January 1, 2014, by Helen Whitehead

The difference between self-directed learning and a MOOC

Happy New Year! And if your resolution is to learn something new – may I suggest learning online?

The Web is a huge repository of information and resources, and it can fairly be said that you can learn anything on the Web from calligraphy to sewing, from PHP to coding games, from fundamentals of anatomy to ecological theories. So what’s the difference between learning online from the many resources, websites, ebooks, videos and even online tutorials, and learning through a MOOC?

In both cases:

  • there is no expense involved for the learner
  • the resources are freely available to anyone with an internet connection (although registration may be required)

Learning from online resources:

  • requires you to find and evaluate the resources yourself;
  • is self-managed and self-directed – you have to organise yourself to learn;
  • requires you to define your own learning goals and a strategy to meet them;
  • is unstructured;
  • allows you to pick from absolutely anything you can find;
  • is not limited to a particular source of materials or teacher’s approach;
  • requires you understand how to establish the quality of the materials you find;
  • is completely flexible as regards time and commitment;
  • tends to be limited by your own knowledge and interests.


  • is designed to meet defined learning outcomes;
  • is time-limited (though anyone who signs up retains access to the materials so can go back over it at a convenient time, and most MOOCs run more than once) yet flexible as regards time and commitment within given a given time period;
  • provides a curated set of materials to learn from – curated by the teacher(s) and/or by the community of learners;
  • helps you learn with other people in a supportive learning community (to a greater or lesser extent);
  • has been designed by one or more people with an understanding of pedagogy, and the learning activities are designed to move the learner toward the learning outcomes;
  • has the active participation of one or more teachers or facilitators, supporting learners;
  • is created and run by a trusted educational organisation or group, often a University;
  • contains formative assessment, that is, some way of monitoring your own progress in learning (not just in moving through the material), whether an automatically marked quiz, a facilitated discussion, or a series of questions encouraging you to reflect on what you have learned;
  • allows you to explore areas of a subject you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of yourself;
  • will often give you the skills and introductory knowledge to continue learning informally on your own.

To start your year of learning, why not join us on the University of Nottingham MOOC on Futurelearn: Sustainability, Society and You starting January 6th?

Posted in MOOCStudent experienceSustainability