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MOOCs: Online courses might change face of higher education

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GREENSBORO — The hot new thing in higher education is online, open to everyone — and free.

They’re called MOOCs, which is short for “massive open online course.” (It’s pronounced “mook” and rhymes with “Duke.”) These online courses are taught by top professors at some of the world’s best-known universities. Millions of people with the desire to learn have logged into a MOOC.

Even local organizations are boarding the MOOC train. The Center for Creative Leadership is offering one, and UNCG is making two.

MOOCs might end up tearing down the ivory towers of academia. Or they might be a passing fad like MySpace and that “Gangnam Style” video. Whichever it is, here’s a primer on the MOOC phenomenon.

How they work

A MOOC is a lot like a college class, and there’s a MOOC in just about every subject.

An instructor — usually a college professor but sometimes not — lectures and gives tests and class assignments. The difference here is that the lectures are on video, all class work is done online, and students discuss class topics on online forums. Some MOOCs use students to grade other students’ work; other MOOCs grade quizzes automatically or don’t give grades at all.

MOOCs usually run between four and 12 weeks. Some start and stop on a fixed schedule, while others are self-paced.

Students who pass a MOOC might get a certificate that says they completed the course.

Students don’t need to apply to take a MOOC. All they need is a computer, an Internet connection, some free time and a desire to learn.

The players

Two computer science professors at Stanford University founded Coursera ( in 2012. In just over a year, the catalog of the for-profit company has grown to more than 450 courses, 91 U.S. and international university partners, and 4 million students worldwide.

Udacity ( grew out of a course that two Stanford University professors put online in 2011. (“Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” attracted 160,000 students from more than 190 countries.) This for-profit company offers 28 courses, mostly in computer science and mathematics.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched EdX ( in 2012. This not-for-profit venture offers 75 courses from 29 high-profile American and international universities.

Hedge fund manager (and MIT graduate) Salman Khan launched Khan Academy ( in 2008 after posting YouTube math tutorials online to help his niece and other family members. The not-for-profit now has more than 4,800 short instructional videos online, most of them narrated by Khan. The company claims 6 million unique users per month and said it has delivered more than 300 million lessons.

The cost

Most MOOCs are free. A few charge for selected courses. Coursera students can pay up to $90 to get a certificate saying they completed a course.

Because they don’t charge tuition, most MOOC providers are surviving on venture capital or university support.

College credit

Taking a bunch of Harvard MOOCs won’t make you a Harvard graduate — at least not yet.

That’s because MOOC providers don’t regularly proctor online exams or verify the identities of the students.

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There’s also a quality-control issue: Universities said they don’t know if MOOCs measure up to their standards.

The American Council on Education, the nation’s top higher education organization, has recommended that colleges give credit to 10 MOOCs, including two created by Duke professors. So far, only a handful of colleges give course credit for MOOCs.

The trailblazer on this front is Georgia Tech, which will offer an online master’s degree in computer science via Udacity’s

MOOCs starting in January. (More on that in a minute.)

North Carolina ties

Duke University (14 courses) and UNC-Chapel Hill (four courses) both

offer MOOCs through Coursera. “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue,” a philosophy course taught by UNC’s Ram Neta and Duke’s Walter Sinott-Armstrong, drew more than 130,000 students this fall and is one of Coursera’s most popular MOOCs.

Duke Provost Peter Lange sits on Coursera’s advisory board, and Duke English professor Cathy Davidson is on Udacity’s board. (She’ll also teach a Coursera class in 2014.)

UNCG is developing two MOOCs: “Passion of the Western Mind” by Stephen Ruzicka, an associate professor in history, and “Web Design and Usability” by Anthony Chow, an assistant professor in library and information studies.

Greensboro’s Center for Creative Leadership is offering a MOOC (“Leadership for Real”) through the Canvas Network. About 4,200 students signed up for the eight-week course that started in September.


Proponents said MOOCs are revolutionary — a cheap, high-quality alternative to expensive, exclusive universities.

For some people, a MOOC will be their only way to get access to an expert in a particular field. For others, especially adults or those who live overseas, it’s a free way to get a taste of a top U.S. university without having to apply or spend the money.

As Coursera puts it, “we envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.”

Georgia Tech’s new online master’s degree in computer science shows how cost-effective MOOCs might be. Plenty of universities offer degree programs online, but they don’t give students a discount. Georgia Tech’s three-year program will cost just $6,600 — or less than a third of what Georgia residents pay for traditional on-campus degrees.


How does a professor interact with tens of thousands of students? How do students collaborate with classmates thousands of miles away? How do professors evaluate whether students learned the material? How do you prevent cheating? How does anyone make any money on this? These are some of the questions that critics raise.

MOOCs have a huge dropout problem. Only about 10 percent of students who start a MOOC actually finish it.

The big question — do they work? — is one that friends and foes wrestle with.

“Everyone in the research field agrees that, for the particular purpose of replacing on-campus education, the evidence (for MOOCs) is ambiguous at best,” Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and research director for Harvard’s EdX courses, told The Hechinger Report last month.

In a refrain that you hear all over higher education, Ho added, “Far more research is needed.”

​Contact John Newsom at 373-7312 and follow @JohnFNewsom on Twitter.

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Related to this story

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

Listen now and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | RSS Feed | Omny Studio

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