What’s the deal with MOOCs?

If you like taking classes, without paying money or even putting on pants, this one’s for you.

laptop outside

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the latest fad sweeping higher education. Basically, universities are offering courses online for free to anyone and everyone with an internet connection who wants to sign up. The typical MOOC has about 20,000 students, although some have over 200,000. The format of the classes varies, but most involve video lectures, multiple choice quizzes, discussion boards, and peer-reviewed exercises.

The number of MOOCs has grown rapidly from about 100 courses at the start of 2012 to over 1,000 courses today. MOOCs have been lauded as a way to “level the playing field” by providing the same educational opportunities to everyone despite geographic location, financial means, or academic background. Proponents also claim that MOOCs could help students avoid crushing educational debt and facilitate communication among diverse participants throughout the world.

However, despite these lofty goals, MOOCs have also been the target of a variety of criticisms. One recurring critique is that MOOCs are simply too large and too impersonal to allow any real interaction with the instructor, which prevents MOOCs from being a viable substitute for a traditional classroom. Another issue is that most universities don’t offer credit for MOOCs and very few enrolled students actually complete all the lectures and assignments (typically ~10%). Furthermore, the students who successfully complete courses are generally already well-educated, while the students MOOCs were designed to reach often do not have the necessary academic skills and struggle to finish classes.

I’ve dabbled around a little bit with MOOCs – I took one on environmental policy and law and I’m in the middle of a microeconomics course. Although I don’t see MOOCs as a replacement for traditional classrooms or degree programs, I think MOOCs can still play an interesting role in the future of education. The classes I’ve experimented with weren’t as rigorous as a regular college class, but the structure of the course helped keep me focused and I was constantly impressed by the diversity and caliber of my classmates. Personally, I just like being able to take free classes on anything that sparks my interest, from operations management to Andy Warhol or horse care. Also, while browsing through the available courses, I was struck by how many classes dealt with the topic of climate change. With their growing popularity, MOOCs could be a valuable tool for science communication, allowing thousands of people to connect with real scientists.

If you’re interested in trying out a MOOC yourself (it’s super easy to register), here are a few upcoming classes I though looked interesting:

Or, you can look up many, many more courses here.

Photo by Ian Sane // cc


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