What is a MOOC?

1.1. From distance learning to MOOCs

Whilst MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – undeniably represent a change of scale, they are nevertheless part of the age-old concept of distance learning. Thus, we feel it is relevant to begin this discussion with a brief history of distance learning, in order to highlight the ways in which MOOCs constitute a breakaway, if indeed they are one. This is one of the questions which we examine in this book.

In the United States, distance learning has been a reality since the late 19th Century (see [WAT 91]). Originally, distance learning centers would send students course material and exercises through the postal service; later, audio versions of the classes became available. In 1948, the University of Louisville (Kentucky) signed an agreement with the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service in the US) whereby the university could use the radio as a medium to support distance learning. Between 1950 and 1980, CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), in collaboration with NYU, broadcast the series “Sunrise Semester”, which offered students university credits.

Originally, audio and video cassettes were also sent by post to students wishing to follow such distance-learning courses. At that early stage, one spoke not of “e-learning”, but of “distance learning”. With the televisual revolution, numerous filmed lectures are put only on YouTube and many video servers at universities, but also on iTunes and other servers. A great many institutions also ...

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