The Rise of MOOCs

Massive open online courses are arguably the most revolutionary facet of higher education today. Classes open to anyone, anywhere, with enrollments in the thousands, at the best colleges and universities in the country--all for free: is this the future of education?

Massive open online courses are arguably the most revolutionary facet of higher education today. Building on the foundations of existing online courses, these classes are open to anyone, anywhere, with enrollments in the thousands, at some of the best colleges and universities in the country—all for free. Is this the future of education? And will it turn the tide of overwhelming education costs? Benefits, accreditation, and earning credit are still up in the air, and it's too soon to tell if MOOCs are here to stay, but the higher ed world is excited as the experiment unfolds . . . 

The latest trend in college course catalogs is the inclusion of massive open online courses, or MOOCS, with organizations like Coursera and edX rapidly changing the face of online courses as they once were. In just the past few semesters, many colleges and universities have begun offering MOOCS regularly alongside more traditional on-campus options.

Of course, online education isn't new—in fact, it's been around for years. Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts has offered online learning for nearly 15 years and boasts 4,000 online students, eight online degree programs, and online certificates, according to the Center for Digital Education, which covers the convergence of education and technology in America.

These online courses are attractive to students who previously would have been identified as “nontraditional”— i.e., students who don’t fall into the 18-22 year age range and who do not live on or near campus. Students with children and full-time jobs find MOOCS to be the more convenient option to fulfilling online degrees and programs. The ability to take courses online from the comfort of their own homes has opened up the possibility of getting an education for many people who otherwise might not find the time.

Additionally, these tuition-free courses are finding favor with students whose families suffered in the recent economic recession and can no longer afford a traditional college experience. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) reports that grants from private institutions took significant hits and public institutions saw state support decline even faster. This one-two hit on funding, coupled with increased debt being incurred by American families, has led to questions surrounding the feasibility of a traditional college education. Some speculate that the rise and acceptance of MOOCs may lead to college being free someday.

Some questions are arising as the popularity of learning online grows in numbers: are students graduating with the best education they can get via online learning? Is online education what small business owners and entrepreneurs want and need?

Credibility of online learning

Many of the bigger, more elite colleges and universities have been doling out free e-courses to test their effectiveness and to see how they compare to a more traditional setting for education, writes USA Today. Most do not want to roll out an online degree program if they can’t be sure they will send the most qualified graduates into the business world. Likewise, students want to obtain degrees that will employers will recognize and properly prepare them for successful careers. This is where accreditation becomes important.

The U.S. Department of Education publishes an annual list of organizations that it recognizes as approved accreditation agencies. Called the "Current List of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies and the Criteria for Recognition," the publication also includes suggested criteria by which each participating university is measured.

Benefits of MOOCs

Students who are dedicated to online learning tend to be independent learners and excellent time managers. Those skills translate into being able to take instruction and produce results without a lot of hand-holding. Students who take MOOCS are usually doing so because a traditional class schedule wouldn't fit into their already busy lives. By enrolling in online courses, students are responsible for finding and scheduling the time to learn the material and produce high quality projects and assignments by due dates.

It takes a certain level of technological know-how to navigate the various online programs and tools that are out there. Access to a reliable computer or mobile device is mandatory as well. Students have to be ready to pick up a new set of technology skills depending on the type of course they are enrolled in for credit. This flexibility is increasingly sought after by businesses that are expected to use social media and other online marketing tools in order to grow closer connections to its customers and partners.

Studying online for knowledge or jobs

Schools and universities with departments offering vocational subjects like software development or engineering are growing in students' favor, while departments lacking clear vocational paths, like humanities or arts departments, have experienced budget cuts, resulting in fewer and lower-quality courses. This results in more pressure on students to pursue marketable degrees, and this has played a part in the rise of MOOCs and similar online learning.

Academic credits or degrees?

In 2013, the American Council on Education (ACE), with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will take a look at the content, the rigor, and the relevance of MOOCs. The council will gather data to determine whether colleges and universities will want to offer MOOCs as credits in their institutions.

Getting the ACE’s approval on MOOCs could lower tuition across the board for post-secondary education and open up the opportunity to earn a degree to many more high school graduates than before. This could mean that high school students could earn more college credits while being dually enrolled in high school and college. With students beginning college courses earlier and at a more affordable price, there could be an influx of young professionals into the small business/entrepreneurial world.

Levels of engagement

Some academic professionals still have concerns about the results of more students taking MOOCs and other online courses. Some have issues with the limitations of online learning, as opposed to the full discussion and idea generation from a traditional classroom setting. Where is the level of engagement? Can students in a MOOC get the same sense of classroom community and active participation in a class? Is it more difficult to connect with the material and complete the course without this engagement? Some educators question how students do work in MOOCs—is it on their own? Or are they "outsourcing" the schoolwork without instructors' knowledge?

While online learning avenues are being explored, most signs are pointing to positive outcomes for the university, the students and future employers of the graduates. As the business world becomes increasingly global via technology, it’s only natural that the demand for graduates who are ready and willing to dive into newest and greatest technological advances would grow as well.

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