Welcome to the world of MOOCs

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Written by Ronny De Winter Last updated on December 17th, 2019

M assive: can be taken by lots of students (some courses had more than 1 million learners!)

O pen: accessible for everyone, with no or few prerequisites                                                  

O nline: learn whenever you want wherever you want                                                            

C ourse: a unit of teaching, led by one or more instructors

MOOCs have become an attractive way to keep up with lifelong learning. They give you the freedom of what you want to learn, where and when. Free online courses are available from the best experts and universities in the world.

With the thousands of MOOCs online today it can be daunting to choose the best courses for your needs. They differ in many ways. This is a short guide about MOOC characteristics and how to include them in your course selection.

The Course Subject is probably your main selection criterium. Good starting points on Class Central are either the Course search box on the homepage or the All Subjects page. The All Subjects page presents a comprehensive two-level Taxonomy of all possible learning subjects.

For the course Schedule look for either the Start Date and Duration in weeks, or Self paced when you can start whenever you want and learn at your own pace. Term-based courses follow a structured weekly schedule. They are repeated often. On some you can switch to the next term if you couldn’t keep up with the current schedule. The Study time (hours a week) gives an indication on the effort an average student needs to process the learning materials.

The University (or college or company) that delivers the course: Class Central has information on 800+ universities that offer online courses. Among those are top universities like Harvard, Stanford and MIT. Often the Instructor(s) of MOOCs are worldwide authorities in their field of study.

The Platform Provider offers you the internet platform with its learning features, like videos, quizzes, and discussion fora. The major global providers are Coursera, edX, FutureLearn and Udacity. Some providers also have tablet and smartphone Apps to allow you to study during your commutes. Before you start learning on a new platform it helps if you walk through the application to become familiar with its features.

Most courses are in English. If English is not your mother tongue you might prefer a course in your own Language. Many countries around the world have launched their own country-specific MOOC platform (See also MOOC providers around the world).

Based on this first set of selection criteria you can read the Course Descriptions, syllabi and course reviews, and look for other criteria to select the right course for you.

The course Syllabus and the Class Central Reviews will give you an indication of the Level of the course. Is it an introductory, intermediate or advanced course? Are there any Prerequisites to be taken into account before starting the course?

Are you just learning for fun / out of interest, or do you want a Certificate as proof of your study for your (future) employer or customer? Or maybe you are interested in getting a full online Degree? Some courses give you Credits you can use as part of your university degree.

A lot of the courses can be followed for Free. However when you need a certificate or credits there often will be a Price tag. Sometimes assignments, quizzes and exams are also behind a paywall. You better check for these to avoid surprises later on in the course. If you cannot afford the associated fee, for example because you are living in a developing economy, you can apply for Financial Aid (Coursera and edX platforms). Anyway when going for a verified certificate, you can often start with the Free Trial and wait with Upgrading as long as possible. Sometimes you can even buy the certificate after you finish the course. Coursera is also testing a Subscription Model, where learners get access to their whole course catalog for a fixed monthly fee of $49.

Every MOOC course is divided into Weekly Units, typically modules with all the learning content for one week (self paced courses allow you to reduce or extend this weekly rhythm). Most of the units will have Video Lectures, Quizzes and Forum Discussions. Often you will also have additional Reading Materials, Optional Videos, Exercises, Peer Reviewed Assignments where you review up to 5 assignments of your peer students, and Exams. In some courses the Instructors and/or Teaching Assistants participate actively on the forum or have weekly Online Office Hours. Occasionally for paid courses you can find courses having Timed Exams and Virtual Proctoring (a person remotely overseeing you taking the exam), Teamwork, Hand Graded exercises and exams, and Blended Learning (combined on-campus and online learning). When you enroll into a course, take the time in the first week to explore the weekly units and the learning aids. Try to estimate how much time you need for each of these and free up space in your agenda accordingly.

MOOCs give you the opportunity to significantly enhance your learning experiences. However take care to select the right courses for you. If not they can be a waste of time. Class Central is an essential resource to find the best courses: Top 50 free online courses of all time, Course Popularity, Reviews and Ratings.

MOOCs in a bigger context

MOOCs are often part of a bigger program that leads to a certified specialization, an online degree or even an online master. Before enrolling into one of these extensive programs ensure yourself the content and format satisfies you. Experiment with one or more free courses first to get comfortable with MOOCing.

Before spending on online education programs it might also be a good idea to verify to what extent the certificates and degrees are valued by your (future) employer.

The bigger platforms Coursera and edX have dedicated platforms for corporations, to help them develop and track customised learning & development programs that fit the company’s needs. Don’t hesitate to talk to your employer about these, or at least ask if they can pay for your certified courses.

Lifelong learning should be part of everybody’s continuous attention to well-being, similar to eating healthy food, exercising, and sleeping well.

Class Central has more tips for you: Managing Your Lifelong Learning Has Never Been Easier

Class Central's Help Center represents our best effort to answer the most common questions new learners face. It may not be completely accurate in every circumstance.

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