Professional Education and Career Blog

Can a MOOC Make a Difference in Your Professional Education?

fingerA new trend in education has emerged in recent years: The MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course. This type of learning has the potential to significantly change how courses and education are taught in the future. While students of every age could potentially benefit, professionals looking to enhance their skill set owe it to themselves to take a careful look.

What is a MOOC? Put simply, it is an online course with unlimited participation and open access via the World Wide Web. Along with traditional course materials such as reading materials, videos and exercises, MOOCs often provide features such as interactive user forums to bring together professors, teaching assistants and the students. Although MOOCs can be a solitary affair, some students organize local meet-ups for study groups.

The cost is right – most MOOCs offered by major universities are offered for free, allowing anyone with a computer and time to take world-class courses often taught by the same university professors that teach in high-level institutions.

The two leaders are currently Coursera, which was started by two Stanford professors, and edX, a nonprofit company founded by Harvard and M.I.T. The idea seems to be catching fire, even internationally. According to the New York Times, these two companies recently announced partnerships with leading universities in Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, China, Singapore and Mexico. As of early 2013, Coursera had 2.2 million students in its 222 courses, and edX had 700,000 students.

Because of the scale of enrollment, courses via MOOCs require innovative approaches to feedback and interaction with the course. There are two basic approaches that are typically used:

  • Group collaboration and peer review
  • Feedback through online assessments such quizzes and exams, which are automatically graded.

Accurate assessments can be the most difficult aspect to administer. Classmates often grade each other’s works based on guidelines supplied by the course instructors. Exams and quizzes can be done in an automated manner, which are often given in the middle of short bursts of instruction to ensure that the student is understanding the material.

Of course, motivation may be a factor for students that take a MOOC.  Since MOOCs are voluntary and dropping the program or lagging behind doesn’t impose a penalty, there may be issues with completing the course. And although the education supplied to the student may have been excellent, there will not be a corresponding diploma. While this can be a boon for professional seeking to improve their skills, a certificate proving that they completed the training may be important for listing the education on a resume.

Because MOOCs don’t have to replace physical courses, many advocates argue that course completion is not a good way to measure the benefits of these classes. As they are so much less expensive than physical courses, they don’t have to provide the same services as classroom courses. Unlike physical courses, or even university distance learning courses, completing the course doesn’t provide very much additional benefit.

online1The knowledge students gain from taking the class, even if a piece of paper at the end isn’t involved, can help them in their career. Critics of MOOCs that focus solely on the completion rates miss the bigger point – these courses can be taken purely for knowledge purposes or even for the enjoyment of learning itself. The focus should be on the quality of the curriculum, and even the critics of MOOCs admit they are often excellent.

In many ways, MOOCs represent the future of learning. It’s about using technology to amplify the ability of the best teachers in the world to reach all students that are interested in learning. Although MOOCs won’t replace all formal education, they will most likely find a useful niche alongside the traditional avenues of learning.