Massive Open Online Courses on Health and Medicine: Review

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Massive Open Online Courses on Health and Medicine: Review

Tharindu Rekha Liyanagunawardena*, BSc (Hons), MBA, PhD;
Shirley Ann Williams*, BSc, FBCS, CEng, CITP, CSci, FHEA, PhD

School of Systems Engineering, University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
*all authors contributed equally

Corresponding Author:
Tharindu Rekha Liyanagunawardena, BSc (Hons), MBA, PhD

School of Systems Engineering
University of Reading
Reading, RG6 6AY
United Kingdom
Phone: 44 118 378 6423
Fax: 44 118 975 1822

1], is considered the first MOOC [2]. This online course had around 2200 non-credit, non-fee paying students along with 25 paid enrollments (for credit). Unlike traditional online courses that rely primarily on resources posted by the facilitators through a learning management system, this course was conducted according to the principles of connectivism [3], encouraging learning through a network (peer learning) across multiple learning spaces.

Within a short time, MOOCs have attracted wide interest from educators, learners, businesses, media, and the general public. Many prominent universities are now offering their courses as MOOCs. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Berkeley University of California, and the University of Texas offer MOOCs through the MOOC platform edX. There have also been for-profit ventures such as the Coursera MOOC platform, which partners with over 100 institutions (108 as of March 19, 2014) from around the world.

In some MOOCs, there are hundreds of thousands of enrollments. However, not all students enrolled return for the course and only a small number of them finish all parts of the course [2]. Given the nature of the courses, where participation is voluntary and no financial commitments are made up front, is the number of students who complete the course a concern? If the aim of a MOOC is to provide the opportunity or access to learn from high-quality courses (taught by the experts in the field from world class universities), then the numbers completing the course should not be of prime concern [4]. On the other hand, if the aim were to get everyone registered through to the end, similar to a traditional higher educational institution where a student failing to complete within a given timeframe could adversely affect the university’s profile, family, student, and lecturers [5], these completion rates would be a disaster. The problem here could be the use of traditional metrics in this non-traditional or disruptive form of educational provision. However, more evidence-based research may reveal the true nature of MOOCs and possibly better ways of understanding and evaluating them.

Although the MOOC revolution began in North America, it has now spread to universities and institutions in many parts of the developed world. For example, in 2013, the UK MOOC platform, FutureLearn, started offering courses. Initially MOOCs were offered in English, but today there are many MOOCs offered in various languages including Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, and French. For example, in 2012, a Spanish MOOC platform Miriada X was founded, and in 2013, the platform Rawq started offering courses in Arabic. Similarly, XuetangX was created to offer courses in Chinese. However, English remains the dominant language in MOOC provision.


MOOCs, like other online courses, use a variety of learning materials including videos, documents, and quizzes. At present, MOOCs are mainly classified according to their pedagogical position: connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) and “MOOC as eXtension of something else” (xMOOCs) [6]. cMOOCs harness the strength of networks and peer learning generally using multiple learning spaces. Participants in cMOOCs are likely to find a lot of emphasis on participants’ stories and learning from them (eg, Rhizomatic Learning: The community is the curriculum on P2PUniversity) than on the learning materials provided by the instructor or course designer. On the other hand, xMOOCs seems to have a more individualist learning approach [7] surrounding the course on a given MOOC platform. In xMOOCs, learning and understanding the content provided in the course is given priority. Original cMOOCs were based on open education practices making their content available using open licensing [8]. However, many xMOOCs offered in platforms such as Coursera use copyrighted materials. However, it is worthwhile noting that there is a continuum of possibilities between these two distinct pedagogical positions.

MOOCs are offered in a wide range of subjects varying from cell biology to astronomy. In this paper, we explore the courses offered by major MOOC platforms on topics related to health and medicine. Several methods were used to collect relevant courses for the review: directly making contact with MOOC platforms to get course data, accessing publicly available information on MOOC platform websites, and using MOOC aggregator sites. Data related to courses offered in 2013 that were collected as earlier offerings lacked relevant details. The paper provides a comprehensive review of MOOCs offered in 2013 in “Health and Medicine” or a related category.

Data Collection


In general, researchers use different methods to identify data to be included in a review. For example, to collect papers (data) for a systematic review of literature, researchers would search in databases and/or search engines and chaining from known sources [2]. Similarly, in collecting details of MOOCs offered in topics related to health and medicine for this review, it was important to collect as complete a set of data as possible. A list of MOOCs offered by various providers was not readily available for analysis. Thus, in identifying relevant MOOCs, a range of methods were used to obtain related information that would form a more complete dataset for the analysis.


With the growing popularity of MOOCs, there have been various commercial and non-commercial organizations providing platforms where MOOCs can be offered. Identification of such MOOC platforms was carried out using the literature, news items, and Web resources. LISTedTECH (a database of educational companies, educational products, and educational institutions that anyone can edit) lists 19 systems as MOOC platforms as of December 19, 2013 [9]. Using news articles, blogs, and other literature, nine additional MOOC platforms that are in operation were identified. The total of 28 identified MOOC platforms (see Multimedia Appendix 1) and their offerings were considered in this review.

From December 17-21, 2013, each of these MOOC platforms’ websites were accessed to find the list of MOOCs offered by each of them on topics relating to health and medicine. In instances where the websites were in languages other than English, Google Translate was used.

Official Records

In parallel, MOOC platform providers were contacted via email to obtain official records when their websites did not have the necessary information. Only five MOOC platform providers (Canvas, iversity, Openlearning, Miriada X, and Crypt4you) responded to this request with information while another MOOC provider (Coursera) responded without the information.


