MOOCs, free online college courses

April 2013

There was a time a long time ago — say, when I was growing up — that education was necessarily centralized. Knowledge was invested in libraries and teachers, and to get educated you needed to go to the libraries and teachers.

Now all that has changed. The wealth of knowledge that was once the domain of books has become the domain of the Web. And teachers can use the web to communicate instantly to anyone in the world.

Colleges and universities worldwide are saying, "Uh oh." Their raison d'etre had been to be a place where students could congregate in the presence of libraries and teachers. Not only is that no longer necessary, it's also very expensive to provide facilities for hoards of bacchanalian teens and young adults. The old model of education is, simply, unsustainable.

And the new model is MOOCs. Every college and university in the country is scrambling to offer their MOOCs. Best of all, MOOCs are free!

So exactly what is this unfortunate acronym? Massive Open Online Courses. This has become huge in just a little over a year's time.

A MOOC is typically a free course offered by a professor at a major university that consists of short streaming video lectures, reading assignments, online discussions, an exam, and a certificate of completion.

There's a MOOC in my future. For years I've been following the blog of John Hawks, a leading paleoanthropologist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin. He's intelligent, highly respected, extensively published, and always up to date on the latest developments. Plus, he knows how to write for non-specialists like me. In short, I'm a fan.

His MOOC, titled "Human Evolution: Past and Future," is scheduled to start next January. It will last 10 weeks and entail about 5–7 hours a week. Here's the description:

"The materials are designed to guide students on their own distinctive paths of discovery. Short documentary videos highlight the most up-to-date science and bring students virtually into some of the most famous archaeological sites. With a series of interviews, students will hear about new ideas from many of the world's leading experts."

My brain is screaming yes yes yes, that's what I want to learn. And did I say that it's free?

That course and 325 others are available for free on Coursera, which at this time may be the largest and most popular website offering MOOCs, with over 70,000 new students signing up each week.

While some courses are much the same as a typical lecture-based course, many others offered by Coursera are adopting new web-based conventions that students say make them much more compelling and effective. The videos are often short and interspersed with interactive exercises. The pedagogy is based on principles of active learning, which is today considered the optimal approach to teaching and learning.

Launched in April of last year, Coursera had enrolled over 2 million students as of December and has had a faster launch than either Facebook or Twitter. They offer courses in 23 categories, including art, business, computers, economics, film, humanities, law, math, music, life sciences, physics, and statistics.

Some of their courses have famously had over 100,000 students enrolled, such as a course on artificial intelligence that had 160,000 students.

The first MOOC website to come online was Udacity in January of last year, which had enrolled over 1 million students by the end of 2012. The offerings are fewer and have a narrower scope, with courses in the categories of business, computer science, mathematics, and physics.

The other major player is EdX, which launched last May and offers a limited number of high-level courses.

So why are MOOCs free? Build it and they will come. Like Google and Facebook and other earlier ventures, these companies want to get big first and then figure out how to make money later.

Coursera is planning to license its courses to other institutions of higher learning. Udacity is planning to charge for certificates of completion. And both intend to act as recruiting firms, identifying top software engineers, for example, and connecting these prospects with companies such as Facebook.

There are moving examples of teens in remote, impoverished corners of the world taking an Ivy League course, besting tens of thousands of other students, and attracting the attention (and scholarship support) of top universities.

The country's top universities are offering MOOCs — Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Duke, MIT, the Universities of California, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and many more. What are you waiting for? Sign up for a MOOC today!

This month's hot tips:

Learn about free virus protection software in an article by Kim Komando. Can I Stream It is a website that tells you which online service has your favorite movies and TV shows.

© 2013 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen