It seems like life as we know it is becoming virtual.

Allergic to dogs, cats and rabbits? You can own a virtual, albeit freaky-looking, pet through the Viacom subsidiary Neopets. Just got laid off, dumped and robbed all in one day? With Kaneva, you can start your life over in new, virtual environs.

But what about education? Nothing can replace the excitement of the first day of school, walking into a classroom with a backpack full of freshly-sharpened colored pencils and crayons and wearing an outfit that was picked out several months in advance (this statement was obviously intended for my elementary school audience).

Well guess what? Even education is getting quite the virtual makeover in the form of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

MOOCs symbolize just how society is transforming and adapting to technology and education. Though we aren’t driving around in flying cars and being served tea by robots named Rosie, we are living in a Jetsons-like era. Google has created a driverless car that performs better than humans. 3D printers are able to manufacture medical devices and architectural blueprints. We are living in a century where knowledge and innovation are at its best.

But with so many brilliant minds out there, top-notch universities are having trouble accommodating all of them. Education is becoming something that only the middle- to upper-classes can afford. The UC system, for example, is raising tuition annually, which will lead to price tags that eventually will surpass those of some, if not many, private schools.

And therein lies the MOOC’s appeal. Most MOOCs are free to take (Udemy charges for some of their courses), and some charge a modicum fee for users who want accreditation.

MOOCs are also very flexible, unlike in-person courses. Each MOOC has its own way of structuring courses (Udacity recommends that users spend 1 week per unit), which means that users are able to finish courses where they want, how they want and when they want.

MOOCs also act as yet another stepping stone for more technological revolutions and revelations to come. Social networks share information with and about others. MOOCs share thoughts and create massive learning communities. What is the next step in sharing and technology?

Unfortunately, MOOCs are not too good to be true. There are downsides to MOOCs as well as some improvements that need to be made.

For instance, MOOCs thrive on the money of venture capitalists and angel investors. Without their support, there is no way that MOOCs could provide the nearly free education that they do (for the time being).

So far, MOOCs have not found a way to effectively substitute group projects or class presentations. Students who solely use MOOCs will not be able to apply their knowledge in real-world social situations or experiences.

There is no way of knowing whether students are being academically honest when it comes to MOOCs. Users in the past have tried to make multiple accounts so they could receive accreditation on one account after having gone through a course on another account.

There is no way of keeping students on track either. Many students will take a course but will not take the final. Many students become interested in MOOCs and create an account, but end up failing to maintain active or even sign-up for a course.

And of course, accreditation cannot compete with tangible degrees. But there is hope: schools are working with MOOCs to allow students to earn units that will go towards diplomas and degrees.

As a college student and a user of MOOCs, I still feel that MOOCs are nowhere near the level where they can replace a formal college education. When meaningful degrees can be rewarded, when ways to track down cheating can be implemented, when social projects can be incorporated in a curriculum, that is when MOOCs will reach the ultimate turning point in virtual education and, really, education in general.

But for those who are looking to just play around with MOOCs or are very interested in taking some courses, here are my recommendations:

With over a million users, Coursera has teamed up with 16 universities, including Princeton and Stanford, to provide students with courses ranging from Quantum Mechanics to A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior. Not far behind in terms of registered user count is Udacity, the MOOC brainchild of Stanford professor and Googler Sebastian Thrun. Focused more on computer science-based courses, Udacity encourages participation and stresses the importance of “learning from mistakes” with frequent (but extremely helpful and useful) quizzes that won’t hurt your grade. Harvard and MIT have teamed up to create edX, which has just recently announced courses that will be available in the fall. More than any other MOOC, edX seems to be the most millennial-friendly in terms of website design and approach. Last but not least, Khan Academy, which is more like an extensive and public depository for educational and instructional videos, posts videos for all kinds of subjects and has just announced the launch of its new computer science tutorials. Khan Academy uses objectives and virtual rewards to maintain the fun in learning, which makes it attractive to people of all ages.

What’s your opinion on MOOCs? Have they changed your life? Is this the first time you have ever heard of them? Let me know in the comments!


3 thoughts on “To MOOC Or Not To MOOC…

  1. Wow! I can’t believe I have never heard of this before. In the past I have paid for college courses that were online and have used to start teaching myself other languages, however MOOCs have somehow eluded me. Thank you for the eye opening post! I will definitely look into this and see what it can do for me.

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