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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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2012/10/24 at 9:38 am

Ms. Cooke briefly alludes to the existence of liberal arts and humanities MOOCs, but I think they bear further discussion.

I believe that the liberal arts have more or less been sidelined in our current higher education system, their value shunted to the side in favor of concrete professional degrees that can catapult you into the work world; MOOCs so far have tended to the same direction. But a blog I read recently confirmed a feeling I had (as a liberal arts grad myself). Blogger Cathy Davidson ( , on this very topic, argues that many people enrolling in business-oriented MOOCs are more than likely liberal arts grads who have many of the analytical and communications skills needed for business, but had never had an education to bring these together.

If we’re talking about learners being motivated by factors other than grades, this could be a perfect example. Perhaps for the liberal arts to find itself a new foothold as the backbone of a good education and the backbone of employable skills, it needs to delve further into the world of MOOCs and away from the current institutional framework that is pushing liberal arts to the sidelines.

Greg Allan 2012/10/25 at 8:58 am

Ryan, I agree that the role of the humanities in the MOOC world bears discussion; but one of the most interesting examples I’ve seen of humanities MOOCs has not so much embraced MOOCs but satirized them and styled itself as a kind of “anti-MOOC”, as many have called it.

It’s called UnderAcademy College ( It offers small uncredited courses with limited enrolment and broad, almost absurd courses that seem to simply offer discourse, discussion, and collaboration on a particular cultural, artistic, political, or social concept, assumption, etc. It completely rejects any notion of usefulness, accreditation and the like, but it is serious and it is productive. It definitely gives some food for thought on how the liberal arts in higher education might change its role and its current place in the framework.

Maybe it should just embrace being “education for education’s sake” and leave the MOOCs to the business folk.

Vera Dolan 2012/11/11 at 8:50 am

MOOCs serve as a great example of connectivism at its best — for a few. I’ve been taking a number of cMOOCs and my PhD research revolves around the student experience. While I’m still FAR from reaching any conclusions — let alone contribute to the construction of academic knowledge — I see theories such as chaos and cognitive load getting in the way of MOOCs’ ability to remain as such for very long. We keep hyping the wonders of people gaining access to a what-feels-like infinite source of information, knowledge and even wisdom. However, it seems that this is true for only a number of participants, hence the high volume of attrition. The MOOC model will become a real benefit to the global society at a point in which it becomes a ROOC – Restricted Open Online Course (the restriction is related to the number of people allowed to get in one particular class).

MOOCs do not allow for knowledge validation in many cases. You can write, post, try to link people to “interesting” things, stories, blogs, articles and facts, and yet no one will give you any feedback. It’s like organizing this great party with lots of what you think is good food, beverage and music, and no one shows up.

The DeMOOCracy that supports the free for all mentality might be hurting some participants’ self-esteem and trust in their own ideas – ideas that might be really good, but we’ll never know. Either because one can never tell if people just don’t bother responding to them because what one’s post is uninteresting, boring, ridiculous and perhaps nonsense or if it is just because they are preoccupied responding to the most in-your-face and extroverted participants.

I do see a lot of value to MOOCs; however, the model will have to be adjusted to what really serves individual participants — not what boosts an institution’s popularity and (eventually and inevitably in the future!) funds.

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