If you’ve always dreamed of improving your qualifications, and the only things holding you back have been finance, time constraints and your full-time job, chances are, you will find that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) are right up your street. They are not simply changing the nature of education; they are also increasing our chances of achieving greater knowledge and/or professional success.

MOOCs have been around for a while, yet it is only in the last couple of years that they have boomed to such a level that they are considered as a disruptive phenomenon in the sphere of education. In the United States, a recent report by the Babson Survey Research Group (January, 2014) has found that in 2013, the percentage of higher learning institutions offering MOOCs has risen from 2.6 to 5 per cent. In the UK, meanwhile, a report by the University of Oxford entitled Study of UK Online Learning has found that of 308 UK higher and further education institutions, 37 per cent are offering one or more distance/online courses. It should be noted, however, that although MOOCs overlap in nature with many online courses, they are have a very specific nature.

What are MOOCs?

MOOCs are defined by Oxford Dictionaries Online as “A course of study made available over the Internet, without charge to a very large number of people.” Unlike most distance courses, ‘students’ are not officially registered at the particular learning institution, courses are free and no credit is given for completing a MOOC. The last statement should be qualified; more and more, MOOC providers are offering certificates which verify that a student has completed a course. This helps both students and professionals alike add useful qualifications to their curriculum vitae. Additionally, MOOCs are not always free; take this MOOC on blog building by Udacity, which costs around £90 per month (the entire course lasts for two months and assumes six hours per week – though students are obviously free to work at their own pace).

What are some of the most popular MOOCs in the world? These are just a few of the many MOOC providers you may be interested in if you’d like to expand your knowledge base:

Coursera: This online learning was founded by a generous group of professors from Stanford University, who sought to offer some of the most popular computer science courses to the public. The founders were expecting just a few hundred students to sign up, yet were surprised to find that approximately 100,000 students were signing up for every course! The success of their experimental project led the team to found two companies: Coursera and Udacity. Between 2013 and 2014, an impressive four million students enrolled at Udacity, bringing the total number of students to over nine million. The rapid rise in student numbers leaves no doubt about the fact that students are welcoming the chance to delve into subjects at depth from the comfort of their own homes.

The wide variety of courses also takes Coursera’s MOOCs into a league of their own; there are over 400 courses offered by some of the world’s most prestigious learning institutions. Courses are varied and cover a wide range of subjects. Some of the most popular courses include ‘Algorithms: Design and Analysis, Part 1’, by the University of Stanford; ‘Mathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp’ by John Hopkins University; and an ‘Introduction to Human Behavioural Genetics’ by the University of Minnesota.

Courses last anywhere from approximately 6 to 10 weeks and include video lectures, weekly assignments, quizzes and discussion forums, which offer students the unique opportunity to share their views and learn from fellow students from near and far. Indeed, one of the most attractive features of MOOCs in their ability to transcend borders and enable students of all ages and backgrounds to share information and life experiences.

One particular course entitled Introduction to the Guitar by the Berklee College of Music shows just how effective MOOCs can be. The course, which teaches budding musicians to play the guitar from scratch, requires students to hand in recorded examples of their playing in MP3 format. In reality, the course providers have gone the extra mile to ensure that students process and practice all the information received during their course; in this sense, this MOOC varies very little from traditional courses.

edX: This dynamic company offers a small (around 60) but fascinating series of courses in subjects as profound as ‘The Evolving Universe’ (about the evolution of stars, galaxies, black holes, quasars and more); ‘Introduction to Bioethics’ (which delves into some of the biggest moral challenges human beings must face); and ‘Justice’ (which discusses contemporary dilemmas and controversies). Just reading through their list of courses is enough to excite anyone with a passion for academia. The courses, many of which are introductory, are also an excellent way for students who may not have attended university, to learn important skills like critical thinking and analysis. These new skills may very well be the inspiration students need to enrol at university on a full- or part-time basis, or even as a distance learner/external student.

Udemy: This company, which offers some free and some paid classes, proves that learning via MOOC can be far more extensive and cover a far wider lists of interests than those which offered at most universities. Does cake decorating, juggling or yoga tickle your fancy? Then this is the site for you – with over 16,000 courses on offer, there is no excuse to stop stimulating your mind or soaking in new information and skills. Udemy currently has over three million students enrolled; there can be no doubt that MOOCs are paying heed to the call for a more dynamic, flexible and affordable type of education.

Saylor.org: This company offers ‘curated courses’, in which students enjoy lectures and input from a variety of different professors. These courses are particularly interesting because the different lecturers and materials are selected by an expert who knows the chosen material well, since he/she has taught this subject previously.

Futurelearn: Not to be outdone, the UK has recently launched its own MOOC, a private company wholly owned by The Open University. Whilst still in beta, its partners include over 20 UK and international universities, as well as institutions such as the British Council, the British Library, and the British Museum. It is already offering courses in subjects as diverse as ‘Good brains, Bad brains: basics’ through to ‘England in the time of King Richard III’.

MOOC’s are growing rapidly and potentially transforming further education. Fancy digging in and having a go? Why not share your experiences with us, we would love to hear how you get on.


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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.