MOOCs 101: What Could You Gain From A Massive Open Online Course?

I recently read a blog post from GradHacker suggesting some interesting ways Graduate and Doctoral students might use MOOCs to bolster their education. While the post itself is worth a read, the central point is that using MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) could be one way to refresh knowledge you acquired back in undergrad, or to gain new knowledge about a topic related to your field of study. I’ve had MOOCs on my blog to-do list for several months, so this seems like a great opportunity to review what MOOCs are and how you might benefit from them.

What is a MOOC?

Other than sounding like a silly word, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course.  These types of courses have been increasing in popularity over the past few years and now many websites exist dedicated solely to delivering their content.

In essence, a MOOC is a course available to most anyone over the web.  They’re considered ‘massive’ because thousands of people can participate in them at once.  Many academic institutions (Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Stanford) and even companies (Microsoft) have translated some of their most popular courses and concepts into MOOCs.

Beyond that, there is little agreement on what qualifies as a MOOC; you might find this image to be an interesting explanation of the many forms MOOCs may take:

MOOC Poster (V3)

Created by Mathieu Plourde. CC license here.

Are They Free???

Most of the time!  Many MOOCs are available for anyone to participate in free of cost, making them a great way to bolster your education without hurting your wallet.  However, some MOOCs are only available for a fee, and others require payment if you want anything like a ‘certificate of completion’ to prove you took the course.

What content do they cover???

A better question to ask is: what content don’t they cover??  In no exaggerated way, there are TONS of choices.

Many courses are geared at offering practical introductions to various topics such as: organizational leadership; intro to HTML5; financial accounting; climate change; jazz appreciation…and many, MANY more.

Other courses offer more specialized reviews of various topics, like: the neurobiology of sleep; legal risk management strategy; social media in public relations; visualizing post-war Tokyo…and many, MANY more.

How long do they take to complete???

Most MOOC creators understand that the people taking these courses work full-time, attend school, or have other demands on their time.  Each individual course will advertise how many weeks it will run, and how many hours per week they expect you will need to complete the course.  You will likely find courses that run anywhere between 4-12 weeks and require something like 3-5 hours/week of work (but this varies WIDELY depending on the course). Another thing to consider is that some MOOCs are offered ‘on demand’ and can be completed at any pace, while others have specific start and stop dates, requiring course work be completed on a weekly basis.

How to learn more and participate

There are many websites which provide access to the MOOCs created by a number of institutions.  Below is a list of a few you may want to check out:

  • Coursera — their mission is stated simply as  “We provide universal access to the world’s best education”.  With 133 partners (such as: Princeton, Stanford, Duke, etc.) across 26 countries (U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Switzerland, Colombia, and more!) they offer a wide range of courses and perspectives.
  • EdX — with a similar mission to Coursera, EdX’s goal is to provide global access to high quality education. EdX is a nonprofit organization founded by Harvard and MIT and also offers an incredibly vast array of learning opportunities.
  • Udemy — perhaps even broader in scope, if possible, Udemy seeks to ‘help anyone learn anything’.  That’s certainly a tall order, but with over 32,000 courses and 8 million students, they certainly have a wide reach.
  • Udacity — unlike the other options listed above, Udacity’s focus is on all things tech. With its rigorous, career-focused mission, Udacity’s courses come with a price, but you do have the option of signing up for a free trial to see if they are right for you.

Of course, those are just a few MOOC providers. More and more are cropping up every day as this trend continues to grow.

The all-important, ever-present caveats

Of course, MOOCs aren’t for everyone.

First and foremost, not everyone will have the extra time to dedicate to a voluntary course not required of them.

Second, they require a high-level of intrinsic motivation to be successful.  People who thrive and learn from MOOCs are motivated to learn on their own for the sake of gaining the extra knowledge (particularly in the case of free courses where you have made no monetary investment).

While some people will want to use MOOCs to bolster their education and refresh their knowledge, others many want to use them more casually (such as joining a MOOC book club).

All in all, MOOCs can be wonderful ways to learn about new things.  Whenever, however (and if) you decide to participate in one, it can be a great way to connect with new people around the world and challenge yourself to learn something new. As Fielding students accustomed to online learning, you may be uniquely position to really make the most of these learning opportunities.

Happy Learning!


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