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People often ask me about my passion for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In response, I’ve decided to put pen to (digital) paper and try to assess their value and usefulness based on my experiences. If you’re interested in learning more about a variety of often highly specialised topics in a structured manner, or if you need help understanding your school or university coursework, then online courses may be for you! But let’s start with the basics.

First of all, MOOCs are offered by various platforms. Some of them are commercial; others are not-for-profit. They differ from each other in terms of content, course structure and presentation. Some courses may specialise in a particular field such as IT (Udacity), while others try to offer a wide range of subjects through collaborations with as many universities as possible (Coursera, FutureLearn). Some structure teaching around videos, while others combine texts, videos, assignments and recommended readings. Varying levels of engagement may also be offered within the same platforms. For example, in some Coursera courses, the student can just audit or follow the “basic track”, which requires the completion of quizzes before the deadline. The “advanced track”, meanwhile, includes both quizzes and assignments and, upon the payment of a small fee, can provide the learner with a verified certificate. The freemium model is very popular, but used differently across platforms.

As far as I know, those certificates only attest to the fact that the student has completed the required coursework. In other words, they are not recognised or accredited (or at least it is very hard to get them recognised). Accredited courses are still offered almost exclusively by Open Universities and universities with recognised distant learning programmes. The length of many courses is also shorter than the standard eight weeks of an academic term. In addition, it is true that cheating is rather easy and it would require a lot of effort and manpower to check the authenticity of submitted assignments, whose grading is currently based on the peer-assessment approach. Engagement with theoretical concepts is often kept to a minimum due to the level of the course, its length, the need to cover different aspects of the topic and, possibly, the fear of making it too difficult to follow for students without prior knowledge of the subject. There is also an inherent lack of trust from universities and employers alike when it comes to MOOCs. Many people think that because you learned it online, it is not “real academic knowledge”.

MOOCs do have significant advantages over traditional universities however. The variety of topics is much greater than what most universities would be able to offer. Flexibility is also an important selling point as courses bring in people from all walks of life in a way that traditional universities will never be able to. Furthermore, because the certificates are not accredited, the students who participate in the courses do so because they are really keen to learn. As a result, the discussions taking place on the courses’ forum and comment sections are very interesting and students tend to help each other a lot. The marketing departments of some universities are aware of the potential that this global audience offers and there are quite a few lesser-known universities (including some Asian ones) that are very active on online platforms as they see it as a way to promote their brand and attract qualified students.

Are MOOCs the future of education? I believe that nothing alone is ‘the future’ because people like variety. We will never live in societies where everyone will dress the same way and be transported to work every morning on conveyor belts. In addition, it is difficult to become a surgeon or a plumber solely through participation in online classes.

That being said, the huge potential of MOOCs is undeniable and the current platforms are definitely a step closer to the creation of a quality e-learning ecosystem that takes advantage of multimedia and online interaction. The commercial players in the MOOC business definitely see the current model as a trial-and-error phase which will lead to the perfection of their business model. For example, the specialisations offered by Coursera, which require a “cap project” (mini dissertation) at the end are a step in that direction. The prospect of more inclusive higher education has never seemed more real. This is the case not only for students, but also for educators and universities that can use online platforms to diffuse content in different languages and promote different approaches and points of view. Online courses definitely broaden our understanding of the way people learn and engage with study material. If all goes well, they can be a victory for pluralism.