At 15, it seems unlikely Priya Prabhakar would know much about college.
But the rising high school sophomore has already taken six college courses from some of America's best universities, earning high marks in everything from poetry to computer programming.
Prabhakar, from Chennai, India, is one of thousands of students across the globe taking massive open online courses. And she can't get enough of them.
"I'm a curious person," says Prabhakar, who has already signed up for at least four more courses. "I have interests in many different fields and subjects." As a student contemplating her future career, she says MOOCs are great at fulfilling her curiosity about a variety of topics.
[Learn the basics of MOOCs.]
For decades, American-style higher education was out of reach for millions of international students. But now, thanks to MOOCs, students no longer have to hop on a plane and pay thousands of dollars in tuition to get a taste of the U.S. college experience.
Acing a MOOC won't help you earn a U.S. degree – yet. Most American universities won't accept transfer credit for the courses.
But that doesn't mean the classes aren't worthwhile. MOOCs can still inspire people, lead to additional job skills and impress future employers or admissions deans, experts say. Below are several reasons why international students might consider taking a MOOC.
1. The courses are free. To take a course from a world-renowned Harvard professor in the past, students likely would have had to shell out thousands of dollars. These days, students can watch that same professor lecture and follow his syllabus without spending a dime.
Students should note, though, that some MOOC providers charge fees to students who want to earn a certificate showing they successfully completed the course or to take a test proving their mastery.
2. The courses may be in your native language. Most MOOCs are offered by American professors and taught in English. But that is quickly changing.
"MOOCs are increasingly an international phenomenon," says Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, the largest of the MOOC providers.
About 60 percent of Coursera's students are from outside of the United States. To keep that figure high and growing, Ng says the company is always looking to expand its offerings.
In the last few months, Coursera has added a limited number of courses taught in Italian, German, Chinese, French and Spanish.
Leaders of edX, another one of the major MOOC providers, have said they plan to offer more classes in different languages in the future, though English is the sole language now. Udacity, the third major player, states on its website that its courses offer subtitles in many different languages, including Spanish, Chinese, French and Portuguese.
3. MOOCs can inspire. Some international students take MOOCs simply for the joy of learning.
[Discover tips for studying in the United States.]
Tamara Duli, a Serbian undergraduate student at the International University of Novi Pazar studying English language and literature, says she's taken four Coursera classes on poetry, Greek and Roman mythology and other topics – just for her own enrichment.
Although the course work can be a bit much to handle on top of her regular school assignments, she says the classes are worth it in terms of the knowledge and inspiration she's gained.
"I have already enrolled in nine other courses," she wrote in an email. "I became utterly addicted. I just hope I'll manage them all."
Students such as Duli who are stirred by MOOCs may go on to do great things for their countries and communities, says Paul Corey, president of science, business and technology at Pearson, an education services company.
"If MOOCs could spark in a student a fire in a subject they know nothing about, it might lead to a resolve to overcome challenges of financial or geographic barriers," he says.
[Explore online programs for international students.]
4. MOOCs can impress a future employer or admissions dean. "I'm seeing my students use MOOCs for their college applications," says Ng of Coursera. "College admission officers are starting to take it very seriously."
MOOCs can serve the purpose of AP classes, which were designed to simulate college classes, he says.
"There's no better way to make a positive impression on an admissions dean than to prove you can do well in college courses," Ng says.
Taking a MOOC to learn new job skills can also be a great way to climb the professional ladder, experts say.
"I think we will see more of these types of courses on people's resumes, with examples of skills so that employers understand what they've learned," says Dean Tsouvalas, editor-in-chief at MOOC Advisor, a free service for students exploring the courses.
5. MOOCs can be used to assess college readiness. Students interested in coming to the United States to study now have a new way to gauge whether they are prepared for college courses.
Prabhakar is a few years away from making a college decision, but says she'd love to follow in her sister's footsteps and head to the University of Pennsylvania.
The social aspect of college life would be new to her. But she's fairly confident she could do well in her classes. After all, she's already done well in several MOOCs taught by the school's professors.
"I think I've gotten a view of how college lectures are, how professors and students are and how lessons are taught," she says. "They're quite challenging, and do involve a serious time commitment."
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