MOOCs are massive open online courses. They are:
- Massive because there is no limit on how many people can enrol on a MOOC and they are available in thousands of topic areas
- Open because they are available to everybody with no strict enrolment criteria
- Online simply because you do them over the internet
- Courses because they aim to teach you a particular topic.
There’s some debate as to when MOOCs were developed, but it’s thought that the first one was made available in 2008. Regardless of their history, they have certainly gained in popularity in recent years. MOOCs are now available on an international basis, connecting teachers and educational institutions with learners across the globe.
You may come across the following terms:
- cMOOCs (connective MOOCs) are developed through a collaborative approach and connect learners who contribute to their learning
- xMOOCs (extended MOOCs) have a more traditional course structure and are often based on the content of university courses; xMOOCs are much more common than cMOOCs and are the courses you are most likely to find on the main MOOC platforms as described below.
This article will tell you about the main features of MOOCs, their benefits and how they work. It will also explain a little about some of the most popular MOOC platforms and help you consider whether a MOOC might be right for you.
What are the benefits of doing a MOOC?
- Many MOOCs can be taken free of charge. With the high cost of tuition these days, it’s easy to see why MOOCs have proved so popular. Where there are charges for additional features, you may find that financial support is available from the MOOC provider; it’s definitely worth checking whether this is the case.
- MOOCs are developed by experts in their field, so the quality of courses is usually high.
- You may learn the same things as students on courses at the top universities in the world – albeit a small part of their programme.
- You may be able to take a MOOC in a topic that isn’t easily available through any other provision.
- Unlike classroom-based courses, there’s little danger that MOOCs will be cancelled if not enough students enrol or that you won’t get a place because of over-subscription.
- You can take a MOOC wherever it is convenient for you. You can study in your own home, in a library, at work or in a café anywhere in the world!
- You can study at times of the day or week that suit you the best. The flexibility means that you can fit a MOOC around your other commitments.
- You can normally progress at your own pace, but in order to give you a focus, timeframes are sometimes involved.
- Many MOOCs can be started at any time, so you are not constrained by term/semester dates. Other MOOCs can be started every few weeks or months.
- You can sometimes participate in an online community of students through discussion forums. This is a great way of connecting with like-minded people.
What needs to be considered?
As we have seen, there are numerous benefits in taking a MOOC, but make sure you are armed with all the facts.
- Are MOOCs accredited? Some MOOCs can lead to academic credit (usually with a fee payable), but this might only be recognised by the institution offering the MOOC. If you would like a MOOC to count towards entry to a degree course, for instance, it’s important to check with any institutions you are considering.
- So are MOOCs completely free? You usually have to pay for enhanced features, for example assessment and certification. There may also be other costs, such as for books or other resources to accompany the course. It’s important to find out what you will get for free and what you won’t.
- Do MOOCs lead to qualifications? Not usually – they are often very specific in their focus. However, it is possible to take a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or professional course – or gain credit towards these – through a MOOC platform, albeit with fees involved.
- Can I take any MOOC? Although there are no strict enrolment criteria, courses are often available at different levels. You would need to make sure that you have the necessary background or prior knowledge for any course you are considering.
- Am I sufficiently motivated to learn? Because MOOCs are freely available, the attrition rate tends to be high. Do you have the self-motivation and time available to complete a MOOC? Be realistic.
- Will I get support from a tutor? If you don’t understand something, there probably won’t be a tutor on hand to give you special attention. Interaction between teachers and leaners is not common, but learners can sometimes help each other.
- Do I have the technical requirements? You will need a suitable laptop, desktop or other hardware. You’ll also need access to a fast and reliable broadband connection. You should check out any specific technical requirements for the MOOC you are considering.
Who might benefit from doing a MOOC?
MOOCs can benefit absolutely anyone from any background, at any age or stage in their life. Because MOOCs are usually developed by well-respected institutions, they have credibility.
