To many recent university students this is not an unfamiliar scenario; many students have had classes that were available to them from the comfort of their homes. Numerous universities around the world provide webcasts for popular classes, some of these are available to the general public.
Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are expanding the boundaries of higher education. MOOCs are distance-learning methods characterized by large-scale, free and unrestricted access for anyone, anywhere in the world. They help provide university-level courses to those who aren’t rich or privileged enough to pursue their degree at a top ranking institution or study abroad.
MOOCs are available on many platforms; some of the most common ones are Coursera, Udacity, edx, Khan Academy and Duolingo. Many of these MOOCs host courses offered by major universities around the world. These courses usually coincide with semester timings and their curricula match those of the courses offered to full time students at those universities. Many of the professors teaching these courses, with the support of the universities, interact with their students through conference calls, forum discussions, or one-on-one feedback on assignments. Many students also organize local meet-ups or online study groups. The lack of a physical classroom doesn’t hinder the sharing of ideas and collaborative work.
As MOOCs are gaining popularity, more courses are being offered. This is great because education has been a privilege that is not always available to everyone. MOOCs are changing this by opening up the traditionally closed university structures that are restrictive and sometimes leave graduates deep in debt or, worse, unemployed. This also allows students to take up classes they are interested in or would like to explore without fear of repercussions like bad grades or wasted course credits. This also helps life-long learners who may already have university education, be current students, or even retirees. Some people are not in favor of MOOCs.
One of the most common problems is that universities and employers don’t recognize these courses because they are not regulated or validated. In response to this some MOOCs, like Coursera, have started offering a verified certificate at a small premium. While this is not entirely free, or a feasible substitute for a university education, MOOCs are headed in that direction. In fact this issue prompted the establishment of the University of the People. UoPeople describes itself as “the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited, online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally.” It offers online courses based on the principles of e-learning and peer-to-peer learning. They offer 4 undergraduate degrees and are accredited by the Accreditation Commission of the Distance and Education Training Council (DETC). While they don't charge exorbitant tuition fees, they do have a small fee for exams and processing.
Ivy League schools in the US and many other large universities around the world have also set up their own free online courses and resources platform. Harvard, for examples, offers courses ranging from Abstract Algebra to The Heroic and Anti-Heroic in Classical Greek Civilization. In addition to this, many departments and professors from major universities collaborate with websites like Coursera and Udacity, or programs like iTunesU to increase their reach. Even College Board has paired up with Khan Academy to help offer SAT prep courses to the underprivileged. This provides access to the same (or similar) quality of education at almost no cost. The flexible timings allow students to take as long as they need to replaying and understand a lecture, or as little time as they need when you hear topics you already understand.
The increased accessibility is making MOOCs even more popular amongst students and universities. Many Asian universities, such as National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, Peking University, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and The Chinese University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, and many others also offer courses on Coursera. Asian universities and professors are catching on to the trend that popularized MOOCs. This is great, not just to supplement or update your knowledge in your field but also to explore new subject areas and pursue a path of knowledge-based, lifelong learning.