The explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in 2012 represents a landmark case in the history of educational technology because never before has there been so much interest by political, economical and educational stakeholders. Many major media outlets have accompanied the emergence of MOOCs and contributed to the hype by coining catch phrases such as “The Campus Tsunami” (Brooks, 2012).
However, such stark claims should be put into perspective, in fact, linked to the Distance Education (DE) community, which is – as the title of this chapter suggests – closely related to MOOCs1. It can be argued that MOOCs do nothing more than to reinforce old beliefs about what it means to reach and teach the masses. On the contrary, DE has built a reputation dating back to the 18th century with many different learning approaches (and media) being tested resulting in a huge body of knowledge on how people learn in this special setting (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).
While for the last five years the emergence of MOOCs has hit the general educational landscape with much impact, DE has surprisingly been completely left out of the discussion because the MOOC debate mostly takes place outside of DE and can be described as a development of face-to-face teaching universities discovering the world of mass education at a distance. Therefore, a systematic investigation concerning the potentials of DE models and practices for MOOCS is missing and it is the purpose of the present chapter to bring these two “strange bedfellows” into an informed conversation.
In what follows, we first review Distance Education with regard to the factors that have contributed to its constitution as an academic discipline. In the second part we will discuss how MOOCs can be utilised within a DE ecosystem and present empirical data from (1) a traditional DE course at the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany and (2) two MOOCs offered by the same university. Finally, we will discuss what MOOCs can learn from DE.