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What Are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are e-learning courses that are available to anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. Ever want to attend a class at Harvard, Caltech, or Oxford? You can, at no cost, no matter where in the world you happen to be.

How do MOOCs work?

Tens, hundreds, or thousands of students can be signed up for a MOOC at one time (that's the massive part of the acronym). And don't worry about your level of education — it doesn't matter. Admissions criteria don't exist, and courses are freely available to anyone on the web (and that's the open part of MOOC).

The MOOC concept is pretty new to distance learning and it's evolving, so you might see other, equally valid definitions for the various parts of the MOOC acronym.

The only real prerequisite you need for MOOC success? You should know how to use a computer and related technologies (such as YouTube and iTunes).

The teaching format of MOOCs depends on the type of course. Typically, you'll

  • Learn via audio/video lectures, exercises, and readings. (Non-traditional texts include graphic novels.)

  • Participate in interactive forums.

  • Take quizzes and exams (also known as assessment tools). You also might write essays or even a song if you're enrolled in a music course.

Most courses have a start and end date, but others are evergreen, meaning you can start and end at any time. With MOOCs, you work at your own pace.

MOOCs are not-for-credit and generally offer a certificate of completion or something similar. On rare occasion, you can apply your completed MOOC toward a credentialed degree (check with your school); it may involve a small enrollment fee. Because MOOCs are evolving, the ability to earn university credits is changing.

Although MOOCs usually don't apply toward a degree in higher education, they're great for professional development in your career or as part of your job-search portfolio.

Where to sign up for a MOOC

MOOCs are available for general lifestyle, basic education, higher education, and business. You can choose from a wide range of MOOCs in computer programming, health and medicine, international languages, business skills, math, and more. OpenCulture.com has a great list that's regularly updated with courses from MOOC providers and prestigious universities around the world.

MOOC providers partner up with educational institutions and organizations that develop or contribute to the online courses. Partners range from top-level universities, world-class museums, and professional and educational societies.

Here's a sampling of major MOOC providers and a few of their partners and members:

  • Coursera — Partners include Yale University, University of London, Peking University, The National Geographic Society, and The World Bank.

  • edX — This nonprofit includes partners such as MIT, Harvard, McGill, The Smithsonian Institution, Google, and The Linux Foundation.

  • Udacity — Partners include Stanford University, AT&T, Georgia Institute of Technology, Intuit, and Google. Udacity began offering MOOCs for credit in January 2013.

MOOCs aren't just for higher education or those in the workforce. The following are for kids:

So what's wrong with MOOCs?

As exciting as MOOCs are, they do come with some controversy. Have a look at some of the criticisms, and then decide if MOOCs are right for you:

  • You have to be motivated. Enrollment numbers are high, but because MOOCs are free and self-paced, the completion rate is low.

  • Direct interaction (live, face to face) with instructors is nil.

  • You have no social interaction with other students — unless you choose to create a study group or view lectures with others. When face-to-face, students can bounce ideas off each other, argue points, and take mental breaks by socializing. Online, however, it's easy to disengage from the group.

  • MOOCs defy the strongly desired low student-to-teacher ratio.

  • Assessment tools are often automated. For non-automated assessments (where your work is peer-reviewed), scores can be inconsistent.

What came before MOOCs?

MOOCs, distance education, e-learning, online classes. Whatever you call it, the concept of distance learning has been around since the 1870s when correspondence courses (via land mail) were available. Here's a quick timeline of distance education in the United States:

1920s and 30s: Radio broadcasts from national programs and, eventually, colleges and universities offer classes on poetry, farming, engineering, and more.

1940s: World War II ushers in military training films for draftees, while broadcast television programs begin to offer educational shows to people in their homes.

1950s through the 70s: Instructional television courses (or "telecourses") at the university level become widespread.

1980s and 90s: Students gain closed-circuit access to distant classrooms. Telephones offer teleconferencing features, making it easy for educators and non-classroom students to communicate in groups. Videoconferencing arrives, enabling instructors to show written examples in real time. Internet seminars arise.

2000s to present: In 2004, Salman Khan starts tutoring his cousin in math, which evolves into the world-class Khan Academy two years later. The acronym MOOC is coined in 2008. Open online courses gain traction at the university level, with The New York Times declaring 2012 as the "year of the MOOC." Educators and academics continue to debate points such as assessment tools and degree credits.

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