Online courses in higher education

online-educationTraditionally having a college degree is viewed at as the definitive gateway to high paying jobs and intellectual development. It is meant to provide an equal opportunity to all students yet there are some well known barriers that prevent this from being true for all people, two of the biggest barriers are acceptance to the school and ability to pay the costs of enrollment. Over the last 5 years a new approach has emerged that promises to address those issues. All around the country students are participating in massive open online courses (MOOCs learn more). These MOOCs are free courses designed to accommodate very high volumes of students, with some courses containing tens of thousands of people. The promise of MOOCs is that it equalizes the playing field of education, enabling anyone with an interest in a selected topic to study and learn alongside others who share those interests.

Who provides these courses

Online-only education is viewed as a new model and providers are rushing to it without having clearcut business models or even a consesus as to why they’re doing it. Despite being free, MOOCs are known for having exceptionally high quality content from big name instructors. Most interestingly, many of the free courses are being provided directly by some of the most prestigious universities in the country. In fact, 22 of the 25 schools listed in US News’ top 25 colleges offer free courses online including the following:






Carnegie Mellon

Among the top and middle tiers, Universities not previously interested in open coureses are As quoted from a New York Times article:

“There’s panic,” said Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. “Whether it’s senseless panic is unclear.”

Some online offerings are funded through venture capital, some directly from the pockets of the institutions, and others through philanthropy.

Third Party Platforms
Independent sites have emerged that arrogate course listings available from many different universities, providing learners a single location from where they can participate in lectures regardless of school. The most popular of these is Coursera, Udacity, and edX.


Originally a Stanford project, Coursea now has 33 university partners, including many Ivy Leauge’s , Duke, California Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Berklee College of Music.

Courses: 197 in 18 subjects, including computer science, math, business, humanities, social science, medicine, engineering, education.

Assessment: Software grades quizzes, homework, problem sets; five other students grade written responses. Many instructors allow quizzes to be taken multiple times, with highest grade counting (a different quiz each time).

Academic integrity: Click a box agreeing to an honor code.

Social interaction: Online forums and study groups, meet-ups organized by students in about 1,400 cities.

Pacing: Most courses have start and end dates, though it’s possible to join a course after it has begun, as long as it is before the registration cutoff date.

What you get: Some instructors offer signed certificates of completion, but not from the university. Beginning next semester, Antioch University students can get credit at the Los Angeles campus for approved courses.


For-profit with Stanford roots but no university affiliation.

Courses: 18, in computer science, mathematics, physics, business.

Assessment: Software grades tests, problem sets, programming assignments.

Academic integrity: Proctored final exams at Pearson testing centers, for $89.

Social interaction: Online forums and study groups, meet-ups organized by students in over 450 cities.

Pacing: Courses taken at own speed.

What you get: Certificates according to academic performance: completion, distinction, high distinction, highest distinction. Colorado State’s Global Campus accepts transfer credit for a course in building a search engine. In a free job-matching program, résumés are sent to partner companies, including Google, Bank of America, Twitter, Facebook and TrialPay, based on their job openings and student’s analytics (grade, participation level).


Profile: Nonprofit run out of M.I.T. and Harvard; with the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas system.

Courses: 8, in chemistry, computer science, electronics, public health; plans for 20 to 30 in the spring.

Assessment: Software grades tests and homework.

Academic integrity: Some final exams are proctored, at Pearson testing centers for varying costs. To prevent copying, users get different, randomly generated numbers in their problem sets.

Social interaction: Rudimentary; only one course, given by the Harvard School of Public Health in quantitative methods, has regional get-togethers.

Pacing: Courses have start and end dates. Registration closes two weeks after start date. Students may miss a week but lose points if they don’t make a deadline for turning in an assignment.

What you get: Two certificates available, one designating an honor code, one a proctored exam. Both bear the edX and campus name — for example, MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTAustinX.

Where does it go from here?

While MOOCs have captured the imagination of many, it is still a rapidly evolving concept. Some see it as a potential replacement for the traditional educational system, incompatible with the current model, while some see it as a supplement. The full range of possibilities remain to be seen, but as the level of public intrest continues to grow the one thing that seems clear is that this isn’t going to go away any time soon.


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