My husband’s friend Steve already has plenty of education — a PhD in fact. But when I asked him recently what was new with him, he told me that he was taking a college-level course. But rather than going back to school, he was taking a course on Coursera, one of the new MOOCs (massive online open courses). His choice was an advanced course in his professional field, computer programming — one of 390 courses from 83 partnering universities that Coursera offers. Steve’s comments about the course were extremely positive — the course was planned well and taught at a pace that was challenging but not overwhelming. He was very happy he had taken it, and would not hesitate to take another. And he couldn’t argue with the price — it was free.
Steve is one of the tremendous number of people around the world that are trying out one of the latest trends in education, MOOCs. They are the modern equivalent of the correspondence course, taking full advantage of the power of the internet. Originating in 2008 at the University of Manitoba, the movement really got momentum when Stanford University offered three online courses in the fall of 2001, each of which attracted an enrollment of about 100,000 people. Now, hundreds of MOOCs are available.
Similar to what happens with many innovations on the internet, MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity and edX are offering their product for free — at least for the time being, until they figure out a business model. Right now, their focus is on building an attractive product and using it to gather a large number of users. In order for them to survive long-term, they will need to monetize in some way, such as through charging for the courses, charging for certifications, advertising or sponsorships, or by building platforms for companies to recruit their users.
Many people in higher education worry that MOOCs are competition to universities, and will eventually replace them or at least siphon off students. While others argue that taking a course online can never be a replacement for the experiences and interactions that one is exposed to during four years living on a college campus. But it is clear that MOOCs have made high quality college courses available to many people who otherwise would not be able to take them, such as people on limited incomes, or living in the developing world. It is yet to be seen the exact place that MOOCs will take in education, but it’s clear that it has the potential to disrupt.
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