The Rise of MOOCs

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Digital technology has transformed the music, telecommunications, retail, and publishing industries. So it was only a matter of time before it hit higher education. Last fall, three Stanford professors decided to offer their undergraduate courses for free online. Together, those courses attracted 350,000 students from 190 countries. The reach of these courses shocked everyone involved. As one of the faculty members later noted to Stanford Magazine, “in order to reach a comparably sized audience on campus I would have to teach my normal Stanford course for 250 years.”

These massive open online courses (MOOCs) have received a lot of media attention this year — some of it enthusiastic, some of it skeptical. MOOCs are unlikely to replace traditional campuses and university curricula, but they do have the potential to help universities reduce costs and reach impressive numbers of students around the world. How they’ll shape higher education just isn’t clear yet. As Stanford President John Hennessy told The New Yorker, “right now we have more questions than we have answers.” What we do know is that these are the key players in the MOOC space:

Coursera

Founders: Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller (co-CEOs)

Origin: Stanford University

Status: For-profit

Courses: 210

Subjects: Biology; Business; Computer Science; Economics; Electrical and Materials Engineering; Food and Nutrition; Humanities; Information, Technology, & Design; Law; Mathematics; Medicine; Music, Film, and Audio Engineering; Physical and Earth Sciences; Social Sciences; Statistics

University partners: Stanford, Princeton, Penn, Brown, Columbia, Duke, Vanderbilt, Wesleyan, Emory, Johns Hopkins, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio State, Rice, UC-Irvine, UC-San Francisco, U of Florida, U of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, U of Maryland-College Park, U of Pittsburgh, U of Toronto, U of Washington (among others)

Key features: Coursera Career Services will share your information with companies where you might be a good fit for open positions. (That feature depends, though, on which companies subscribe to the service and which universities consent to sharing enrolled students’ information.) Courses have start and end dates, so you have to follow their timeline. Software grades your quizzes and homework, while other students grade your written work. To interact with other students in the course, you can use forums and study groups online or attend a meet-up if there’s one in your area. At the end of the course, you’ll get a certificate signed by the instructor, but without the university’s name.

Udacity

Founders: Andrew Thrun (CEO), Mike Sokolsky (CTO), David Stavens (President, COO)

Origin: Stanford University

Status: For-profit

Courses: 15 (with 4 more on the way)

Subjects: Computer science, physics, mathematics, business

University partners: No official university partners

Key features: Courses don’t have strict start and end dates, so you can take them at your own pace. Udacity has partnered with over 350 companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, and it shares your resume with companies where you might be a good fit for open positions. To interact with other students in the course, you can use the forums and study groups online or attend a meet-up if there’s one in your area. Final exams are proctored at Pearson testing centers and cost $89. At the end of the course, you’ll get a certificate based on your performance: completion, distinction, high distinction, highest distinction.

edX

Founders: M.I.T. and Harvard, Anant Agarwal (President)

Status: non-profit

Courses: 9

Subjects: chemistry, computer science, electronics, public health

University partners: M.I.T., Harvard, Berkeley, UT-Austin, Wellesley, Georgetown

Key features: As a not-for-profit learning platform, edX is building a consortium of “X Universities” that will offer courses through its website. Courses have a start and end date, so you have to follow their timeline. Software grades your exams and homework, but some final exams are proctored at Pearson testing centers and cost a fee. When you complete the course, you get a certificate that includes the edX and university name.

Be sure to check out our infographic: Rise of the MOOCs