MOOCs online courses: Free and open online courses may change the future of higher education

Massive open online courses

University of Maryland to Offer Four Free Courses Through Coursera (Photo credit: University of Maryland Press Releases)

Massive open online courses known as MOOCs are gaining a lot of attention from both students and universities. What began as free open online courses is evolving into a way for schools to attract prospective students and deliver instruction while keeping costs in check. Sometimes referred to as “open courseware,” MOOCs are a phenomena that may change the future of higher education.

The birth of MOOCs

Online education isn’t new but the idea of MOOCs is to open up learning materials to the world-at-large. The result is a course such as the first truly massive MOOC held in 2012. Stanford University professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered the online course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” for free to anyone who wanted to enroll. The number of enrollments swelled to more than 160,000 students in 190 countries.

Thrun and Norvig went on to create their own MOOC platform, Udacity. It wasn’t long before a spinoff, Coursera was launched by Stanford. Seizing the opportunity, others created their own MOOC platform including:

  • EdX: a collaboration by MIT and Harvard University offering 57 courses
  • Open2Study: based in Australia offering four-week courses on a variety of subjects
  • iversity: based in Berlin, Germany; some courses are in German and others in English

Unlike Udacity and Coursera, the organizations listed above are not-for-profit. Typically, no fees are charged. In all cases, courses are taught by university faculty from institutions such as: Brown, Caltech, and Stanford.

Juliana Marques summed up her feelings on MOOCs in her April 17, 2013 post for titled, “A Short History of MOOCs and Distance Learning.”

According to Marques, “We’ve come a long ways from the one-way conversation of correspondence courses and educational videocassettes, but whatever is eventually written about the history of MOOCs, academic knowledge will never be seen the same way.”

Finding your MOOC

How can you find open courseware? The site provides an online school database where you can find courses and materials. The site also has an infographic that illustrates how online courseware continues to change education.

Other sites that will help you search for MOOCs include:

  • Class-Central
  • Course Buffet
  • Course Talk
  • Knollop


Why would you want to take a course that you probably won’t get credit for? One big reason is that the courses are taught by prestigious professors who you could probably not access any other way. Second, the courses are (more often than not) free. It could be just the thing you need to get either basic knowledge of a new subject or more in-depth exposure to a topic that really interests you.

The good news is that you don’t have the pressure of performing for a grade. It’s learning for learning’s sake. If you’re game for that, then, you can free yourself to really take on a challenge and run with it. Who knows, if you later take the credit course, you may ace it without breaking a sweat.

Besides, there’s nothing wrong with putting your coursework on your resume. Coursera, which charges a fee, will provide you with a certificate of completion.

The flipped classroom

In some cases you will be in a MOOC because you’ve enrolled in one at your own school. More and more colleges and universities see MOOCs as a way to meet the needs of students while keeping costs in check. But with less student-teacher interaction, what happens to learning?

Nathan Heller explained the new paradigm in his May 20, 2013 article for The New Yorker titled, “Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?” On campuses now, the pedagogic ideal is the “flipped classroom”—a model in which teachers preassign whatever lecture-type material is needed, as homework, and use the classroom time for peer and interactive learning.”

The preassigned work that students are expected to complete may include viewing pre-recorded online lectures. Online course materials may include videos of professors from other universities such as MIT.

Detractors of MOOCs

Not everyone thinks that MOOCs are a benefit to education. Critics point to the high drop-out rates that can exceed 90% in some cases. On July 20, 2013, The posted an article from its print edition titled, “The attack of the MOOCs” which sought to rebut the criticism.

“But Coursera and Udacity both insist that this reflects the different expectations of consumers of free products, who can browse costlessly. Both firms have now studied drop-out rates for those students who start with the stated intention of finishing, and found that the vast majority of them complete the courses,” the article said.

What do you think of MOOCs. Have you ever participated in a MOOC? Tell us about your experience.

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