MOOCs and What They Mean for You

Freelance Writer

Gimme an M! Gimme an O! Gimme an O! Gimme a C! What does that spell?! MOOC!

Okay, you won’t hear this cheer at any college football game. But when it comes to college-level learning options, MOOCs (massive open online courses) may be worth shouting about. And you may even be aware of them now, as many higher ed insiders are shouting about them already, calling MOOCs an important development in the future of education.

MOOCs bring a new dimension to online education, not to mention education as a whole. With other online courses, the typical approach is to enroll in a course, pay tuition, complete the required work, and then receive the appropriate college credit.

With MOOCs, you don’t have to pay tuition—awesome, right?—but you don’t earn credit toward a college degree either. Instead, the focus is on learning for its own sake. And since instructors are freed from the work involved in a course offered for credit, there may be no limit on the number of students participating. Thousands of students from all over the world might be enrolled at the same time in a single course.

Some of the most prestigious schools in the country have joined in offering these courses (not surprisingly, as they also helped launch many of the MOOC portals!). Instructors hail from institutions such as Duke, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas at Austin.

And as a sampling of course titles demonstrates, these classes aren’t kidding around: Introductory Human Physiology, the Global Business of Sports, Climate Change, Quantum Mechanics, Introduction to Aerodynamics, Ideas of the 20th Century, Nanotechnology and Nanosensors, How to Build a Startup, Intro to Artificial Intelligence, Web Development, and much more.

Some people say MOOCs are the greatest advancement for democracy since Paul Revere; no matter where you live or what your financial status, all you need is access to the Internet to learn from some of the same academic superstars enjoyed by students in the most exclusive colleges. In the process, you can gain some helpful insights about your traditional undergrad journey.

“Taking open online courses can give you another way of learning about a university,” says Deirdre Woods, Interim Executive Director of the Open Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. “You can ‘sit in’ on courses offered by many institutions, which can provide a broader perspective. And it’s a great way to explore possible majors.” For soon-to-be freshmen unsure of what college course work entails, watching a lecture or two can also be a great introduction to what lies ahead.

While the fact that you generally don’t earn college credits by enrolling in MOOCs may be seen as a downside, many college students still see value in exploring them. It may be possible in some cases to find a way to gain credit for the experience by taking an equivalency exam (an option that could become common in the future), but for now the approach is largely about voluntary learning.

“Even though these courses don’t offer college credit, they are a huge opportunity,” says Eric Daniels, a senior at Florida State University and an intern at the high-tech company 10gen. “Taking a MOOC gives you a chance to learn more about a topic you’re interested in without the consequence of having to add another physical class, which isn’t cheap. You can dive into a subject that isn’t even related to your major if you so desire. This might result in a newfound passion for something you never even imagined.”

These courses can be viewed as a convenient and risk-free way to explore new subjects as well. “You can take anything you want and not feel guilty about wasting your money if you don’t like the course,” Daniels says. “You’ll feel even better if you liked it, learned something, and did it all for free.”

MOOCs are worth considering as an emerging part of what is becoming a global learning environment, according to Dr. Adam Van Arsdale, assistant professor of anthropology at Wellesley College. “Every MOOC is going to differ in its style, structure, and content,” he says. “But each one offers some potential to expand your understanding of the world in new and unique ways.”

Degree-related options

MOOCs may be the hottest thing going in higher education right now, but when it comes to online learning, they’re only part of the story. Of even greater interest to most students are online courses that apply to college degree requirements.

When they first came on the scene, online courses appealed largely to adult students. They provided options for those with job schedules or family obligations making it hard to attend regularly scheduled college classes. But in recent years they have become increasingly popular with “traditional” college-age students, and many now like to mix in some online learning along with their face-to-face courses.

Perhaps the biggest plus with online courses is the flexibility they offer. Instead of sitting in a classroom, you can complete the work when and where it’s most convenient for you. “Taking online classes means you can study at your own time and in some cases at your own pace,” says Audra Barrett, Associate Vice president of Instruction for Dallas Colleges Online. “You can time shift and arrange your schedule for school when you need it.”

This can be especially helpful for students who hold down jobs while attending college. “Taking online courses helps you create a better weekly schedule,” says Daniels. “Fitting work around your class schedule is difficult. Being able to substitute an online course for an in-class course lets you get the same education while allowing you to take the course at a time you decide.”

This approach also helps in avoiding class scheduling conflicts, according to Daniels. “Last year I needed to get my statistics course completed, but the only time available conflicted with a computer science course that had to be completed that semester as well,” he recalls. “I was able to take the statistics class online, which let me take the CS class too. This wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

Gaining exposure to online classes may also strengthen future employment prospects. “More and more employers are using online delivery for their training, and being able to take at least some courses online will add a level of flexibility that could be very helpful,” says Dr. Sharon Hirsh, President of Rosemont College. “Having the experience of taking at least one course online, even while at a traditional classroom-based college, would introduce you to a new way of learning that you might actually find to be preferable in some ways.”

Online courses and the question of quality

If you are thinking about taking an online course and your goal is to earn college credits, be sure to check the quality of the program offering that course, advises Hirsh. “The courses should be specifically designed as online courses, not a classroom course that is taught in the same way but with everything written out.”

Hirsh also recommends considering the size of classes and the degree of access to the instructor. While this may not matter with MOOCs where credit is not awarded, it can be important with other online classes. “If you are in a class of 20–30 students, you should have access to the professor just as you would in a traditional classroom,” she says. “But if you are one of 200, you would not.”

And if possible, consider the experience of instructors. “The professors should be trained and experienced in online teaching,” she says. “This is important simply because it is so different from in-class teaching.”

One way to investigate these factors is to review the website of any school you’re interested in. Consider how extensive their online offerings are, and take a look at the info they provide on distance learning, including support services offered to online students. For individual professors, see if they have their own webpages, check them out on social networking sites, or just Google them. The more you know up front, the better choices you can make when selecting online courses.

The online experience

It’s important to realize that the online format doesn’t work well for everyone. Some students find they need the structure of a face-to-face class to stay motivated and on track. Without that structure, they tend to fall behind in completing class work or don’t master all the material. And the workload can be substantial.

“New college students might be surprised to find that these online courses require the same amount of time and effort that traditional courses do,” Daniels says. “Slacking off in these courses will only put you behind.”

For many students, though, enrolling in at least some online courses is an ideal way to pursue college goals. Barrett notes that the online format encourages students to be active learners. “There is no front or back of the classroom,” she says. “I find I know my online students better since they all engage with one another and with me.” And the opportunity to interact with instructors and other students is a basic element of online learning. Typically done through discussion board postings, this may be supplemented by other activities. “These courses have everything from group projects to discussions between students,” Daniels says. “Some courses may even have videos for every lecture that you can follow on your own time. Pausing and rewinding are your best friends.”

Some courses also integrate a high level of Internet content. Hirsh points to an online class on international law at her college as an example. “Students navigated together the U.S. government website on terrorism, and then together visited a terrorist organization’s website,” she says. “That led to quite the discussion!”

Whatever the subject, online courses offer a great alternative to classroom-based learning. From both an academic and practical perspective, including them as part of your overall plans can be a smart move when looking ahead to college.

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