About MOOCs

3405811164_d49a982c6eMassive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as the newest development in distance education, have been revolutionizing the international higher education system for the last two years. MOOCs go further than conventional online course ware, in featuring almost all elements of traditional university courses.

Written by Anouk Lingner, Science and technolgy office Beijing

 Main characteristics of MOOCs include openness (everyone can access regardless of location, occupation or age) and scale (there is no limitation in terms of student numbers). Furthermore, MOOCs are generally free, flexible (time to access and sometimes language can be chosen) and provide high quality teaching. Institutions that offer MOOCs are often US Ivy league Universities or internationally renowned universities from other countries and the professors providing the courses are carefully selected. Udacity for example, a major MOOC platform, rejects 98% of the professors who apply for teaching. The course material, accessible to those who enroll for an online course, exists of video lectures, handouts and reading material. Students have the possibility to engage in discussions or ask questions in associated forums, leading to the creation of a community among students and professors which attributes the MOOCs a more interactive and engaging character. The professor distributes assignments and homework, which is usually evaluated by fellow students, peer-to-peer. Although the course has a start and a finish date, attendees can decide themselves, when and where they want to access the material.

Normally no academic credit is offered for attendance, while certificates upon completion can be earned against a fee. Most recently, some universities have started to offer degree programs, as for example the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Computing which in collaboration with Udacity offers the first professional online Master of Science degree in computer science, that can be done completely through the MOOC format.

The three most renowned MOOC platforms are Coursera, edX and Udacity, featuring courses from top universities such as Harvard, Stanford or MIT. The for-profit MOOC provider Coursera was launched in 2012 by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller with 16 million Dollars venture capital funding. Meanwhile Coursera offers over nearly 600 courses from over 90 universities (including University of Geneva, University of Zurich, University of Lausanne and EPFL). Coursera’s enrollments rise rapidly and reached 22 million enrollments in January 2014. edX is the second largest MOOC platform, a nonprofit enterprise developed in May 2012 by Harvard and MIT with an initial funding of 60 million Dollars. In October 2013, edX already had 1.3 million learners. Udacity was born out of a Stanford University experiment in which Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online to anyone, for free, in 2011. Over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled, shortly after Udacity was created.

The institutions are motivated by creating education possibilities for anyone and being able at the same time to gather data about students and to expand their influence. Being funded through venture capital, donations (e.g. Bill Gates Foundation) and internal sourcing, they cover their costs through offering certificates or additional courses against a fee. Other possibilities the platforms might aspire are offering additional paid course material like library resources and tutoring or allowing schools to pay for MOOCs classes taught on their campuses.

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