Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): What are they?

Free online education? Who could pass that up?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a growing phenomenon in higher education. News outlets, blogs, and educational studies are all raising the question of whether MOOCs will change the face of higher education. Haven’t heard of them? Don’t worry, an explanation is forthcoming.

What is a MOOC?

MOOCs are online courses offered by some of the most prestigious universities in the country. As a MOOC student, you watch lectures on your computer on a variety of topics, and the professors set up assignments and online assessments. Schools like Yale University, Princeton University, Stanford University, and MIT are all participating in online portals that offer these free courses.

What’s the difference?

Online courses are not new. What makes MOOCs different? Well, to start, they are free. Furthermore, they do lack a connection with the professor. When 160,000 students took a MOOC on artificial intelligence last year, the professor didn’t interact with all of them or grade all their tests. But those professors were able to reach large numbers of students and open a Stanford classroom to people all over the world. MOOCs are a wonderful way for international students in particular to gain knowledge in various subjects. Topics for these courses range from history to computer science to english.

Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology calls them “casual” courses. You choose how much you’re involved. You can simply watch the lectures. Or you can take advantage of the online forums and assessments.

The Good and the Bad

With any education options, there’s some good and bad to consider. MOOCs are no exception.


  • Access to great minds and great teaching. Schools like Duke, Penn, and other highly ranked institutions spend a lot of time and effort recruiting great minds and great teachers for their students. MOOCs give you the opportunity to get information from these experts in their fields.
  • Immense geographic flexibility. As I said before, MOOCs are a great option for international students. You can access the courses from anywhere you have a strong Internet connection.
  • Time flexibility. There are no set times for classes. Class can be at 8am, 12pm, 7pm, or even 3 in the morning. It all depends on the time you decide to download the lectures and when you decide to post on forums.
  • Work load flexibility. You decide how much you commit to this course and how much work you have to do. If you only want to watch the lectures, there’s no penalty.


  • No credit and no degree. Yes, you get access to courses at Duke, Penn, and Princeton but MOOCs don’t offer you course credit or any sort of path to a degree.
  • Requires your immense self-discipline. You are your own boss when it comes to taking a MOOC. There’s no professor threatening failure if you don’t show up to lectures. There are technically no due dates or finals, so it’s up to you to stay on top of the work. This requires more self-discipline than traditional courses.
  • Technological woes. Your entire MOOC education depends on your Internet connection (and your access to programs like Flash and Quicktime). Make sure you have a backup plan: a second computer, library computers, or something like that. It’s also handy to have the numbers for your Internet providers close by in case you need to quickly get something fixed.
  • Lack of campus. One of the downsides of online education in general is the lack of a traditional campus. Without the campus, you don’t have the resources colleges have to offer, like libraries, scholarly databases, and places to study. You’ll have to create your own space to study in order to make sure you’re as productive as possible.

I’ve been on the fence about MOOCs for awhile. But I think I’ve generally concluded that they can be wonderful for personal enrichment or even professional development. I may take a course or two myself. But I don’t think MOOCs are anywhere near the point of replacing an actual degree like some news outlets claim.

Resources for MOOCs:

Photo Credit: jgoge in Flickr Commons


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  1. Hi Jasmine, thanks for mentioning us. We’re glad you’re interested in MOOC’s. I just wanted to note: we are not necessarily calling all MOOC’s casual courses. Some of them, including the two courses Duke offers, deliver very complex material and promote hard work and dedication on the learner’s part.
    In the article you linked to, Randy is describing “the casual course” as one possible use case for a MOOC, among others.

    Structuring the article with Pros and Cons is a useful way to look at MOOC’s, but here are a few things to clarify:
    While it is true that there is no credit or degree offered for MOOC’s on Coursera, it’s worth mentioning that many professors are offering certificates (I received one for completing Listening to World Music the other day). Some MOOC providers now offer proctored exams and even college transfer credits. For some students, this small token of achievement is an important motivator.

    I agree that there is significant self-discipline required, but most Coursera courses adhere by due dates. It is a huge driving factor for student achievement to set goals and deadlines. To paraphrase Daphne Koller: procrastination is a global phenomenon!

    1. Jasmine K. Evans says:

      Thanks for that additional info, Chris.

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