The author of this book on crowdsourcing took a bold move in trying to define the term in a way that would make it clear when one entity (like the t-shirt company Threadless) should be considered an example of the phenomenon while another (like Wikipedia) should not.

And since I’m writing a title for the same book series on massive open online courses, I’ve been trying to similarly define MOOC in a way that would clarify what should be covered by that term and what shouldn’t.

While it’s tempting to just fall back on the acronym and say that if a course is massive, open and delivered online then it must be a MOOC, once you dig into the details, it turns out that each one of these words is either ambiguous or open to challenge.

For example, at what point do you move from being really big to “massive?” 1,000 students? 10,000? 100,000?

And are we talking about enrollees, active students or course completers? And even if we ignore the debate over whether or not MOOCs represent a genuine Open Learning resource and just define “open” as free of costs and other barriers to entry, do we really want to set up a system whereby business decisions, like the ones made recently by Udacity, turn whatever we studied from a MOOC to a non-MOOC experience?

I suppose “online” is relatively unambiguous (although even there you can make the case that initiative like Coursera’s Learning Hubs are creating a hybrid online/offline environment), but I would say that even the word “course” is up for grabs.

For instance, if a million people download an iTunes lecture series there’s no disputing that this is pretty massive, open (i.e., free) and online. In which case, it must be how we define the term “course” that would lead most people to say that listening to iTunes lectures represents something different than taking a MOOC on the same topic (or even the same course offered by the same professor) delivered via a Coursera or edX.

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