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:

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The Online Education Debate

Is an online education right for you?

Options for online education are taking the higher education realm by storm. The Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group found in a 2011 survey that the number of students taking online classes has passed six million. But debates over the validity of degrees from online programs continues. A 2009 study by the US Department of Education found that “online learning appears to offer a modest advantage over conventional classroom instruction” but it strongly supports a hybrid approach. Hybrid education is a combination of online videos and forums and the traditional classroom experience. Like any decision with higher education, there are drawbacks. The best you can do is be as informed as possible.

The Positives of Choosing an Online Education

  • *Adjustable times: With online courses, you watch the lectures and participate in discussion forums on your own time. If you have a full-time job and can’t get to it until the kids are asleep, that’s fine. There are no set times for class, but there are usually deadlines so be on top of that.
  • *Geographic flexibility: Your entire campus is on your computer screen. And therefore it can be wherever you and your laptop are. This gives you access to schools that are physically located all over the country.
  • *Tech benefits: Online courses take advantage of social media, online discussion boards, and the vast number of options the Internet has to offer. You can connect with your classmates through Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, many schools that offer online courses also offer transcripts for the lectures. This is a great option if you don’t take good notes or struggle with listening comprehension.
  • *More technological training. By spending so much time on your computer, you’re bound to become comfortable with various aspects of technology. This comfort can really be helpful in today’s job market and an excellent point to bring up in job interviews when potential employers ask about your educational experiences.
  • *Lower cost: Online degrees usually cost less than traditional degrees. With many private schools carrying the hefty price tag of $40,000 a year or more, this is a strong and very realistic benefit of online programs.

The Downsides to an Online Education

Despite the many benefits of an online education, there are some drawbacks.

  • *Increased level of self-discipline. Unlike a traditional program, online courses don’t have set times or strict penalties for lack of attendance. You are your own boss and have to stay on top of yourself. This requires an intense amount of self-discipline.
  • *Lack of personal connection. It can get a little lonely with just you and your computer day after day. Some people need a face to face connection with other students and professors, and connection solely over the Internet just isn’t enough.
  • *Technological requirements. In order to make the online degree thing work, you need, of course, the Internet. So if you’re still in the land of a dial up connection or don’t have a computer that runs Flash, you’re in trouble.
  • *Accreditation issues. This is probably the biggest drawback of online educations. Many schools offering online degrees do not have accreditations from appropriate associations. The U.S. Department of Education has a database of which accreditation associations are tied to which schools. According to their site, “The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.”

I, personally, am a traditional kind of girl. I like being in the classroom and being able to go to office hours and having a campus to enjoy. But I can appreciate the kind of flexibility and wide array of options an online education can provide. This post is by no means an exhaustive list of pros and cons. There are more and some will certainly be personal to you, but take care with this decision.

Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes on Flickr Commons


I’d love to connect with you. Meet with me on LinkedIn. Check out my Twitter or Pinterest!
If you’re a potential client or editor, please feel free to check out my online portfolio or email me for my resume.