Online education and the rise of the MOOC

The web has shaped many aspects of our lives in the last few years; for example how we communicate, consume news, or shop for books, music and films. Our networked world is also having a significant impact on education. There has been an massive expansion in the availability of online courses, with just about any area in which you want to expand your knowledge now available for your browsing pleasure.


I have been exploring online education resources for some months now; I have finished a few courses, I’m taking two at the moment, and the list of courses I plan to do in future is growing. So, my perspective on this is that of a learner. I want to expand my knowledge and skills, but lack the time or money to return to formal education. The web, as it turns out, offers an excellent alternative, and a lot of it is free.

If you want to dip your toe in the world of online education without commitment, Khan Academy and the free learning resources at the Open University are a good place to start, as is Udemy, which offers a mix of free and paid courses.

If, like me, you like to earn a certificate for your efforts, Udacity and Coursera are good options. Both organisations specialise in free courses from universities around the world – mostly in the US – and each course offers a certificate of completion. Both companies have their roots in Stanford University in California. Both offer course credits for US colleges on a small number of courses, and both offer courses taught by university lecturers.

Coursera and Udacity are among a growing number of companies specialising in MOOCs which, for the uninitiated, are massive open online courses, taken by thousands of people around the world simultaneously. A MOOC usually comprises video lectures, weekly tests, and, sometimes, written assignments, followed by a final exam. How much you commit to a course is up to you; some students simply watch a few videos, others take additional optional assignments to earn a distinction.

Many people who begin a MOOC do not finish – it is not unusual for a course to lose at least half of its students before the final exam – and this is probably due to the non-committal nature of the learning environment. While Coursera courses impose deadlines for assignments and exams, Udacity does not. And, of course, some people want to browse the material without dealing with tests and assignments. The reasons for non-completion are diverse, but MOOCs are nonetheless a valuable free education resource. It is worth shopping around to find courses that interest you, and it is easy and painless to drop out if you find youself taking a course you don’t enjoy.

Personally, I am using MOOCs and other online courses to develop skills I can use in digital journalism. For example, a course I am currently undertaking in internet history, technology and security has led me to plan a follow-up course in web development. It has been an immensely rewarding experience so far.

I may publish some of my essays here, though that is not the primary reason I started this blog.