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Massive Open Online Courses: What’s the Point?

Massive Open Online Courses are extremely valuable for professionals looking for ongoing learning and development, despite the lack of associated credentials.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are springing up like mushrooms. They’re this season’s go-to accessory for professional development. Sites like Coursera, Venture-Lab, edX and Udacity are spinning out short (6-10 week) courses on a variety of topics. They mostly deal with STEM subjects, but there are some liberal arts courses beginning to appear. Coursera now claims to have over 1.35 million students. Students of various ages, from hundreds of countries, with diverse backgrounds are flocking to these free courses taught by top universities.

The question is, “Why?”

I can only examine my own motives and draw from my personal experience in taking courses with 80,000 plus students per course. I’ve taken Coursera’s “Computer Science 101” and “Gamification”. I received a “Letter of Accomplishment” for the former. I’m now enrolled in Venture-Lab’s (Stanford) “Designing New Learning Environments” and “Crash Course on Creativity”.

Why do I do this? I already have a M.S. degree in Instructional Design and Technology with a specialization in Online Instruction. Enrolling in MOOCs has a lot to do with what drives me, and what I think drives most adult learners: the desire to understand, to know and to increase personal competency.

There is a certain level of acquired status in taking these proof-of-concept courses, while I am improving my professional performance and satisfying my personal quest to know. My profession changes by the day, so this is another relatively easy, low-cost way to stay in the loop.

Do I care that there is no formal credential? No. What I realize in many technical fields these days is that certificates or letters of accomplishment serve as indicators of training just as readily as college class credits. I list my Coursera classes on my CV under Professional Development and would be proud to talk about what I’ve learned with any new employer. I was interested to see recently that the University of Washington is planning to offer credit for its Coursera offerings this fall. David P. Szatmary, the university’s vice-provost, said that to earn credit, students would probably pay a fee, do extra assignments and work with an instructor. [1]

I think for many people around the world, these MOOCS are providing access to higher education and a low-cost, flexible alternative for “glocal” students to potentially earn a foreign credential (even if it is a “Letter of Accomplishment”). [2]

Educational carrots are changing. The walls of education are falling down and access means everything. Organic learning communities are replacing formal lectures. Self-discovery coupled with peer-to-peer interaction, sharing and co-learning is transforming the learning landscape.

I personally really appreciate these courses. They’re well designed, very professionally taught, creative, insightful and valuable in today’s educational and vocational environments. We’re seeing more than ever and perhaps for yet another time, grades aren’t the chief motivator in learning.

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[1] Phil Hill. “Four Barriers That MOOCs Must Overcome To Build a Sustainable Model,” e-Literate. July 24, 2012,

[2] Rahul Choudaha, “MOOCs –BlackBerry’s Lesson for Higher Education,” University World News, October 7, 2012. University World News on the Web at

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