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MOOC: Massive Open Online Course Guide

The Rush to Offer High-Quality Courses Online


Getty Images/Jetta Productions photo of a woman using computer

Thousands of people are taking MOOCs from home

Getty Images/Jetta Productions

MOOC stands for "massive open online course" and is a form of distance education, with almost all of the teaching and learning occurring online.

By definition, a MOOC offers open access to the public, meaning it's open for anyone to sign up and learn whatever topic is being taught. Hence the two "Os" in the name MOOC: for "open" and "online."

Some MOOCs are free, charging students nothing to participate. Others charge a fee for access, but typically the price is a fraction of what it would cost to take a comparable course on campus at an accredited university.

MOOCs are a relatively new flavor of online learning, particularly their size. Most are very large courses, with thousands of people signing up and participating. A MOOC is all about scale, hence the "massive" or "M" part of its name.

Students generally do not receive college credit or degrees for MOOC courses they take, though that is already starting to change as some MOOCs partner with traditional universities to offer credit. Other MOOCs give signed certificates to students who finish the courses.

MOOC Power: Skyrocketing Growth for Free, Online Courses

During 2011 and 2012, MOOCs picked up steam in the American higher education system, as a number of online startups offering them partnered with well known colleges and universities to put established professors online to teach MOOCs.

Stanford University was among the first notable education institutions to try offering large lecture classes online for free in 2011. Since then, all kinds of startups have developed platforms for these large open classes.

Some MOOCs rely on the equivalent of social media tools to allow students taking the courses to do peer review of each other's work, and utilize similar "crowdsourcing" techniques in order to deal with the massive size of the classes. Others do less human crowdsourcing and rely moreon electronic feedback being doled out to students through automated responses to their online input.

Potential downsides to taking MOOC courses, compared to on-campus degree programs, include:

  • Lack of accreditation standards or degrees associated with most of the programs.
  • Challenge of motivating students through an impersonal online environment where little if any human interaction occurs

On the upside, of course, most MOOCs are free for now, so if learning is the sole objective, and someone doesn't feel they need a certificate or degree to prove they got the learning, the MOOCs offer tremendous upside.

Major MOOC startups include:

  • Coursera -- was founded by professors at Sanford University, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. Coursera quickly partnered with various top-tier universities to put some of their courses online as MOOCs, including Princeton university, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan and the founders' own school Stanford. Read our review of Coursera's free courses.
  • Udacity also was started in 2012 by a former professor at Stanford University, Sebastian Thrun, along with Mike Sokolsky and David Stavens. Udacity is a privately owned company with financial backing from prominent investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, and partnerships with a bunch of technology companies in Silicon Valle . Early in 2013 Udacity announced it was offering some courses for credit in partnership with San Jose State University. For most of its courses, though, no college credit is possible, though Udacity does offer certificates of completion. More at the Udacity blog.
  • edX -- is a joint venture created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a goal of offering online courses for free to people all over the world. With financial backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, edX is creating course that include the typical online components--video lectures, student-teacher interaction via questions and answers, graded tests and quizzes.
  • Udemy -- Udemy, founded in 201, use an interesting model with a more decentralized learning experience. It allows people from all walks of life to become professors online. Udemy invites anyone who has expertise in particular areas to create their own courses online. Some courses are free while others charge modest fees. Read our Udemy review and learn how to use this popular online education platform.

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