Higher Education Through MOOCs

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Rise in top universities offering free online courses this year

2012 brought substantial progress in sphere of online higher education, most notably MOOCs, or “massive open online courses”, that have spread throughout the United States and the world over the past year. Open course start-ups have attracted millions of students from around the globe to online courses and lectures offered by top American and international universities.

MOOCs are online courses and lectures by university professors and field experts in an array of subjects from the Humanities and Social Sciences, to Business and Math. Courses are free or offered at a low price, and run anywhere from four to twelve weeks. Quizzes, tests, and homework accompany many courses, and students are able to work at their own pace from home.  Introductory and advanced courses are offered by many colleges from every tier, both public and private, and have been translated into multiple languages.

Sebastian Thrun, a former computer science professor at Stanford, brought a new perspective to online education this past year. Thrun originally offered a free online course that included the same material, homework, tests, and quizzes as a course he was teaching in-person simultaneously at Stanford. 160,000 people from all over the world signed-up, and Thrun found that the top 410 students taking this course, in either capacity, were online users. Students from all levels of education, at all ages, from all over the world, were outperforming his in-class Stanford students. Realizing the potential of individuals who may not have access to higher education, or who thrive better in a more pace-flexible online environment, Thrun decided to leave Stanford and develop online educational courses.

He began Udacity, a low-cost website that offers courses from Introduction to Computer Science to How to Build a Start-Up to curious minds all over the world. Udacity professors are chosen based not on their degrees, but by how well they communicate material. Lectures are engaging and challenging, students learn at their own pace, and tests are interactive and offer constructive feedback instead of just a definitive grade after the student’s first shot at a question.

This model inspired the creation of other online schools like Coursera and edX. Coursera, also created by Stanford computer Science professors, offers courses by US institutions like Princeton, Duke, Columbia, and Stanford, and international universities like University of Toronto and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. edX, launched by Harvard and MIT, offers free online lectures from MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, University of Texas system, Wellesley, and Georgetown.

These online lectures and courses are designed for students to learn at a pace conducive to their life, that will allow optimal understanding and absorption of material, and develop skills and knowledge to achieve higher-level jobs and careers. Udacity, for example, gives students the option of taking an in-person exam for a certificate in Software Testing, Computer Program Design, to name a few, send to employers. Whether students are using these online institutions to supplement their education, or to introduce themselves to an experience in higher education, advances in computer technology and the internet are allowing more, and an increasingly diverse group of people, achieve higher education.

Programs like Udacity, Coursera, and edX are arguably the beginning of the revolution to equalize higher education. The more university courses become readily available and affordable, the more people who will be able to add “Ivy League educated” to their repertoire.

While online education is unlikely to ever fully replace a campus experience and in-person lectures, a “blended education” method, where a student will take some courses in person and a few online, will become increasingly apparent in institutions of higher education, high schools, and even middle schools. Interested and curious people from around the world can have access to a top-notch education thanks to Udacity’s translation of courses into 44 different languages, and more and more companies are recognizing Udacity course completion as an official education background.

Online courses have become an innovative, efficient, and inexpensive way for individuals, from high school students preparing for college coursework to middle-aged workers who want to achieve a higher-paying job, to excel. Gaining credit for these courses is not a far-fetched goal, and the professional gains are already apparent with companies like Google partnering with Udacity for a certificate in “Programming Proficiency.”

While a traditional college experience will remain intact and continue to be the best choice for many students, higher education has indeed been diversified, revamped, and expanded and the ability to offer it to all those who want it has strengthened tremendously.

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