The two MOOC aggregator sites Class Central [10] and MOOC List [11] were also consulted to collect a list of MOOCs.


Free Courses

When platforms provided both paid-for and free courses (such as Udemy), only free courses were considered. Courses offered by University of Miami Global Academy required a US$90 non-refundable one-time registration fee upfront and a tuition fee depending on the number of credits taken. Thus, courses offered by this platform were not included in this review.


MOOCs listed under “Health and Medicine” or a related category (such as Health Sciences on Miriada X, Health Science on CourseSites, Health and Society on Coursera) were considered. When MOOCs were not categorized (such as OpenupEd and FutureLearn), the course title and where available the course description were used to determine if it was related to health and medicine (eg, “Improving your image: Dental Photography in Practice” on FutureLearn).

MOOCs categorized under Psychology or Biology and Life Sciences (or were predominantly on them) were not considered in this analysis. MOOCs on veterinary sciences but categorized under Health and Medicine (eg, “Canine Theriogenology for Dog Enthusiasts” on Coursera) were also excluded. But when the courses discussed animal health or diseases and their impact/influence on human health, such as “Enfermedades transfronterizas de los animals” (Animal transboundary diseases) on Miriada X, they were included.

Start Date

The time period for the review was defined as January 1 to December 31, 2013 (inclusive). MOOCs having a start date within this period were considered for the review. Self-paced MOOCs (that do not have a specified start date) were omitted. This included 39 courses listed under Health and Medicine in the Veduca platform, 10 courses listed under Health and Fitness in the Udemy platform, and 44 courses listed under Health Literacy on the ALISON platform, and four OpenupEd courses (“Stress post-traumatic disorder: difficulties and debate in making a diagnosis”, “Valutazione clinica e strumenti di indagine nell’area traumatica”[Clinical assessment and survey instruments in traumatic area], “Programmi e modelli di intervento nelle situazioni traumatiche” [Programs and intervention models in traumatic situations], and “Anatomo-physiological bases of mental activity”). On the Saylor platform, all courses are self-paced (the titles that seemed relevant were categorized under Biology). The course “La Seguridad del Paciente” (Patient Safety) on Miriada X had to be discounted because the start date for the course could not be established.

Class Central

We found 113 MOOCs related to health and medicine listed in the MOOC aggregator site Class Central [10]. Under the “Finished Courses” section, exactly 100 courses were listed, while 13 were listed in the “Courses in Progress” section (December 24, 2013). A number of courses were excluded for a variety of reasons.

Five courses were excluded from “Courses in Progress”:

  • “Exploring anatomy: the human abdomen” offered by the University of Leeds on the FutureLearn platform had an incorrect start date in 2013 instead of the correct start date in 2014
  • Three self-paced MOOCs (“The Basics of Exercise Programs for Older Adults” on CourseSites, two Stanford University offerings “Practical tips to improve Asian American participation in cancer clinical trials”, and “Antimicrobial Stewardship: Optimization of Antibiotic Practices”, each 104 weeks long)
  • “DEV: Water, Civilization, and Nature: Addressing 21st Century Water Challenges” on CourseSites, which was a self-paced course lacking relevance

We excluded 19 courses from “Finished Courses”:

  • Nine courses offered in 2012
  • Two courses without start dates (“Cardiac Arrest, Hypothermia, and Resuscitation Science” and “Basic Behavioral Neurology” offered by University of Pennsylvania on Coursera).
  • Eight courses lacking relevance: “Marathon Training” and “Safety Function Action: Strategies for Disaster Responders” on, “Critical Thinking in Global Changes” offered by the University of Edinburgh, “Canine Theriogenology for Dog Enthusiasts” offered by University of Minnesota (2 instances), “Equine Nutrition” offered by University of Edinburgh, “Growing Old Around the Globe” offered by the University of Pennsylvania, and “Disaster Preparedness” offered by the University of Pittsburgh on Coursera

The “Understanding Dementia” MOOC was offered by University of Tasmania on Desire2Learn. Desire2Learn was not listed as a MOOC platform as it offered only proprietary software for institutions. But the MOOC was included in the review. Thus a list of 89 relevant MOOCs (out of 113 identified) was obtained from the Class Central aggregator site.


Another MOOC aggregator site, MOOC List [11], listed details of 54 MOOCs in 2013 under “Health and Society” and 45 under “Medicine and Pharmacology” (January 3, 2014). Due to 19 overlapping courses in the two categories, the distinct course count was 80. Out of these, 53 courses overlapped with the list obtained through Class Central, which left a list of 27 new courses. We further disregarded some courses:

  • Four self-paced courses: “Bioethics” and “Make the Strategic Case for Disability in the Workplace” on Canvas; “Clinical Psychology” on Saylor and “Enseñanza en consulta y medio hospitalario” (Education in consultation and hospital environment) on CourseSites
  • “Introduction to Pharmaceutical Manufacturing” offered by Dublin Institute of Technology on CourseSites with a November 25 start date could not be validated against the MOOC list available from the official website (there was a MOOC “So you want to work in the pharmaceutical industry?… Next Steps” offered by Dublin Institute of Technology on CourseSites and authors believe this entry was thus erroneous)
  • 13 courses lacking relevance

This led to nine entries (seven Coursera courses, a P2P University course, and a course offered by Stanford University VentureLab) from MOOC List being added to the Class Central list (of 89 entries). Therefore, the total number of MOOCs considered for this review is 98 (see Figure 1). The collection of MOOCs included in the review is given in Multimedia Appendix 2. The number of MOOCs from each platform considered in this review is given in Table 1.

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