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Emerging Trends in Online Education: A Resource Guide to Massive Open Online Courses

Massive Open Online Courses:
Access to quality education has long been a subject of discussion as have issues surrounding teaching methods and ways to create and foster spaces conducive to learning. With new technologies becoming increasingly abundant, in the past several years many platforms have opened with the goal of providing knowledge and education to a global audience.

The goal of this resource guide is to provide readers with an overview of massive open online courses (MOOC), which are courses that are supported by internet technology to make knowledge accessible to students from all over the world. These courses are administered by independent companies and university consortiums that grant access to course material, which includes lectures and interactive activities. In addition the relevance of MOOCSfor the PCDN community will be explored.

Though MOOCs have emerged as a powerful tool in disseminating knowledge, their use has not been without critiques. Thus, this guide will also shed light on the pros and cons of MOOCs and suggestions from critics who want to restrict their use in some capacity.

As always, please feel free to add your insights, questions, information about additional platforms/courses, and/or comments below.

What are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?
Massive open online courses, represent a recent trend in online education, with many universities offering their top caliber courses through platforms such as Coursera, edX, Udemy, and Udacity.  Not only do these MOOCs offer students the ability to gain knowledge from courses taught at some of the world’s top universities, they also allow for an environment for individuals who are interested in similar topics to come together and learn alongside one another.  A key focus of the MOOC model is learning through the experiences of others and because of the wide reach and growth of MOOCs, students are exposed to a variety of individuals with varying life experiences and residences all over the world.  Moreover, with quick advances in technology, many of these courses are reaching tens of thousands of people from around the world in single courses.

Topics covered by MOOCs and Accessibility:

MOOCs cover an extensive range of topics from computer science to international relations to art history and offer courses of interest to almost anyone in the world.  MOOC courses consist largely of video lectures, group projects that can be done virtually, peer-to-peer assessments, and physical meet-ups for students who may residing in the same area.  Moreover, the courses can be viewed at whatever time is most convenient to the learner, thus offering the flexibility that many individuals need for knowledge acquisition.  Further, platforms such as Coursera, strive to make their content as accessible as possible by providing accommodations to individuals with disabilities such as closed captioning for courses.

MOOCs:  Length of courses, technical requirements, and certification:
The duration of courses vary, with some classes ranging from 4-6 weeks and others from 10-12 weeks.  MOOCs tend to have a low retention rate because they rely exclusively on the learner’s motivation.  Kohler, Ng, Do, and Chen (2013) estimate a 5% completion rate (using Coursera data) based to initial enrollements, percentage who complete the first assignment to the students who complete the course in full.

Most of the MOOCs rely on a business model that entails providing courses for free, while charging students for certification or credit denoting completion of courses. This MOOC business model also operates on the premise that students who take free courses, may, at a later date sign up for paid courses or enroll at a given university. The platform Udacity offers students the option to take university level courses and obtain course credit by paying a small fee.  The breadth and free/low cost courses allows students to take courses in subjects that they are interested in, in addition to courses which they may help in boosting their technical skills in a given area.

While most of the online educational platforms offer free courses, Udemy also administers a range of paid courses.  Paid courses on Udemy range largely from $19-$200, with a handful of classes costing $299+.  Yuan and Powell (2013) compiled a table below which includes the offerings of some of the key MOOC platform/initiatives:

Table 1: Comparison of key aspects of MOOCs or Open Education initiatives (from Yuan and Powell, 2013, article cited in resources):


MOOCs: Pros and Cons
One of the biggest pros of MOOCs is that they have successfully allowed millions of students to gain access to courses in higher education. Additionally, many MOOC have no enrollment limit which enables tens of thousands of students to take the course simultaneously, while still others offer access to courses after they technically end. Moreover, rather than simply utilizing rote lecturing techniques, the MOOCs include a number of interactive activities and student to student interaction.

While MOOC have made education accessible to millions around the globe, many have criticized MOOCs on a number of fronts. One criticism of MOOCs pertains to the difficulty in sustaining student engagement for online courses, the difficulty in enforcing academic integrity standards, and the difficulty in providing quality feedback (much of which is done peer to peer), because of the sheer size of the classes. Other critics of MOOCs worry that this type of learning will take away from the traditional learning environment, especially in regards to the well established benefits of in-person learning and the mentorship from course professors that often results from classes where students are physically present. Still others worry about intellectual property as Professors put their individually designed courses online with access to a global audience.

