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Lifelong learning just got a whole lot easier

MOOCs bring the best in higher education to the masses

Created date

February 26th, 2013
Online screenshot

The New York Times recently declared 2012 as the year of the MOOC. What are MOOCs you ask? They are massive open online courses and for believers in lifelong learning, MOOCs are a godsend, offering anyone free access via the Internet to the most elite universities in the world. Try The Ancient Greek Hero from Harvard or Introduction to Computer Science and Programming from MIT or Health for All Through Primary Care from Johns Hopkins University. Whatever your interest, there s bound to be an online course for you.

Higher education for everyone

Over the past 18 months, MOOCs have brought higher learning to the masses, literally. The largest and most popular purveyor of MOOCs is Coursera, founded by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. When Coursera went on-line last September, the classes were an instant success, receiving more than 350,000 enrollments across 172 different countries. Our mission is to teach the world and make higher education available for everyone, says Ng. By partnering with the world s leading universities, we re making college-level classes more accessible to anyone who wants to learn, adds Koller. In addition to Stanford, 33 other colleges, including Princeton University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania, use Coursera s educational platform. Penn is delighted to participate in this innovative collaboration that will make high-quality learning opportunities available to millions of people around the world, says University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann. Expanding access to higher education both nationally and globally remains one of our most critical responsibilities. This initiative provides an invaluable opportunity for anyone who has the motivation and preparation to partake of a world-class education. Another education platform called edX recently announced the addition of Georgetown University to its roster of elite institutions, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Berkeley, University of Texas, and Wellesley.

A class of thousands

Over the span of six to eight weeks, students watch videotaped lectures, take online quizzes, and complete assignments. All of this work is done at the student s convenience and most of it is done online. The major difference between MOOCs and traditional classroom learning is that students do not have the ability to interact with professors, but through online chat rooms and social media, they can interact with their fellow students. Since one online course could enroll a limitless number of students, grade assessment by the teaching staff would be a cumbersome and labor-intensive undertaking, so MOOCs rely heavily on peer review for assignments requiring any sort of subjective assessment of mastery. Grading is much easier for subjects that can be accessed through online standardized tests.

Improving teaching and learning

According to the edX website, more than 150,000 students from over 160 countries registered for MITX s first course, Circuits and Electronics. The age range of students certified in that course was from 14 to 74 years old. edX states that its primary goal is to improve teaching and learning on campus by experimenting with blended models of learning and by supporting faculty in conducting significant research on how students learn. Coursera s goals are similar. The Coursera platform will allow our faculty to explore ways to improve teaching in our own classrooms, while at the same time allowing them to make exceptional educational opportunities available well beyond the confines of our campus, says Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman.

Free samples

Of course, it s hard to overlook the brand names being bandied about in the context of free access when thousands of students are currently deep in debt from student loans they incurred to make attending these elite institutions possible. While alumni quietly question the wisdom of watering down the value of a name brand education with free access, many education professionals see MOOCs as a way to further their reach and extend their reputation. And even without a revenue stream in sight, MOOCs have become so popular and pervasive that even institutions that don t necessarily see the value of giving away free samples are compelled to join the in crowd for fear of being left out. For many MOOC students, the Internet courses are simply a way to expand their knowledge, but many others want to use their learning to further their careers. Certificates of completion are available to edX students from the institution that hosted their class, HarvardX or GeorgetownX, for example. It s too early to tell what value employers will give to MOOC certificates, though it s safe to say that no one is going to confuse a genuine Harvard degree with a HarvardX certificate. Certificates are currently free, but edX says it plans to charge a small fee in the future.

Directory of MOOCs

Coursera ( offers courses from 33 universities, including Stanford, University of Michigan, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, and Duke University. edX ( hosts courses from Harvard, MIT, Georgetown University, Berkeley, University of Texas, Wellesley. Udacity ( offers primarily math, science, and computer science classes. Udemy ( focused primarily on business and career-building courses taught by experts in the field. Class2go ( Stanford University s MOOC platform which only recently became free and available to anyone.