- If you are a student, a MOOC can broaden your knowledge of a subject you are already studying or help you with areas where you need extra support.
- If you want to take a higher education course, a MOOC can help you decide whether a subject you’re thinking of taking would be right for you.
- If you are applying for higher education, a MOOC might enhance your UCAS personal statement. The trick is to make the most of it – explain what you studied and why. Describe how the MOOC will relate to your future studies and how it has given you an insight into a subject and cemented your desire to study it further.
- If you are applying for a job or apprenticeship, a MOOC can look good on your CV/resume or application and impress potential employers. Make sure that you explain what you did and how that relates to the knowledge required for the specific opportunity.
- If you are in work, a MOOC can develop your professional or technical knowledge (perhaps for continuing professional development purposes), help you progress within your career or support you in a change of career direction.
- If you are really interested in a subject or have a hobby, a MOOC can expand your knowledge. Lots of people take great pleasure from learning just for the sake of it!
How are MOOCs delivered?
MOOCs are hosted on special platforms developed by universities, major companies, professional bodies and other institutions, often in partnership with each other. The exact way MOOC platforms work varies, but they usually allow you to search for courses based on criteria such as the broad subject, topic, level and the time taken to complete.
To help you find suitable courses, you can use a specialist search engine, such as Class Central. You can search by keywords, browse by subject or find courses available through specific universities, organisations or MOOC platforms.
To access a MOOC, you will need to register with your name, email and perhaps other details.
MOOCs are delivered through a range of formats and media including videos, recorded lectures, reading materials, test-yourself quizzes, and other activities and resources. Assessments may or may not be included.
What examples are there of MOOC platforms and courses?
MOOCs are generally hosted together on a platform because they have been created by the same institution or by a group of institutions, or they offer courses with a similar focus.
There are lots of MOOC platforms, but here are some of the most well-established. This will also give you a flavour of the range of courses available.
- Coursera offers access to courses from 200+ leading universities and companies including those from Imperial College London, Google, IBM, Stanford and Yale. MOOCs are available in subjects ranging from health to humanities, and from physical sciences to personal development. Programmes are available for people with different levels of prior knowledge and last from a few hours to three months or more.
- edX offers MOOCs from 160 member universities – including Berkeley, Brown, Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne – in a wide range of academic subjects (from law to languages) at different levels. Many courses are free but you have the option to upgrade if you want a certificate.
- FutureLearn is a UK-based MOOC platform offering courses from top international universities in the UK, Europe and beyond in all sorts of academic subjects. Courses are also offered by organisations that have expertise in a specific area, such as those from the British Council, The British Film Institute and the NHS. Courses can be taken for free or you can upgrade to access courses on a more flexible basis, to take tests and get certification. Most courses last six to ten weeks.
- OpenLearn offers free learning from The Open University. It’s possible to take a course or learn in other ways, for instance through audio materials or articles. Programmes are available at introductory, intermediate and advanced level and can take from one hour upwards.
- Udacity is a US platform for courses with a tech focus. Udacity partners include Google, Amazon and Microsoft. On first glance at the Udacity website it looks as though courses have fees attached, but there are various free programmes – from a one-day beginner course entitled ‘What is Programming?’ to a four-month advanced course in ‘High Performance Computing’.
What options are available after taking a MOOC?
You might start with a free MOOC or two and then decide to take your learning further. Some MOOC platforms offer a series of related MOOCs that provide you with a deeper understanding of a certain subject, although you may have to pay for these. Some universities offer online qualifications based on MOOCs, but these don’t differ much from distance learning programmes in general as there may be admission criteria and tuition fees.
Hopefully by now you’ll be in a position to explore the world of MOOCs. Doing a MOOC might give you the confidence to take your learning to the next level – whether through distance learning or a traditional, classroom-based course.
Why not give a MOOC a go? You’ve got nothing to lose and lots to gain.
Debbie Steel, March 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.