Upcoming MOOCs of interest to the PCDN community:
Coursera, was one of the first platforms to begin offering MOOCs. Coursera works with partner universities and organizations to offer free courses. To date, Coursera offers over 300 courses in various topics, such as medicine, biology and social sciences. Examples of upcoming courses that may be of interest to PCDN members include 1) An Introduction to Global Health through the University of Copenhagen; 2) Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World also through the University of Copenhagen; 3) Conditions of War and Peace through the University of Tokyo; 4) International Organizations Management through the University of Geneva; 5) Computing for Data Analysis through John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; 6) Conditions of War and Peace through The University of Tokyo; 7) The Age of Sustainable Development through Columbia University.

As MOOCs become more popular, it seems reasonable to expect that course offerings will become broader in order to cater to the interests of individuals around the globe. Currently, many of these platforms collect data on their course offerings, student retention, etcetera, thus, if students are consistently enrolling in and completing courses in development, conflict resolution, peace studies, international relations, and others, then we can be optimistic about such platforms broadening the scope of classes available to and of interest to PCDN members.

Below is a list of additional platforms that provide access to MOOCs.
edX: Is a non-profit online education project out that was started by the Massachusetts of Technology and Harvard University. These two universities along with a consortium of other universities offer a range of classes. Upcoming courses of interest to PCDN members include:

Globalization’s Winners and Losers: Challenges for Developed and D… through Georgetown University
Age of Globalization through University of Texas Austin
Introduction to Global Sociology through Wellesley University

Future Learn: Is an online educational initiative that will be launched later this year. Future Learn will be partnering with various universities to offer online courses free of cost.

Khan Academy: The Khan Academy has been around for the longest time and served as a precursor and model for many of the current MOOCs. You can watch videos at any time and at your own pace. Khan Academy includes courses in Math, Science and Economics, Humanities, and Test Prep.

OpenupEd: Is a MOOC initiative supported by the European Commission. This platform offers free courses in a variety of subjects and languages. Courses that may be of interest to PCDN members include:

History and Institutions of the European Union
European Area of Freedom, Security, and Justice

Udacity: Is an online education platform that grew out of efforts by two Stanford instructors who provided free access to a course they were teaching. The goal of Udacity is specifically to provide access to higher education to students around the world. Udacity offers free courses in the fields of business, computer science, mathematics, physics, and psychology.

Udemy: Udemy is an online platform for MOOCs. Udemy instructors have expertise in a range of fields and come from various backgrounds. Udemy receives funding from numerous sources, including Insight Venture Partners, Lightbank and others. This platform provides a combination of free and paid courses. You can also start your own course on the site. Courses can be accessed at any time. Course that may be of interest to PCDN members include (and which are free):

The U.S. Constitution: A Biography
International Relations 101
Is American Democracy Broken: Perspectives and Debates

MOOCs: Stay Connected: Here are a few sites to keep members informed on the MOOC world
Mooc Provider Directory

Other Resources:
“What we’re learning from online education,” Tedx Talk with Coursera co-founder, Daphne Koller

A Conversation about Massive Open Online Courses by Derek Bruff, Center for Teaching Director at Vanderbilt University.

“Instructions for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls,” article by Tamir Lewin in the New York Times, March 4th, 2012.

“The Year of the MOOC,” article by Laura Pappano in the New York Times, November 2nd, 2012.

“MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education,” by Li Yuan and Stephen Powell, JISC CETIS, March 2013.

“Retention and Intention in Massive Open Online Courses: In Depth,” by Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng, Chuong Do, and Zhenghao Chen, June 3rd, 2013.

“White Paper: Massive Open Online Courses,” by Dr. Lindsay Ryan, January 2013.

“Open Education on the Move: An Interview with Vijay Kumar,” by Robin Fizz, September 20th, 2012

“A Comprehensive List of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) Provide… by Tarique Haider, April 24th, 2013.

We hope this resource guide on MOOCs has been useful and we invite you again to add any comments, questions, etc. to further enrich our knowledge and discussion of this emerging trend in online education.

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