Virginia and University of Washington. They signed agreements with Coursera, a company started less than a year ago by two computer science faculty at Stanford University to provide courses to anyone at no charge through partnerships with universities.

In April, Princeton, University of Michigan, Stanford and University of Pennsylvania started working with Coursera. The addition of 12 more universities proves that MOOCs aren't going anywhere.

"This is a strong showing that the MOOC movement is not a passing fad; it's not a passing fancy, but it's something that's here to stay," said Andrew Ng, one of the Coursera co-founders.

The skinny on MOOCs

Although MOOCs share the common characteristics of being large courses open to anyone, there are two main types, one called an "x MOOC," and another called a "connectivist MOOC."

The companies and partnerships that fall into the "x MOOC" include Coursera; an MIT and Harvard partnership called EdX, and a new venture founded by three roboticists called Udacity.

Other universities follow a connectivist MOOC model developed by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier in 2008.

What's the difference between the two? Connectivist MOOCs are more social and focused on deriving meaning of the learning experience with others, Virginia Commonwealth's Becker said. And they allow students to participate through blogs, RSS feeds and other decentralized methods, said Downes, a senior researcher for Canada's National Research Council.

By contrast, x MOOCs emphasize content mastery, centralizes courses on one website and uses automated grading tools to support hundreds of thousands of students.

But regardless of the category, MOOCs as a whole will change how universities offer courses, Downes said. And they're not going away.

"Universities can't just keep doing what they're doing and hope this whole online thing goes away," Downes said.

Opening doors to students

At University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, organic chemistry educator Michael Evans found out that his blended Organic Chemistry 2 course in the fall would be a MOOC. His boss volunteered his class for the opportunity.

"What's exciting to me is the possibility of opening up the doors of the classroom potentially to off-campus students as well," he said.

Those off-campus students could bring different perspectives to the class and collaborate with a variety of students. But at the same time, he hopes that the university's students won't experience much of a change, and he plans to give the on-campus students priority.

Education was once a scarce resource, Ng said.  With MOOCs, that's no longer the case.

"Today anyone in the world can learn from the best professors in the best universities, and I think that's really exciting," Ng said.

Challenges lie ahead

But with this rosy picture comes much uncertainty and some knotty problems. Designers of open online courses have to figure out how to accurately assess students in a scalable way.

"A big problem that I think is a barrier to change is the inability to assess and give some really solid credibility to MOOC courses," Evans said.

And educators have to design these courses so that students who aren't motivated can participate successfully, said Geoff Cain, director of distance education at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif. That includes creating guides for collaboration and engagement.

"One of the things about MOOCs is they take a lot of student motivation to be successful," Cain said. "And some students aren't prepared for that."

Ultimately, everything around MOOCs is uncertain. And no one knows what will happen in the next year.

"Universities need to earnestly begin conversations about what this all means," Becker said. "And if that's what [Tuesday's] announcement causes, then that's a good thing."

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.