The next big killer application on the internet is going to be education. Education over the internet is going to be so big it is going to make email usage look like a rounding error.

John Chambers, CEO, Cisco Systems 1999

A world without computers seems unthinkable. Yet as recently as the 1970s there was very little that relied on computer support.

The creation of the social web has changed that, and given us a wealth of information, in less than 30 years.

Along the way, learning and education has become a big deal over the internet – so Cisco’s former CEO was spot on.

I’m not sure who first used the phrase ‘eLearning is dead: Long live eLearning’ but they were also right! And the next ‘big thing’ in that vein is MOOCs: Massive open online courses. MOOCs are certainly not eLearning as we know it…

So what are they? And how are they going to change your learning landscape?

To me, all education, learning and development is like a tree: a family of species reoxygenating the planet and growing stronger for thousands of years.

A bonsai tree is a perfect miniature of what would normally be several feet high. That’s the equivalent of learning through social media. Small but perfectly formed.

How about a nice cherry tree? Not the biggest in the world, but elegant and bearing fruit. That’s our nicely constructed online learning programme.

Now, how about a Sequoia. A real giant of a tree. Well that’s your MOOC.

A MOOC is :

Massive (or at least large) so it’s a study programme of some significance in scale.

Open – which means it’s not locked behind some firewall of paid-up exclusivity. ‘Information wants to be set free’ is one of my favourite phrases and that’s absolutely true of MOOCs.

Online – which needs no explanation.

And it’s a course ie there’s structure to this content, mirroring the real world with a timetable. You have a course format so that the content (which makes the MOOC massive) can be structured into some semblance of order.

There’s often a tutor – real and present at times, or recorded throughout – providing a human element to balance online-only studying.

Lessons are a mix of digitised content, in written or pictorial form, and are often embedded videos. So there are ‘chunks’ of learning.

There are forums – hangouts, ‘live’ chats and threads which you can join at any time.

You can dip in and drop out whenever you want. That’s part of its gift and part of its curse. Some people look at the pure numbers of completions with concern (very low: seven per cent is often quoted). Can MOOCs be a valid challenger to a certificated real-life degree course?

I think the ease of drop in and drop out is part of the joy. If you sign up for English Lit, only to realise you’re a techie and want out, it’s a bit tough when you’ve made that degree commitment. But if you pop into a MOOC and find it’s not for you…leave it be. No harm, no worries, and no forced commitment.

It’s entirely flexible. You can choose to complete the study but not go as far as some form of marked assessment. If the study was for you why would YOU need a certificate to prove you’ve learned it?

If you want to complete just part of a study programme (a playlist not an album), you can do that with ease. Why go through stuff you already know?

If you don’t have a degree course that ratifies your bespoke company leadership programme, you can create a MOOC and give your own internal certificate or badge to prove learners have ‘graduated’.

Corporate MOOCs offer big possibilities. Stitch together your handkerchiefs of eLearning into a duvet via a MOOC.

You can build a MOOC and offer it to prospective employees so they can learn before they even start. Ready-made employees from day one – how radical is that?

So MOOCs in all their various guises and applications are here to stay and I for one am really pleased.

I’m still on my Harvard Neuroscience MOOC (I’m behind, but the tutor understands). I’m also on the University of Toronto’s Behavioural Economics MOOC, which is a smart experience of short lectures and practical application.

So it’s great that the Charity Learning Consortium (CLC) and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) have come together (with me in the middle) to create a MOOC for HR and learning & development professionals. Powered by the CLC, HR Into the Future: Social Media & Working Digitally will launch in November 2014. It will be free to CIPD members and non-members. It will provide that marvellous opportunity to learn and work using digital and social tools.

I’m MOOC’d up for sure. See you on a virtual lecture soon, I hope?

Perry Timms is the founder and Director of PTHR, the Social Media & Engagement Adviser to the CIPD, a Visiting Fellow at Sheffield Hallam Business School, and a Non-Executive Director of GiveBackUK. He will also be chairing this year’s Charity Learning Conference on 23 October in London.