MOOCs: Worth a look for free higher education

by Lynn B. Johnson on February 13, 2013

With the rising cost of higher education, my husband and I joke that we’re going to homeschool our children for college. With the advent and rise in popularity of Massive Open Online Courses —MOOCs— we might not have to.


MOOCs are free, typically non-credit classes offered by universities and online-education providers to thousands of students who attend class online. Some courses have upward of 100,000 students.

One of the largest online-education providers is Coursera. Coursera bills itself as “a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.” Their courses consist of lectures and interactive exercises in a “learn at your own pace” environment — so long as you complete the course in the time allotted. Course topics span “the Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, Computer Science, and many others.” Potential “Courserians” can search for courses based on start date, duration, name, newest offerings, or what’s upcoming. Course listings include the name and educational home of each professor: a look at upcoming February and March courses include professors from Stanford University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Columbia University.

MOOC Advantages

Benefits of attending a MOOC include bolstering your resume, becoming a more well-rounded worker, or just the opportunity to learn more about a subject you may have missed during your educational career.

As far as the quality of education provided by Coursera, the American Council on Education announced last week that four of the offerings are “worthy of college credit — if anti-cheating measures are enforced.”

Among the four courses are:

  • A pre-calculus class from UC Irvine
  • Two courses in genetics and bioelectricity from Duke University
  • A calculus class from University of Pennsylvania

MOOCs are likely to become a bigger deal as states seek new ways to increase enrollment while limiting costs. San Jose State University (disclosure: my alma mater, for both my BA and MFA) partnered with Udacity to create San Jose State Plus, which offers online courses for academic credit. The three courses currently offered for credit include entry-level math, college algebra, and elementary statistics. Each class comes with a fee of $150, and enrollment is currently limited to veterans, high-school and community-college students, and students at San Jose State.


As expected with some MOOCs enrolling upwards of 100,000 students, drop-out rates are high.  Remember, just because you don’t have to plant yourself in a classroom doesn’t mean you don’t have to turn in your assignments on time.

Additionally, it will be interesting to see where the future of MOOCs leads, economically speaking. Coursera and Udacity have each raised $22 million in venture capital, but as of yet lack a sustaining business model.


If you’re not interested in learning with hundreds of thousands of other students, there are plenty of other online-learning venues. A few years ago, I took an online course from ed2go, which promises “online learning anytime, anywhere… just a click away.” This course was not a MOOC, primarily because it was not free-of-charge and it only had 15 students.  I did appreciate the flexibility of being able to catch up on printed lectures whenever, but missed the structure of a physical classroom. I finished that course, though, and learned information that I use to this day. Not bad, particularly considering the course fee was $89.00 and it lasted for 12 sessions spread over six weeks. It included interactive discussions and the typical homework assignments you’d expect from a traditional classroom setting.

2U – a company founded by the creator of The Princeton Review – has also partnered with a number of high-profile universities from around the country to offer online-based graduate-level education.  These programs do charge tuition, but they also put you on the path to a degree from a respected institution, such as the University of Southern California, Georgetown University, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As someone who has both learned and taught at the college level and beyond, I can’t recommend that you pursue a 100-percent online undergraduate degree. MOOCs might not offer credit, but they are also not diploma mills or for-profit universities. University of Phoenix announced last October that it would be closing 115 of its physical locations, and that three-quarters of its students learn online. Negative publicity and “growing competition from other online providers, including nonprofit and universities” are helping to shift students away from the for-profit “university” sector.


Ultimately, if you are looking to improve your software skills, your writing skills, or to brush up on some new techniques without having to enroll in a local community college or attend courses at a specific time, MOOCs are worth a look. You can find courses on nearly any topic by visiting one of the outfits mentioned here or by doing an Internet search for “MOOC aggregator.” One such aggregator,, lists courses from Coursera, Udacity, and others.

Even if you don’t take a course for credit, it can help you become a more valuable employee, and the personal initiative shown by a MOOC attendee can’t hurt when performance-review time comes around.

If you’re seeking a full undergraduate degree, though, investigate the community colleges and four-year universities in your local area; they may not be free, but in-state tuition is considerably less expensive than out-of-state.

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