MOOCs and online courses are similar in the sense that they are both courses that are offered online. MOOCs though are designed to run with no lecturer involvement, so tend to cover basic concepts and use mainly videos and quizzes. The lecturer engagement, feedback, assessments and qualifications in formal online courses mean they have course fees attached, whereas MOOCs are freely available to anyone who is able to access them. The MOOCs’ formats lend themselves to introductory material that can provide a large global audience with a taste of a new field; or allow someone to master specific skills working on their own. Sometimes MOOCs are used to grow awareness for formal online degrees and to disseminate research.

The key differences are summarised below.

Formal Online Course


Numbers: Participant numbers fixed and limited with maximum numbers in the hundreds or low thousands

MOOCs usually have no limits, and have attracted thousands of participants

Motivation: Participants are expected to have focussed motivation to earn credit or certificate

MOOC participants have a wide range of motivations ranging from dipping in to see how a course is taught, to browsing, engaging with a community or achieving a certificate.

Profile of participants: Similar cohorts at fixed stages of school or career (First years, mature students, professionals). Often united by geography or nationality.

Mixed cohorts with mixed ages, backgrounds, country of origin, language capabilities

Assessment: is a key motivator for students; needs to be rigorous, aligned with learning objectives and institutional and/or professional standards.

Assessment is optional, flexible and may not be a motivator for all participants, yet creative and innovative assessment practices can drive participant behaviour.

Cost: Participants will pay for the course (directly or indirectly)

Participants access the course for free, paying only in terms of the cost of an internet connection, and having the option to buy a certificate upon successful completion.

Role of teacher: responsible for teaching, guiding students through the prescribed curriculum, providing personalised feedback, managing formative and summative assessments and awarding the qualification.

Teacher’s role is present but limited; time and resource constraints do not allow for personalised teaching or guidance or marking assessments. Students are expected to be self directed. 

How MOOCs fit into our existing course provision

Universities around the world have developed MOOCs to serve a specific type of course provision that complements their other forms of course provision. In the current UCT course provision landscape MOOCs do not offer formal credit-bearing opportunities, MOOCs exist in the semi-formal and non-formal areas of course provision. In this sense, they augment the institution's work in these spaces and help departments, faculties and academics to experiment reaching different audiences and supplement formal offerings.

Course landscape of Higher Education

What are the different types of MOOCs?

We have categorised MOOCs by audience and purpose, which is helpful in thinking about what sort of MOOCs to offer and how they might align with departmental or faculty strategy and perspectives.



Category 1 - Teaching Showcase: Showcase Teaching and introduce topics with high profile presenters

Category 2 - Gateway skills: Introduce fields and support students in undergraduate study

Category 3 - Graduate Literacies: Develop skills and introduce topics of postgraduate study

Category 4 - Professional showcase: Showcase professional careers for continuing education and qualifications

Category 5 - Research Showcase: Showcase research and special interest topics of interest to postgraduate level