MOOCs 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Free Online Courses

What if you were given the opportunity to learn more about a favorite subject, take a college course that could sharpen your professional skills, or even gain knowledge to help you land a better job in the future? Oh, did we mention the course would be free? It may sound too good to be true, but in fact it’s a reality thanks to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). One of the most popular developments in higher education as of late, MOOCs make it possible for thousands of people to sign up for a class, receive instruction from a top professor, and interact with other students around the world––all from the convenience of their own homes.

Though MOOCs have been around for several years now, a lot of people still have questions about what they entail, or if they are worth the time and effort to complete. To help clarify, here’s a handy overview of the what and how of free online courses.

What exactly is a MOOC?
Like the name suggests, a MOOC is a large, online course in a certain subject that anyone can take; and by anyone, that means thousands of people can be signed up for just one course. In fact, edX (a consortium led by Harvard and MIT) saw more than 155,000 students register for its first MOOC. In the wake of that kind of success, more institutions have jumped on the bandwagon. Courses are usually not for credit, though many will offer those who complete them a certificate or statement of accomplishment.

How do you sign up?
Joining a MOOC is pretty simple—typically, registration only requires a name, e-mail address and password. “This ease of access exemplifies the whole philosophy behind free online education,” said Jody Cebina, a program director who helps develop MOOCS at Colorado State University OnlinePlus. “People aren’t screened about their educational background, professional experience, or language ability, because MOOCs are designed to cater to anyone with a desire to learn,” he said, “people can decide for themselves if they are qualified to sign up.”

What materials are required?
You don’t need to purchase expensive books or software. All you need is access to very basic computing technology: a computer with an Internet connection, and, if the course features lectures or other recorded material, speakers or headphones.

How are they structured?
The structure of a course varies considerably depending on the institution offering it, as well as the individual instructor. Some courses feature recorded lectures; others feature slideshows, quizzes, or downloadable readings. There isn’t a set format for information dissemination.

One universal feature of MOOCs, however, is that they are structured around student interaction. “With hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students enrolled, an instructor cannot possibly be in charge of moderating every conversation,” Cebina said, “it’s necessary for students to get involved and help drive discussion.” Out of that necessity, however, comes an important feature of MOOCs: deep insight into their peers’ perspectives through engaging in substantive discussions and through grading each other’s work.

Instructors, of course, still play a role in driving discussions and answering questions. When class sizes are simply too large to manage moderation on their own, instructors often oversee group leaders or moderators who can relay questions or issues back to them.

How do you get the most out of a MOOC?
While the idea of free online education is exciting, the absence of grades, costs, and consequences make it difficult for some people to stay engaged in a course. Ample data on consistently low MOOC completion rates makes this evident.

But people sign up for classes because they want to learn something, so it’s important to discover ways to stick with the work in order to reap the benefits. One way to do this is to collaborate on coursework with others in an offline setting. One study about edX’s first MOOC found that students who teamed up with others in person, on average, would demonstrate higher achievement than students who worked by themselves. It cited this as “a noteworthy finding as it reflects what we know about on-campus instruction: that collaborating with another person, whether novice or expert, strengthens learning.”

Some other MOOC success tips provided by OnlineCollege.org include getting connected to classmates through email and social media, starting your own discussions, and offering to help other students. The bottom line: interaction pays off!

Where can you find MOOC offerings?
It’s almost overwhelming how many free online courses are available these days. Some popular sites to explore include Open Culture, CourseSites, edX, and Coursera. Additionally, numerous individual universities offer MOOCs in subjects for which they are well-known. Colorado State University is currently offering a free course in Water, Civilization, and Nature—led by some of its leading water studies scholars, and a course in Exploring the Student Affairs in Higher Education Profession—designed by its renowned Student Affairs program.

If you’ve taken a MOOC or you’re planning on taking one, share your thoughts and experiences with our readers in the comments below. We want to hear from you!

Discussion