Go Back to School for Free Through MOOCs

Go Back to School for Free Through MOOCs

In 2008, George Siemens and a colleague designed and taught what many consider to be the first massive open online course (MOOC). “There's a hype-filled media view of MOOCs as disruptive, transformative, and sure to end the current model of higher education,” Siemens says. But to the contrary, he sees research focusing on openness in education and learning at-scale through MOOCs that might actually broaden the role of universities in a knowledge economy. He predicts higher education will continue developing MOOCs for marketing and recruitment, alumni outreach, and online or blended learning.

MOOCs are aimed at large-scale Internet participation - with participants ranging from young people to retirees to people distant from learning institutions - and usually include prerecorded video lectures that can be viewed whenever a student chooses. Some of these courses have online student discussions, homework, quizzes, or exams. Others require little to no student commitment.

MOOCs generally are free or very low-cost, and although similar to classes offered at universities, they seldom offer academic credit. However, they offer an amazing range of subjects, from Ebola for Health Professionals to Twitter for Beginners - and a great deal more.

For example, the Kennedy Half Century, a four-week, noncredit MOOC created in 2013 by Dr. Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia and national political commentator, immerses students in a seriously fun graduate-level history class that is the first of its kind to be nominated for an Emmy. “The technology was still relatively new,” Sabato says. “Although we were confident about the quality of the material, we worried whether an audience would actually participate.” People did. More than 200,000 people have accessed the course, which is available anytime, anywhere through on-demand features of both iTunes and Coursera.

What's unknown is how many of those people actually completed Sabato's MOOC. In one study of 16 University of Pennsylvania MOOCs on varied subjects, only about half of those who registered accessed even one lecture; just 1 in 10 visited the final lecture. Other studies echo those figures.

People try MOOCs for many reasons. Some want to learn a little more about something specific or gain an edge in their career without the time and dollar obligation of a credit course. A number of MOOCs now offer - for a fee - certificates of completion, which some people are including on résumés. Unlike a typical free MOOC with no actual contact between students and instructors, an online course for credit often includes on-campus sessions and is usually available only to enrolled fee-paying students.

The primary MOOC suppliers are nonprofits Khan Academy and edX and for-profits Udacity and Coursera, although there are many other platforms. MOOC aggregators help users explore the huge number of available courses and sort them by subject, provider, difficulty, starting date, popularity, and duration. Some offer previews as well as ratings and reviews by previous users. Aggregators include www.class-central.com, www.coursetalk.com, www.coursebuffet.com, www.mooc-list.com, and others.

In exploring MOOCs, consider what you are looking for. Do you want to test the waters for a possible career change? Expand your knowledge in a field you are already involved in? Study ahead for a paid course you might enroll in? Or stretch your mind by picking up knowledge in a completely unfamiliar field?

MOOCs are an outstanding example of the exception proving the rule when it comes to “there's no such thing as a free lunch.”