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MOOCs Explained

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you’ve probably heard of a little thing called MOOCs. In order to explain what MOOCs are, the most logical place to start is to decipher this odd, bovine-sounding acronym. Quite simply, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course.

Massive refers to the fact that these courses can serve large numbers of people, sometimes accommodating thousands of students in one course. MOOCs are not constricted by classroom walls and fire codes like traditional campus courses or by limited enrollment numbers and faculty-student ratios like many other online courses. In the majority of cases, the number of students in a course simply depends on how many sign up.

MOOCs are also open, which means virtually anyone can sign up. As Northcentral University education faculty member Dr. Renee Aitken puts it, “MOOCs give anyone access to a systemic learning environment designed by a field expert.” In other words, you no longer need to be a student at Stanford to take Machine Learning with Professor (and Coursera co-founder) Ng, or study at M.I.T. to get an introduction to computer science and programming from Professor Eric Grimson. You simply register and sign up for whatever course you are interested in online (preferably checking that you meet any prerequisites beforehand for an ideal education experience) and you’re ready to go.

Of course, the controversy surrounding MOOCs seems to be less about the fact that they are massive and open, and more about the fact that most of them are free and do not count for academic credit. In a world where a college degree is practically a prerequisite for a job interview, how can you prove that you learned something in a MOOC if you don’t earn credit, or that it was really you and not silly (but brilliant) Uncle Earl passing all those MOOCs? Granted, the practice of awarding certificates of completion – for a small fee of course – is becoming more common, but it’s not quite the same as showing someone a copy of your unofficial college transcripts just yet, is it?

While the hypothesized pros and cons of MOOCs and their potential to alter the education landscape in the next five to ten years extend well beyond the confines of this blog post, it will certainly be interesting to see how things unfold, and whether or not MOOCs truly live up to their hype.

We’ll be following up this post with one on expanding your education through MOOCs so be sure to check back soon!

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