Learn for Free with MOOCs

Massive open online courses may help your career, but don’t bank on them for credit - yet.

Massive open online courses are new to higher education, but no one is quite sure how they will change the industry.

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.

[Read about the possible benefits of MOOCs.]

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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