What the hell is a MOOC?

And could they be the future of higher education?

Why This Matters | Haley Jensen | February 26, 2016

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“A what…? A mooc? What are you saying?”

This is the reaction I typically get when I rant about MOOCs (massive open online courses) and how they are going to seriously influence higher education.

MOOCs are basically free, online classes where you can literally learn anything. I mean anything, from cryptography from a Stanford professor to aerodynamics with an MIT engineering course. Plus, you can do all of this while wearing pajamas and sipping coffee on the couch. Essentially, these are online schools, but free. (Think University of Phoenix, but not a scam.)

Millions of students worldwide are taking online classes through websites like Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, and edX. You know…the videos you watch around finals season when you realize you either slept through too many of your calculus lectures or thought that Buzzfeed quiz on your newsfeed was more important than 17th century history.

Anyone with access to a computer can participate in MOOCs, joining hundreds of students globally by watching videos, participating in online discussion and taking tests and quizzes. Most of these programs allow you to work around your schedule and move at a pace that best suits your learning styles.

Sounds too good to be true? Wondering why you’re paying 60k for college when you can learn the subjects you want online for free? Me too.

At one point, a college degree was a ticket to a lucrative job, but now we live in an age where higher education is no longer a distinguishing factor. It is simply an expectation. Having a college degree is no guarantee of success in a ruthless job market, making the price tag of higher education more of a gamble than an investment.

Is a piece of paper worth being thousands of dollars in debt? People are starting to realize the brick-and-mortar experience might be a bit outdated. With society progressing at such a rapid pace, why have colleges remained pretty much the same throughout the past 200 years?

I’ve come to question the value of a traditional education in a world with emerging alternatives. Sure, we aren’t all the Stanford-drop-out turned tech giant anomaly. Despite Silicon Valley success stories, not all dropouts go on to live their dreams. But why can’t we revolutionize the approach to education?

Why can’t we revolutionize the approach to education?

MOOCs haven’t, and won’t, completely replace four-year institutions any time soon.Top universities, such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT offer classes free of charge and you can take these courses anywhere, from Albania to Arizona. No matter where someone is in the world – they only need access to a computer and a genuine desire to learn and they’re on a path to education. Recently, even GW embraced the new trend in higher education by producing self-paced courses of their own. Last year, Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, created a public policy MOOC about the Federal Reserve System.

Society tells us, “Kids, stay in school.” What if instead we said, “Kids, never stop learning”?

The MOOC model is thriving in a world where information is everywhere.

In the digital age, with increased access to the Internet, worldwide, innovations like MOOCs are attempting to level the playing field. By providing a free alternative to higher education, MOOCs are single-handedly revolutionizing education by breaking down the barriers of admission and cost.

I’m not advising you to burn your textbooks, buy a laptop and embrace the hermit lifestyle. There are hundreds of reasons why a physical college is beneficial to us – like the classroom environment. However, MOOCs are starting to highlight the flaws in the present day university system, and offering vast educational benefits to individuals who prefer to take an alternate route in their pursuits of education. MOOCs are starting the conversation about where education is headed and what role innovative solutions may have in the future of higher education.