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.
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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.