Online course work has been a staple of American higher education for at least a decade. But over the past few years, a new, more ambitious variant known as a MOOC — massive open online course — has challenged traditional assumptions of what an online course can be. MOOCs have redefined who can enroll in college courses, as well as where, when and even why people take online classes.
These classes depend on highly sophisticated digital technology, yet they could not be simpler to use. Signing up takes less time than creating an iTunes account. The major websites already provide dozens of courses, as diverse as basic calculus and European intellectual history.
While there are some significant differences among the major MOOC websites, they share several main elements. Courses are free, and students can receive a certificate of completion at the end. With rare exceptions, you cannot earn college credit for taking one of these courses, at least for now.
MOOCs have reshaped college courses, as three major websites show.
• edX (edx.org)
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created this nonprofit joint venture in May 2012. It has already offered dozens of courses in subjects as diverse as physics, computer science, engineering, literature, ethics, law, medicine and economics. • Twenty-nine universities have signed up to participate, including the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Texas, Austin; Georgetown; Cornell; the Berklee College of Music; the University of Toronto; and the University of Kyoto. • Courses are offered for a designated period of time, with lectures and reading assignments provided in weekly segments. Videos of lectures are generally augmented with exercises, quizzes, labs and simulators. Like other platforms, edX emphasizes interactivity. • You can audit a course — meaning you don't take exams or do writing assignments — or you can fulfill all of the requirements to earn a certificate of completion. • Each course's home page provides an estimate of how many hours a week the course will require.
• Coursera (coursera.org)
Two computer science professors at Stanford began this commercial venture in April 2012. The original partners were Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan. Eighteen months later, Coursera has partnerships with 84 universities and offers more than 400 courses. • Because courses are free, Coursera hopes to generate revenue in other ways, such as by linking corporations with students who have learned specific skills. Coursera does not formally offer the option of auditing a class, but people certainly can. • Like edX, Coursera emphasizes interactivity, both online and by helping to organize in-person study groups in cities around the world. There are also online discussion groups, peer-to-peer forums and peer assessments of writing assignments in some classes. • Courses run for a set length, with material provided each week. Some last four or five weeks, while many go for 12 to 15 weeks.
• Udacity (udacity.com)
This is also a commercial startup. It was begun by several people, including another Stanford professor, in January 2012. • Udacity's offerings are more limited, with a strong emphasis on science, math and computer science. There is also a sprinkling of business, psychology and design courses. About 30 courses are available. • The courses do not start or end on specific dates, and they do not follow a weekly pattern of lectures and assignments. They are entirely self-paced: You start whenever you like and work through the material as quickly or as slowly as you please.