Library Love: MOOCs – An Ivy League Education For The Masses

Fast, radical change is pretty rare in higher education. If you attended a traditional brick-and-mortar college or university, chances are, current students are sitting in the same classrooms, eating in the same cafeterias, and living in the same dorms as you did. Those dorms still suck. The format for college instruction is largely unchanged as well: the professor lectures at the front of the classroom, and students pretend to listen while doing something else, like updating Facebook.

What a pretty penny students and their parents are paying for the privilege of sitting in that classroom! According to Bloomberg, college tuition increased 1,120% between 1978 and 2012, and tuition shows no sign of leveling off in the near future. There’s no real debate over the value of a college degree in these meritocratic times, but if you’re still paying tribute to Sallie Mae, you may be less inclined to pursue advanced degrees or pay for continuing education classes. So what’s a person to do when the brain fancies a little education?

MOOCs to the rescue

MOOCs are massive because there is no cap on how many people can enroll, they are open to anyone interested in the subject, and the content is entirely online.

This is a niche that MOOCs seek to fill. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs are massive because there is no cap on how many people can enroll, they are open to anyone interested in the subject, and the content is entirely online. You don’t get college credit for taking a MOOC, but considering the cost is free, that’s fine. The MOOC initiative started with top-tier colleges and universities, major cultural institutions, and Silicone Valley giants, so the instructors are highly respected within their fields. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig set the stage for this new model when they offered “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” in the fall of 2011, which was based on a credit-bearing class they teach at Stanford.

Over 150,000 people enrolled in Thrun and Norvig’s course, and since MOOCs always have huge numbers, the experience is quite different than other paid online learning options available. There is less direct engagement between the professor and her students. Instead, students are encouraged to discuss questions with one another via online forums, which are sometimes moderated by the professor or her assistants. Homework assignments are tailored to the online environment, and are often machine graded. Pacing also varies. Most MOOCs occur in semi-real time. These courses have a start and end date, and each week, new videos and assignments are posted to the course website. Assignments and exams have hard deadlines and participants receive grades based on performance and participation. There are, however, many self-paced MOOCs, which you can take at any time. All of the course content is available at once, consisting of a series of readings and videos.

Enlist your inner snob

Now that you know what MOOCs are all about, it’s time to test the waters. There are a variety of ways to look for MOOCs, but I like the MOOC List, which is pretty comprehensive. You can search by category, course length, required effort, and university. You’ll notice that MOOCs are offered through a variety of entities — these are all startups that deliver the course content. edX works with elite universities like Harvard and MIT. Coursera limits itself to a different but equally elite group of institutions. Udacity produces its own content with leaders from industry giants like Google and Microsoft. When choosing a MOOC, I recommend enlisting your inner snob. Every course requires time and some demand a fair amount of work on your part to keep up. So choose courses and instructors that really speak to you. Almost every MOOC has an intro video that should give you a sense of what the instructor(s) will be like to watch. If they seem boring in the intro, they will be worse during the class. For example, "Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative" by Vanderbilt's Jay Clayton sounded awesome when I read the description, but I found myself checking my email in the middle of the intro video. Not a good sign. Currently, I’m enamored with the HarvardX course "Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science." As a vegan, I probably wouldn't be able to eat most of the food they'll cover in class, yet it looks so fascinating and exciting to me. This is the level of interest you want to have before signing up for a MOOC.

Free...for now

A final word about cost. Right now, MOOCs are free, but I don't expect that to last forever. They're a giant experiment involving some of the most selective colleges and universities in the world and a number of rapidly expanding startup businesses. No one is making any money — yet — but over $100 million has been invested. Hmm. I say get in on the free while they're still figuring out their business model.

That's my plan.

Stephanie Bonjack

Column by Stephanie Bonjack

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

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Sound's picture
Sound from Azusa, CA is reading Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt July 11, 2013 - 8:04pm

This blew my mind. 

NikKorpon's picture
NikKorpon from Baltimore is reading Book and books and books and July 12, 2013 - 5:25am

MOOCs are great. I took one on Investigating Film Noir with Richard Edwards and Shannon Clute and got a ton of information from it. It was great too because I'm pretty busy and I could do it when I had time. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine July 12, 2013 - 6:56am

This is crazy. There's no way this will stay free forever.

CarlosColeman's picture
CarlosColeman July 1, 2020 - 5:18am

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st8020147's picture
st8020147 May 17, 2021 - 9:59am

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benjaminlevis's picture
benjaminlevis December 9, 2022 - 4:24am

Although, considering the speed of progress in other fields, I believe that more radical changes in higher education are needed. In the absence of such changes, everyone should independently decide on the use of courses that help self-development. For example, using the resource  I easily make the right choice, taking into account the need to become a project manager.