When I attended college, "distance education," as it’s called today, was just gathering steam. In fact, it really wasn't even a viable option for me when I was choosing a school. Today, distance education is worldwide, legitimate and high quality, and ever more ways to learn are being developed. The latest incarnation is a type of distance learning called "MOOC," or "Massive Online Open Courses." Learn about MOOCs, how to enroll, what they’re like, and how these courses can help you succeed.

What’s a MOOC?

In short, a MOOC is an online alternative to traditional higher learning. MOOCs give today's students financial and scheduling flexibility without sacrificing quality of learning.

President Obama has highlighted the potential of MOOCs to lower higher education costs and make higher education accessible to many more interested students.

Are MOOCs legit? 

They sure are, according to the New York Times, which dubbed 2012 "The Year of the MOOC," citing MOOC programs at several highly respected universities as proof.

Prominent MOOCs include:

  • edX: A nonprofit start-up MOOC underwritten by Harvard University and the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT) that offers students online courses from premier universities around the world.
  • Coursera: Stanford University's for-profit alternative boasts that it is "growing faster than Facebook." To date, it has welcomed more than 10 million students to take 894 courses.
  • Udacity: This private venture MOOC is a partnership that grew out of a single online course (which attracted 160,000+ enrollees) and specializes in "Nanodegrees," online-degree plans that cost a flat $200 per month and graduate students qualified to take on entry level technical jobs (nanodegrees arose out of a partnership between Udacity and AT&T).


How do MOOCs work?

Many MOOCs, like the three cited above, are partnerships or consortiums formed between two or more entities. Some are privately held and funded, while others are nonprofit, and still others are open source. Most importantly, some (most at this point) courses are offered free of charge, while others (such as nanodegree programs) may carry a fee.

The process to enroll in a MOOC is surprisingly simple:

  • Locate the course you want to take.
  • Create a username and password.
  • Answer some very basic questions (varies by course–can include "highest level of education completed," "why you want to enroll," gender and DOB, etc. These answers do not affect your ability to enroll).
  • Agree to Terms of Service and enroll! 

3 Keys to benefit the most from MOOCs 

Here are three tips to ensure you get the most out of your enrollment in MOOCs coursework.

1. To benefit the most from MOOCs, it’s important to pick a learning focus.

I spent just a few minutes scrolling through the extensive course listing for edX.org. I found courses on everything from "The Science of Happiness" to "Principles of Written English," "Programming in Scratch" to "Economics of Cybersecurity." So you can learn about pretty much anything that interests you—it’s up to you to choose!

2. Another key is to clarify your goals.

Are you taking a MOOC course to add to your resume (it never hurts to mention you have taken Harvard coursework on your resume!)? Are you trying a new career on for size? Do you want to change careers now (as such, a Udacity nanodegree may be just the thing!)? Do you want to expand your career network?

In fact, many degreed professionals—some with master’s or doctoral level credentials—enroll in MOOCs specifically for networking purposes in their field. Many MOOCs foster the creation of local or online study and networking groups that can lead to future collaborations.

Coursera has pioneered a series of “Specializations”—targeted coursework that aims to build your knowledge in a specific area. You can learn about everything from data mining to fundamentals of entrepreneurship, skills you can put to use for your own career goals.

3. For best results, view them as a learning enhancement rather than a standalone program.

Because most MOOC coursework at this point is not designed to "graduate" a student with a specific degree plan into a specific field, the best way to get the most out of MOOC courses is to view them as an enhancement to any degree program you may currently be pursuing.

Note: If you’re currently enrolled in another degree plan, it certainly can't hurt to ask your institution if you can receive "independent study" or "internship" credit from some of the MOOC courses you take!

What about $$$?

As mentioned earlier, most MOOC coursework is offered free of charge at this point, which is largely made possible through partnerships or collectives (for instance, Coursera currently partners with Yale, John Hopkins, Wesleyan, Duke and others).

Because MOOCs themselves are still so shiny and new, there will likely be many developments in the years to come, including the development of additional fee-based online degree plans (of which Udacity's nanodegrees are just one forward-thinking example).


MOOCs: How to Enroll and How They Help You Save & Succeed