Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs have their beginnings in the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes who created an online course using their theories of connectiviism. This early online course allowed an open ended amount of students to enroll for free from anywhere they had an internet connection. The unique feature that inspired what we now call MOOCs was the open format that allowed students to contribute to the knowledge building.
MOOCs are still being refined and have had a very wide mix of success and failure. On the one hand they offer exposure to academic course material to a wide audience but have yet to really prove that they can compete with regard to learning outcomes. A good primer to the MOOC experience is "What is a Massive Open Online Course Anyway" by Juliana Marques and Robert McGuire. They define a MOOC as an educational resource resembling a class, that has assessment mechanisms and an endpoint, that is all online, that is free to use without admissions criteria and that involves hundreds of students or more.
For many institutions, the MOOC raises more questions than answers. Can this actually be a way to address the sky rocketing cost of a college education? Will this prove to be an effective way to bring a leveling to the academic "playing field" by including students who, because of financial or geographical hindrances were unable to attend a college or university? Will this movement attempt to replace face to face, synchronous learning? An interesting look at how we view this upstart educational path is, "Why We Fear MOOCs" by Mary Manjikian. She proposes that a benefit of the MOOC is that it is confronting us to have more discussion about how we teach and learn and … what type of knowledge and skill set we want our students to acquire as a result of their academic career. The MOOC may not be a replacement for traditional modes of teaching and learning but it brings with it an opportunity for us to broaden the discussions about how we engage and prepare 21st century learners to be the critical thinkers and creative individuals that our society and the workplace value.