Since massive open online courses began to take off in 2012, the education world has been abuzz with speculation about the potential of these classes, often called MOOCs.
MOOCs were initially heralded as a revolution in higher education, opening up the online doors of colleges and universities to students across the world. Typically MOOCs are provided at no cost, allowing online learners the opportunity to participate in classes at prestigious schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University free of charge.
While some of the buzz around these classes has died down in recent years, more than 101 million students enrolled in a MOOC in 2018, with 11,400 courses available from more than 900 universities, according to an analysis by Class Central, a search engine for MOOCs.
With so many online learners taking these courses, some experts believe MOOCs can help prepare students for college by introducing them to individual schools, setting coursework expectations and offering a risk-free way to explore interests in a variety of fields.
“I see MOOCs as an interesting way for (students) to dabble in things they are interested in,” says Jason Ruckert, vice chancellor and chief digital learning officer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University–Worldwide, which offers aviation and aerospace MOOCs. He adds that “students get a firsthand glimpse of what the courses look and feel like, what the quality is like.”
Ruckert notes online learners can explore colleges without spending a cent on taking classes. This early introduction, he says, allows students to explore their interests before enrolling. Though unsure of the value a MOOC carries on a college application, Ruckert says taking a course does signal “interest in the particular area of study” to college admissions officials.
MOOCs cover a wide range of topics.The University of Pennsylvania, for example, offers a MOOC that explains the college application process.
“The course is constructed to help college counselors as well as families,” says Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at Penn and one of the instructors for the How to Apply to College MOOC, noting that it was launched as a way to provide resources for underserved students.
In Furda’s view, the value of MOOCs depends on how a student uses the courses.
For some students, taking a MOOC is a way to experiment with college-level academic coursework outside of a high school that meets all the student’s educational needs through a robust curriculum, he says. For others, particularly students in schools lacking resources, participating in a MOOC may be a way to supplement their academics with these online courses, which range from humanities topics, such as poetry, to computer science.
Furda says students may either enrich their academics by taking a MOOC or expand their studies beyond a limited curriculum in learning environments that lack resources, such as rural or home-schooled students.
Elizabeth Fomin, an instructional consultant senior at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, sees MOOCs as a way for students to test-drive colleges without a campus visit. Those who enroll at a college where they’ve already taken a course have a head start, she says.
While Fomin doesn’t see a lot of value in listing a MOOC on a college application, she suggests the courses may be more useful in familiarizing high school students with online learning at the next level.
“The stronger their grasp is on the tools that enable you to communicate and collaborate, the better students they’re going to be,” Fomin says.
Before students take a MOOC, Fomin says they should consider the time commitment, noting it may be difficult for learners to add these online courses to an already busy schedule.
“There has to be a level of self-discipline, as with anything that you’re doing more independently,” Furda says of the self-paced courses.
MOOCs are hosted on a variety of platforms, such as Coursera and edX. Unless the course is part of a degree program, which some schools have introduced recently, most MOOCs are non-credit bearing, but for a fee, providers may offer a certificate upon completion.
Furda notes that the value of certificates earned through a MOOC is still unclear. He says admissions officials are unlikely to put a lot of value on a credential earned through a MOOC, instead considering more traditional factors such as standardized test scores and GPA.
Ruckert feels that while the benefit of certificates is still murky, they can signal a student is committed. “I think there is value on the student side; they’re not forced to complete it,” he says.
While many students do not earn a certificate or even complete the online course, Fomin feels there’s still educational value in engaging with the content. She notes some students use MOOCs merely as a way to learn more about a topic.
“There are still many, many people who take the courses as if they’re reading a textbook. And so they’re not necessarily engaging in the content , in terms of getting grades or getting a certificate; they’re learning from the platform as if it was a YouTube video or a textbook,” Fomin says.
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