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Massive Online Open Courses: What They Are and How They Can Help Students

Apr 30, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Massive Online Open Courses, or “MOOC’s,” are courses that are disseminated online, with open and free enrollment. Anyone, anywhere, can take a MOOC for free. The material is delivered to students via online documents, video lectures, and interactivity on social media sites, as well as other online resources. But unlike traditional Open Courseware, MOOC’s are taught continuously by a professor—they’re not just an amalgamation of materials from previously-taught courses uploaded online.

MOOC’s are frequently fairly open in terms of structure. Students in a MOOC are usually expected to take the initiative  in seizing opportunities to connect with other students and learn on their own.

The typical structure of a MOOC class might involve a single weekly online lecture, discussion questions, and a list of suggested resources.

Online Student

Taking a MOOC isn't for everyone. If you need course credits or a specific credential your employers will recognize, you may still be better off currently going through more traditional routes-depending on whether your employers recognize the badge system.

Unlike in a traditional classroom, where smaller class sizes are often optimal, a MOOC thrives on large enrollment—really large enrollment. For instance, Stanford research professor and Google fellow David Thrun’s online courseshave attracted as many as 160,000 people in 200 countries.

The strength of a MOOC is in the numbers and the connectivity. Students are encouraged to connect via Facebook, Google+, Twitter, discuss the topics at length on their own, and share their own resources. Often, the open structure of the class allows the set curriculum to emerge based on student interests as demonstrated in online discussion.

You can take a MOOC from high-profile people in the field in universities as prestigious as Stanford University. Stanford is a leader in these types of classes; they’re currently offering over 13 courses, in topics such as Machine Learning, Game Theory, Cryptography, Online Anatomy Courses, Introduction to Databases, and Natural Language Processing.

Most of the time, taking a MOOC is free of charge—even if you’re taking it from Stanford. Some, however, come with an informal credential—a “badge” much like the Girl and Boy Scout badge system or the technical certification system. If you want to earn a credential, that’s usually not free—and you’ll usually have to pass a test to earn it.

The badge system is still new and fairly controversial. Proponents often suggest it will come to replace the college diploma as a credential requirement for hiring. However, there are still some flaws in the badge system—and they are still unfamiliar to many employers. It may be more likely that the badge system will come to operate much as the technical certification system does in the IT world—not as a replacement for a diploma, but as a more flexible and affordable way for students to demonstrate that they have certain specific skills. 

Even so, MOOC’s are gaining traction among universities. In addition to Stanford, MIT—a leader in the Open Courseware movement for the past decade—is currently offering a MOOC and is looking to offer more.  So is the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois at Springfield. Some of the colleges looking into offering MOOC’s are planning to offer credit or a credential, while others are still struggling with the implications regarding accreditation.

Taking a MOOC isn’t for everyone. If you need course credits or a specific credential your employers will recognize, you may still be better off currently going through more traditional routes—depending on whether your employers recognize the badge system. But if the idea of learning a new skill from a top professor in the field intrigues you—and you like the idea of learning along with a vast online community—a MOOC might be ideal. And it’s likely that credentials earned through these classes will become more meaningful to employers with time. 


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