Seeking career skills online? Here's what you need to know about MOOCs

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If you dream of delving into the world of health care and entrepreneurship with the profs at Harvard, wading into some quantum mechanics with the brains at MIT or brushing up on a little Civil War history through Columbia University, you can, regardless of your academic or financial background. MOOCs, short for massive open online courses, are digital classes from colleges across the U.S. that are free for any student with Internet access. Available through online platforms like edX, Coursera and Udacity, MOOCs have been hailed as the potential solution to increasing access to higher education, eliminating student debt and broadening the reach of American colleges and universities to students across the globe.

Students are enrolling by the droves. Nearly 600,000 took at least one of the first 17 free online courses offered through MIT or Harvard between fall 2012 and summer 2013 alone. Nearly three-quarters of the 840,000+ who registered for classes were from countries outside the United States. Since then, MOOCs have dramatically expanded, with even more name-brand institutions including Stanford, Georgetown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Berklee College of Music and Wellesley offering free classes for anyone and everyone. Research from Deloitte estimates that by the end of this year, more than 10 million students worldwide will have at least registered for one course. Read more below.

How do MOOCs work?

MOOCs are delivered online, but they're not the same thing as online courses targeted to a smaller audience. MOOCs frequently consist of prerecorded video lectures, which are often exact lectures recorded from brick-and-mortar versions of the course, combined with readings, supplemental course materials and sometimes interactive elements like discussion forums or peer reviews. Students take MOOCs at their own pace, generally don't submit any assignments and don't receive feedback from an instructor.

Getting students enrolled in MOOCs is much easier than getting them all the way through, says Laura Perna, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. An analysis of 16 MOOCs offered through UPenn shows that, on average, only about 4 percent of students actually completed their course, but Perna is quick to note that the study did not include a measure of how well students learned the material. The aforementioned study of MIT's and Harvard's MOOC offerings reveals similar results.

How much do students learn?

"The low number does raise questions about how these courses are being structured to promote engagement [and] how they're being targeted to reach particular audiences," Perna says, adding that even with the low completion rates, MOOCs bring in such large numbers of students that a substantial number of enrollees are making it through. "… There's a lot more that we need to know if we're really serious about MOOCs as being a mechanism for addressing these more important problems."

It's not that MOOC students are unable to learn the material. In one Stanford artificial intelligence course, a class that was offered in both in-person and MOOC formats, the top 410 students all took the online version of the class, according to CNN. But one of the major trump cards traditional academia holds over massive online courses is help from a live instructor, says Harman Singh, founder and CEO of WizIQ, a platform that offers live and interactive online classes as well as MOOCs.

"MOOCs, as they are right now without teacher engagement, are an Internet version of a book," he says. Later, he adds, "unless teacher engagement is brought into the picture and actually made one of the central features of MOOCs, I don't think MOOCs can go too far, and I think everyone who's delivering MOOCs realizes that's a problem."It's also not entirely clear how, or if, MOOCs are applicable in the real world, mainly it's hard to quantify how well students have learned the material. The vast majority of MOOCs aren't offered for credit. Companies like edX allow students the option of getting completion certifications once their class is over. Pennsylvania State University offers one MOOC class for college credit, but students pay a reduced price of $333 per credit for the benefit.

The professional benefit of MOOCs

Even if you don't earn credit or certification, MOOCs that are taken for professional development may still have a place among top jobs in the working world — especially if the candidate can prove that they've mastered those skills, says Nihal Parthasarathi, co-founder and CEO of CourseHorse, an education search engine that helps students find local and online classes.

"Independent, non-credentialed instruction probably has the largest impact in an interview or in a skills test when you're applying for a job," he says. "The credentialing side of things is still a major part of how people get jobs today, at least in the earlier stages of their careers, but the skills end up [being] what help you close a deal on a job or convince an employer that you're capable of achieving that."

The MOOC landscape is also changing as both private companies and universities strive to increase the level of interactivity and student engagement. For now, the relatively new courses aren't yet the disruptors they could be, but they are good first step, Harman Singh says.

"Are [MOOCs] going to transform education? Maybe," he says, "but right now, it's not going to shut down universities."


"Is Sebastian Thrun's Udacity the future of higher education?," William J. Bennett, CNN.com, July 5, 2012,

"The Civil War and Reconstruction," Columbia University, edX.org,


"Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): not disruptive yet, but the future looks bright," Technology, Media & Telecommunications Predictions 2014: Middle East, Deloitte, pg. 1

"Entrepreneurship and Healthcare in Emerging Economics, Harvard University, edX.org,

"HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-Summer 2013," Andrew Dean Ho, et. al, Social Science Research Network, Jan. 21, 2014, pgs. 2 and 25,

"Mastering Quantum Mechanics," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, edX.org,

"MOOC-for-credit explores social science of wrongful convictions," Kate Miffitt, Penn State News, May 27, 2014,

"edX Offers Proctored Exams for Open Online Course," Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 6, 2012

Nihal Parthasarathi, Co-founder and CEO of CourseHorse, Interviewed by the author on June 27, 2014

"Penn GSE study shows MOOCs have relatively few active users, with only a few persisting to course end," Penn Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, Dec. 5, 2013,

Dr. Laura Perna, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, Interviewed by the author on June 25, 2014

Harman Singh, Founder and CEO of WizIQ, Interviewed by the author on June 26