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Free Online Degrees and Courses: The Rise of the MOOC

It’s been the talk of the town, but is 2013 the year that online degrees and courses gain traction and take off? Also known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), these online degrees have been gaining worldwide attention and attracting some really interesting comments from students, academics and business leaders. In this article we take a look at what they can offer and what they can’t, and ask the question, will 2013 be the year of the MOOC?

What is Available?

Studying online isn’t a new phenomenon in the grand scheme of things. Services like the Open University in the UK have had online learning environments available for several years now, but it’s the newer services that have stolen the headlines in recent months. Apple set the ball rolling with their iTunes U service, giving iOS owners the ability to access complete courses from leading universities from around the world. It didn’t however, offer the ability to submit coursework or exams for feedback. Enter the University of the People. Established in 2009, it focussed on offering free education to students in order for students to overcome geographic or financial limitations and acquire higher learning. Fast forward two years to 2011 and the likes of Coursera and Udacity begin to appear. These services allow users (the students) to learn with the same type of engaging videos iTunes U offered, but with the chances to complete quizzes and assignments to get a better understanding of the course content. What’s more, they even offer the ability to achieve a certificate of achievement, something that you could legitimately print off and produce during an interview.

It seems as if we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg too, with Future Learn announcing their intention to bring together a range of free, online courses from UK universities. Aimed to compete with it’s American counterparts, Future Learn promises to offer a variety of courses in the same place and under the same brand, making it seemingly simple for students to gain a great skill set without the associated costs of a British education.

How is it different to Traditional Distance Learning Courses?

Traditional Distance Learning courses have been around since long before the internet’s arrival. Whilst they have moved online in recent years, they are still run by individual universities, usually run alongside their ‘physical’ degrees. Some students find that the pressures of work, family or other commitments make it difficult to commit to a study abroad program. Distance Learning allows them to achieve the same overseas degree however, whilst studying from home.

MOOC’s are offered by a collection of institutions, or by organisations who aren’t universities. They are generally free, as opposed to the Distance Learning courses which usually charge fees in line with their traditional degrees.

What they offer

All of the MOOC’s offer the chance to learn new skills and devlop your knowledge in a variety of areas. They all offer slightly different opportunities, for example, Udacity is generally focused on technology courses, whereas Coursera offers a wider variety, including modules in the Sciences and Business. The logistics of how they work differs slightly too, with some courses running to a set schedule, whilst others allow you to start and finish in your own time, allowing you to create an on-demand course, suited to your other commitments.

MOOC’s offer you the chance to learn something that interests you at no monetary cost. It’s a great way to find out a bit more about a particular subject, and can even act as a taster for an actual course, allowing you to gauge whether the impact on your time is manageable. As the courses are usually offered by recognised universities, it’s also a clever way to see if you like the teaching style of a particular institution before committing to travelling overseas to study there.

If you’re more interested in the learning than the qualification, we struggle to see the downsides of the opportunities offered by the MOOC ideology; study anything, anywhere, for free. It seems as if it’s the answer we’ve all been looking for if we’re only concerned with learning, however we all know that in reality, a lot of us are relying on the qualification for a job or career. As more and more universities embrace MOOC’s, we expect to see teaching style and interactive lessons at universities to improve too though, and we think MOOC’s can only help to further higher education.

What you miss

Well the obvious thing you’ll miss out on is the physical experiences. Exploring a different country is a massive reason for choosing to study abroad. Immersing yourself into a different culture and language is something that simply can’t be experienced online. Most MOOC’s won’t give you a degree-level qualification either, as you’re currently restricted to a small selection of modules, and unable to compile these into a degree standard qualification. You are often given a certificate of achievement upon successful completion of the course, but the significance of this, and recognition within business is yet to be seen.

It’s also difficult to learn and assess certain subjects online. The Arts & Humanities rely heavily on student interaction, class discussion and require a human to mark exams, something that the MOOC’s just can’t currently offer. Whilst support networks are available, they are sometimes less obvious to students, and one to one time with tutors is rarely possible, especially when crossing time zones.

2013: The Year of the MOOC?

Whilst we think both paid and free online courses will continue to grow in popularity, until the free courses become more widely recognised amongst business professionals, we don’t think they will be replacing a real study abroad experience. Make no mistake, a certificate from a MOOC looks great on your CV, showing commitment to independent study, but it just won’t be able to offer the same experience as really studying abroad.

We think 2013 will see an increase in the number and variety of modules available to choose between from providers such as Coursera, but we also think there will be an increase in providers to choose between, driving the industry forward and opening up the possibilities for universities to expand their reach worldwide. There will be some innovative ideas that will develop this year, and we think that one day soon, MOOC’s might be the choice of students wishing to study online, choosing MOOC’s over traditional paid-for distance learning courses. However, until the MOOC’s can offer an equivalent qualification to an undergraduate degree, it won’t be able to compete with distance learning courses, let alone a real study abroad experience. 2013 might see the MOOC rise, but the demand for studying abroad won’t be falling!

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