The Potential and Power of MOOCs for Sustainability

Kes McCormick
3 min readFeb 28, 2022

In this article, Kes McCormick at Lund University in Sweden, presents the key points and insights from a recent presentation on Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs from an educational innovation symposium on teaching for sustainability.

The growth and potential of online education (namely Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs) for capacity building and lifelong learning is immense, disruptive and incredibly exciting. MOOCs offer an unprecented mechanism for sharing knowledge and understanding, building capacities and skills, and shifting mindsets on sustainability.

I have worked with MOOCs in two interconnected ways. First, as a lead teacher and designer of five MOOCs in the Greening the Economy series on sustainable development, the circular economy and sustainable cities. Second, as the coordinator of the City Futures Academy — an online learning community on sustainable cities with over 100,000 participants.

But what are MOOCs? Typically, MOOCs combine films and a mix of materials to create online learning communities. MOOCs can be wonderfully engaging and smartly designed and they can take learners on a journey of discovery and inspiration. A further key characteristic of MOOCs is that learners can access and complete lectures, readings and materials at any time and pace.

MOOCs tend to attract three types of learners — university students who want to complement ongoing studies, professionals interested in career development or changes in career paths, and people with a general interest. Learners can explore materials in MOOCs quickly or in depth and they have three broads options — do everything, do something or do nothing.

Interestingly, when it comes to understanding the impacts of MOOCs on learners it is critical to go beyond the “do everything” group which is mostly around 10% of learners and look at the “do something” group which can represent more than 50% of learners in MOOCs. It is important to keep this group of learners in focus when designing and running MOOCs.

It is worth putting the magnitude of participants in MOOCs in perspective. Coursera—the largest online learning platform in the world — partners with more than 200 leading universities and companies to offer over 6000 MOOCs to 82 million participants. This makes Coursera the largest educational institution in the world by far.

Looking further into the impacts of MOOCs, I can see six enormous benefits, including: reaching massive global audiences; opening up access to capacity building and lifelong learning; creating online learning communities; achieving research impact pathways; flipping physical education classrooms; and building international and diverse collaborations.

I am convinced that MOOCs offer an unprecedented mechanism for creating and amplifying research impact as well as connecting research, education and outreach ambitions. Research impact often refers to the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research.

Research funders and academia are looking to encourage an increased emphasis on research impact as well as more sophisticated approaches to planning, achieving and measuring research impact. MOOCs open up a pathway from research projects to online education through a diverse mix of materials — films, podcasts, documents, activities, websites and tools.

Kes McCormick is an Associate Professor at Lund University in Sweden. He is deeply engaged in online learning and MOOCs. He also coordinates the City Futures Academy — an online learning community on sustainable cities.

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Kes McCormick

Professor of Business Development and Sustainable Innovation