MOOCs Continue to Spur the Evolution of Digital Education

MOOC finger icon pointing to computers

The rise of the digital age and the tech explosion accompanying it has revolutionized nearly every aspect of our lives, leaving no industry untouched. Education, previously thought to be a bastion of tradition, has recently experienced the dramatic change that can come through the incorporation of digital technology, with the advent of MOOCs, or massive open online courses that aim to provide comprehensive educational solutions digitally.


MOOCs are more than just online lectures, or collections of course material that students can consume at their leisure. They are (or at least aim to be) comprehensive educational solutions that combine the content, homework, collaborative learning, and testing of traditional educational models with the ease of use, efficiency and convenience of the internet.


Many MOOCs, in addition to regular assignments, content and testing, provide forums for discussion between students, filmed lectures, and virtual access to experts, teaching assistants, and educational professionals. MOOCs are becoming increasingly popular. The top three MOOC providers currently have more than 24 million students utilizing their classes.



MOOCs emerged out of the age-old concept of distance learning and correspondence-based education. While such educational models have existed for over a century, their popularity never reached critical levels and low course-completion rates, along with generally-held beliefs regarding their inferiority when compared to traditional classroom-based education, prevented their widespread adoption. With the mass proliferation of the internet and digital technology, however, distance learning had the opportunity to expand and improve in unprecedented ways.


MOOCs emerged out of the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) of the early 2000s. OER are openly licensed, internet-based, easily accessible documents, books, articles, and other media useful for educational and research purposes. Massive Online Open Courses expanded upon the concept of OERs by synthesizing OERs with proven educational models of delivering comprehensive courses online.


The first MOOCs emerged in 2008 in Canada, with the launch of CCK08, a pilot MOOC created by the University of Manitoba, Athabasca University and Canada's National Research Council. The pilot program consisted of online courses where content was distributed digitally in a wide variety of media and online collaborative tools enabled students to cooperate on projects and assignments virtually. The success of CCK08 eventually led to an explosion of MOOCs, to the point where hundreds of universities, companies, and not-for-profit organizations have launched MOOCs and other e-learning platforms.


Universities and the Rise of MOOCs 

According to a study by EdSurge, the number of universities offering MOOCs to students has nearly doubled to 400 in 2014. Over 2,400 university-provided MOOCs are currently offered, allowing thousands of students worldwide to study everything from humanities, business management, and computer programming remotely and digitally. Universities have, over the past several years, engaged in a concerted effort to offer and expand the use of MOOCs, making them available to both their students and the general public and, in many cases, totally free to use.


Several factors motivate the sustained effort by universities to both increase the number of MOOCs they offer and to lower or eliminate the costs to students associated with them. Chiefly, in an age where literally everything seems to be going digital, the desire to stay relevant is often enough to motivate universities to launch MOOCs. Like any organization, universities have a strong desire to remain consequential and ensure that the services they provide are in line with the needs, wants, and demands of the society they are providing them to.


MOOC interior of computer lab

Offering these courses for free has several direct benefits to universities as well. Firstly, because the concept of MOOCs is relatively new, free access ensures that many users sign up for the courses. Those users can then provide valuable feedback on how to improve the MOOCs and increase the value of the educational content they deliver.


Secondly, free MOOCs have become an excellent means of attracting students from all over the world to enter their universities. Students hesitant about pursuing post-secondary education or unsure of what university they want to go to can register for a university-provided MOOC and see for themselves whether that particular post-secondary institution is worth attending.


The Pros

While many are still unsure about the value of MOOCs as an educational tool, there are undoubtedly several areas where MOOCs have distinct advantages over their traditional counterparts.


Low Costs for Attendees: As we've already stated, many universities offer MOOCs that are totally free. For individuals who can't afford attending a university or technical school but still want an education, MOOCs provide an incredibly affordable alternative to going to a post-secondary institution.


Enhanced Learning: For individuals who are able to learn digitally, without much face-to-face interaction with a professor, or who excel in such a fomat, MOOCs are a godsend. Depending on the provider, they offer tons of exceptional learning content, homework, and testing that can teach skills and provide genuine educational value to many.


Convenience: Whether it's because they have a full-time job or they're busy parenting children, many people simply don't have the time to attend school in person. MOOCs allow students to learn digitally, at home, and often at their own pace as well.


The Cons

Despite some of the obvious advantages of MOOCs, many have called into question the true educational value of MOOCs as well.


The Digital Literacy Barrier: While MOOCs are certainly convenient for those with computers and the know-how to use them, individuals who are digitally illiterate or simply do not have access to a computer are effectively shut out from using MOOCs altogether.


The Need for Self-Regulation: Because MOOCs do not have professors who have set course requirements, MOOCs require individuals to self-regulate, set their own goals, and ensure that they meet those goals absent any external motivation. This can be problematic for individuals who are used to having deadlines, professors, and in-person peer groups to make sure that they are on track in their learning.


Where do I find a good MOOC?

MOOC students using computers in classroom

Individuals interested in MOOCs can select from hundreds of providers, ranging from universities, to companies, to not-for-profits.


Universities: For individuals seeking not just the skills and knowledge that a MOOC can provide, but also accreditation and recognized certification, universities as diverse and different as Harvard and the University of Phoenix all provide MOOCs. As previously mentioned, many of these university-based MOOCs are completely free and, because they are designed with the input and active participation of educational professionals, they are generally of high quality.


Independent Providers: There are several independent providers that offer MOOCs of differing quality. The largest of these independent providers are Coursera and Udacity. Coursera offers relatively cheap MOOCs in over 18 different subjects and is best suited for individuals seeking to broaden their skill set and pursue knowledge for its own sake. Alternatively, Udacity offers far more rigorous MOOCs and many of the certificates they offer are recognized by organizations and companies seeking skilled employees. Udacity's courses and tests also cost slightly more than Coursera's.


Not-for-Profits: Many not-for-profits offer affordable MOOCs for anyone who wants to take them. EdX is an M.I.T-based not-for-profit that provides internationally-acclaimed MOOCs in Chemistry, Computer Science, Electronics, and Public Health.


Ultimately, the MOOC provider you select will be a function of the pace, style, and type of learning you are looking for. Before committing to any MOOC, be sure to read reviews about the course and the provider to ensure that it is right for you. Additionally, sites such as MOOC List and Class Central offer tons of information and reviews about any MOOCs that you might be interested in.


It's worth noting as well that MOOCs are starting to make waves in the IT certification realm. Education and training company Cybrary, launched earlier this year, is using MOOCs to provide certification training. Cybrary intends to compete directly with other certification training providers by removing the not inconsiderable element of cost from the training and preparation side of the certification equation. It's a powerful incentive to give MOOCs a chance. If Cybrary catches on, there could certainly be a rush to expand certification training into a new arena.


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About the Author
Nenad Dumanovic NEW

Nenad Dumanovic is the founder and principal of Impressify, a PR company that specializes in delivering PR, content marketing, and business writing services for startups, entrepreneurs, and not-for-profits. He is editor-in-chief of Konstantine News, a digital politics magazine launching in April 2016.