Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): An Overview have been hopefully following the movement towards more affordable education for a while now, primarily tracking the growth of digital textbooks and their impact on the high prices student’s pay for education. However, if you’ve read my reviews of the major eTextbook platforms, you’ll know that while eBooks are innovating textbooks with interactive rich media and customization, they are still little more than digital versions of paper books. The kind of innovation that is really going to move the needle on education isn’t a repackaging of existing tools, it’s a rethinking of the tools themselves. This is where Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are succeeding, by flipping the academic model on its head.

Online courses in general are nothing new, and have seen explosive adoption, first by small universities and community colleges as an adaptive way to meet the scheduling needs of students. These days though, they are regular offerings for most major universities and any misgivings about their effectiveness at replacing the traditional class experience have been largely disproved or found negligible.  However, the massive and open part of MOOCs are what make them an exciting part of the OER movement because they are a one-two punch at higher education costs.

On the one hand, they are massive with thousands of students enrolling in a single course. General requirement courses at large universities typically see several hundred students packed into the school’s largest lecture halls,  however when Stanford offered their ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course online to anyone, for free, they had 160,000 students from more than 190 countries enroll.

The second aspect is how open these courses are. While down the road MOOCs will have to develop some sort of monetization strategy to survive, they are built around the goal of making college level courses  free to anyone who wants to sign up. This democratization of higher learning is good news for students currently shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year for their education. Before we take a look at the structure of MOOCs, lets briefly review the three major players in the field.

Udacity LogoBorn out of a Stanford University experiment, Udacity was founded in February 2012 by Sebastian Thun, David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky, with backing from VC firm Charles River Ventures and $300K of Thrun’s own money.  With a “mission to change the future of education,” Udacity’s student body now boasts over 400K students and more than 20 courses in computer science.


A mere 3 months later, edX was launched in April as a joint project between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. In spring 2012, edX enrollment showed over 370,000 unique users enrolled in 8 courses and they have expended to 9 courses in the fall. While the other major platforms were founded by professors at major universities and boast partnerships with many notable and recognizable institutions, edX is the only one backed both financially and academically by a university (in this case two).

Coursera, backed by $16 million in venture capital was founded in April 2012 as well by two Stanford computer Science professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng and on February 21st this year announced a near doubling of its university network and 92 new courses. This explosive program expansion is welcome news for Coursera’s 2.7 million students who can now take courses from Northwestern, Penn State and Rutgers among the newly added universities.

Now, with three big players in the game backed by millions of investment dollars, MOOCs are carving out a sizeable niche in higher education. The term MOOC itself was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. While each MOOC platform is different, in general they are built around the same core principals. For a breakdown, I’ll let Cromier himself explain:


What does this mean for students? First and foremost, it does not mean you can now get your bachelors degree for free, as exciting as that prospect would be. What it does mean is that anyone, student or otherwise, can take a growing number of classes free of charge and without registering with any institution. For now these classes are largely limited to the computer sciences; however the course catalogs of the major platforms have already grown in their first year and will continue to expand into other disciplines.

It also means that students can supplement their university education with MOOCs by taking courses for free and then paying for accreditation from universities and institutions that have partnered with their MOOC platform. MOOCs aren’t just for college students, professionals looking to keep their skills up to date or change fields can use them to avoid costly certification programs or going back to college. On the other end of that spectrum, it’s a great way for ambitious high school students to get a head start on college by completing courses for credit ahead of time or just getting a grasp of what college level courses are like.

The benefits to students are obvious and expanding rapidly. For our education system in general, the impact will be less immediate as it is counter to the traditional tuition model. However slow academia is to adopt this new methodology, I believe it will continue to grow and eventually be folded into the course catalogs of most major universities.

The benefits to Universities may not be as obvious since it seems like they are giving away courses for free, but that is actually tilting the numbers in their favor. For example, lets take a hypothetical college course with 1,000 students that has a pass rate of 85%. This means that 850 students will pass that class and get the credit on their transcript. However even if an MOOC had a pass rate of 10% but had enrolled 100,000 students (a relatively small course) they would still be passing 10,000 students. While the cost per credit will likely fluctuate before being leveled by competition and demand, it’s easy to see why a university would want to get that 10% to come to them for accreditation.

Want to know more about MOOCs? Stay tuned for the rest of our MOOC series as we explore in depth the inner workings of the three big players and take a look at how their courses function. In the mean time, take a look at this great info-graphic from 20MM and this one on Wired Academic.

Comments (2)

  1. Pingback: The Textbook Guru | Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Class in Session

  2. Pingback: The Textbook Guru | Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Coursera

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *