Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are a hot topic these days, particularly among academics convinced the classes are destined to make a radical mark on their profession.
But outside the ivory tower, the MOOC hype is still very new. What are MOOCs? And why is the acronym suddenly popping up in mainstream publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times?
For those playing catch-up, here's a basic rundown of the phenomenon.
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What is a MOOC?
Generally speaking, MOOCs are entirely online and open to anyone with an Internet connection. Unlike a typical online course, MOOCs are usually free, though not always, and draw hundreds or thousands of students.
There are about 450 MOOCs currently available worldwide, according to Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois—Springfield. Students can take courses on online games, opera, calculus and more.
Classes involve self-paced learning, are divvied up into sections and include discussion boards and assessments. Grades are determined by an instructor, peers or grading software.
MOOCs serve a range of purposes, though helping students earn college credit is not a primary one – at least not yet. In February 2013, the American Council on Education endorsed five science and math MOOCs for academic credit. Although ACE has a membership of more than 1,800 colleges and universities, it's still up to each school to decide which courses they will recognize.
To date, only a few institutions have taken ACE's recommendation. But Curtis Bonk, education professor at Indiana University, thinks that will soon change.
Before the year is out, Bonk says, "We'll probably see at least a dozen universities jumping in to say they will recognize these prize courses."
In the meantime, Bonk says, people can take MOOCs for professional development, to prepare for college or as a means to indulge a hobby or become inspired. Taking MOOCs can also be the first step to switching career tracks.
Completing several courses – even for no credit – can signal to a future employer or admissions dean that you are ready to take the next step in your academic or professional career, he says.
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Who offers MOOCs?
Of the organizations that offer MOOCs, three dominate the national headlines. All were launched in 2012 and have business models that are still evolving.
Coursera, founded by two Stanford University professors, is a for-profit education company that offers 370 MOOCs on a range of topics in partnership with universities. Courses are free, though students have to pay a fee to earn a verified completion certificate. Coursera offers the five courses approved by ACE.
Udacity, founded by a Stanford professor and two entrepreneurs, is also a for-profit educational company. Through partnerships with various universities, it offers about two dozen courses, mostly with a science and technology focus. The courses are free, as are the Udacity certificates of completion, unless a partner organization charges a fee for the final assessment; however students should check with Udacity's partners regarding potential testing fees.
edX is a nonprofit organization founded by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. edX offers 35 courses in an open-source online learning platform, meaning that other institutions will be able to host the courses themselves. Courses are free, though edX says it will eventually start charging a fee for certificates.
Why are MOOCs in demand?
Although it may seem like MOOCs emerged out of nowhere, they actually have a long history.
Schroeder, of Illinois, traces the origins of MOOCs to the late 1990s, when many colleges had already begun offering at least some online courses. At that time, MIT took the step of requiring professors to put their syllabi online. The move, he says, made many professors realize they had the potential to reach students outside their classrooms.
The term MOOC was coined in 2008 during a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Twenty five students at Canada's University of Manitoba paid for the course, but 2,300 people took it for free. Many of the early pioneers of MOOCs were inspired by connectivism, a theory that students learn best from interaction and cooperation with each other, particularly through technology.
MOOCs didn't really capture the world's attention until 2011, when an artificial intelligence course taught by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Director of Research at Google Peter Norvig attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. Thrun later went on to co-found Udacity.
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Academics have different theories on why it took until 2011 for MOOCs to take off. Schroeder, for example, thinks it was three factors coming together: the recession, the low cost of technology and widespread Internet access.
But Stephen Downes, who offered the course at the University of Manitoba, thinks we would still be talking about MOOCs even without the economic recession.
"When Stanford did that artificial intelligence course, it was like lighting a powder keg," says Downes, now a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada. "It's a latent demand for open access to education. As you offer up educational opportunities, people flock to them."
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