The growth of higher education costs shows no sign of slowing, but as brick-and-mortar institutions hike tuition year after year, an education revolution is under way online. In the early 2000s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology paved the way for the free-course revolution with its OpenCourseWare project, a free archive of MIT courses that has amassed over 1,000 courses to date.
In recent years, web startups like Coursera, edX and Udacity have improved upon OpenCourseWare's formula by offering massive online open courses (MOOCs), with interactive content designed specifically for the web. MOOCs give students the chance to explore new subjects and learn skills from some of the world's best educators, but each platform offers something a little different.
Coursera is the largest of the top three MOOC platforms, offering courses from more than 100 partner intuitions, including the University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford, Princeton, Duke and Johns Hopkins universities. Coursera specializes in university-style courses taught by real professors on a wide range of subjects that run in real time.
Courses usually have predefined start and end dates, and content is released on a weekly basis, so learners progress at roughly the same rate. Course schedules and deadlines can make it tricky for students with busy schedules to get all the coursework done on time, but the program fosters a sense of community that makes it easier to get help on the course discussion forums. Coursera does offer some courses on a self-paced basis, but most are inaccessible if they aren't currently in session.
Coursera makes money by offering paid verified certificates and specializations. Although courses are free for anyone to take and usually offer free certificates of completion, select courses give you the option to pay for a certificate that is connected to your identity to enhance its use as a credential. Specializations are mini-degrees that students earn by completing several courses in a given subject area. The cost of a verified certificate is usually $50 per course; a specialization requires a verified certificate in each course within a specialization track.
edX is the evolution of MIT's OpenCourseWare for the modern web. Spearheaded by MIT and Harvard University, edX offers courses similar to those found on Coursera. EdX has a smaller course catalog than Coursera but it is growing quickly with an array of institutional partners including University of Texas-Austin, University of California-Berkeley and Microsoft.
Most edX courses have weekly schedules and deadlines, as well as comprehension questions and homework assignments that are well integrated with video player. EdX courses have a clean, modern layout with tabs that make it easy to check course content, the course syllabus and your progress.
Overall, the edX user interface and course organization is crisper than Coursera's, although its forum system is clunky. Certain courses forgo the edX forums entirely in favor of an external service called Piazza, which is OK once you learn it, but can be confusing to newbies.
EdX is a nonprofit and encourages students to make donations when signing up for courses. Certain classes offer identity verified certificates to students who pay from $25 to $100 per course. Most courses on edX offer free honor code certificates, but some of their newest offerings include professional education classes that require fees ranging from $50 to $1,000 to participate.
Udacity is an MOOC platform founded by one of the minds behind Google's self-driving car technology, Sebastian Thrun. Udacity focused on technical subjects geared toward preparing students for tech careers, including computer science, data science, web development and mobile development. Course instructors are often industry experts from companies like Google, Facebook and Udacity itself.
Unlike traditional university courses with schedules and deadlines, Udacity courses are self-paced. Course videos tend to be broken up into smaller segments and have more interactive exercises and programming assignments than those offered by Coursera and edX. The video player interface is clean, but it is slower than its peers; the forums are awkward and largely inactive.
Udacity generates revenue through a subscription service. For $200 a month, you receive a certificate for any course you complete; there are no free certificates. A subscription also grants you a variety of special perks, including project grading, code reviews and personal coaching. The site also offers nanodegrees, which mirror the specializations offered by Coursera. The unique benefits of Udacity's paid content make it more compelling that its peers, but subscription-exclusive content creates a greater divide between freeware students and paying students. As a nonsubscriber, you may feel like you aren't getting the full course experience.
E-learning may not replace a traditional university education, but free online courses are an excellent learning opportunity for those who don't have the time or money to attend school full time. Each of these MOOC providers has a lot to offer. The best one for you will ultimately depend on your interests and learning goals.
An increasing number of people are turning to online classes as a way to earn a degree, get the qualifications they need to advance in their career, or enrich their lives by learning something new. Although online classes are a flexible way to go to school, especially for people who might not be able to attend classes in person, distance education isn't suited for everyone. Here are seven things to consider before you sign up for online classes.
Not all online colleges and courses are accredited by a recognized organization. Accreditation ensures that an educational program meets certain standards of quality and rigorousness, and whether your academic program is accredited or not makes a big difference in whether a potential employer will be impressed with your academic background. For the most part, only programs that are accredited will help you advance in your career or switch jobs, so do your research before you sign up. Don't bother with programs that aren't accredited; they're not taken seriously, and they're a waste of money and effort.
Although you'll be able to talk to your teachers and classmates online, you'll mostly be on your own when doing readings and assignments. If you enjoy reading and reflecting on material by yourself, this might be an ideal study situation for you. If you thrive on in-person discussions and classroom time, online education might not be a good fit.
Completing any kind of educational program requires good time-management skills and a good deal of self-motivation. This is even truer for online classes than it is for traditional classes. When you're in an online class, no one will make sure you show up, or remind you to do the assignments; putting in the time and effort is entirely your own job. Self-starters may thrive on this kind of freedom and responsibility, but if you tend to procrastinate or need a lot of external motivation to keep up with work, online classes probably aren't for you.
You can do assignments for your online classes anytime, but you've still got to come up with that time somewhere. Before you enroll, be honest with yourself about how much time you'll need to put into the class and how you'll schedule your study hours. Is the time investment realistic for you? Many online students drop out of their courses not because they lack the ability to learn the material, but because they misjudge the amount of time and effort an online class requires.
Online classes are simpler to participate in than traditional classes because you don't need to worry about logistical issues like commuting or finding a place to live near campus. However, they do require you have some technical know-how. For online education to be a realistic option for you, you'll at least need a reliable computer and an internet connection, and a webcam and microphone are also good to have. You'll be expected to access the online classroom and assignments; are you confident in your ability to learn how to navigate the class interface and turn in homework?
Online classes are not easier than traditional classes. In fact, they often demand greater time management and organization from you. Don't sign up for online classes unless you're prepared to put the same amount of work into them that you would put into traditional classes.
To do well in online classes, you'll need to do a lot of writing. Much of your communication with your instructor and classmates will happen in the form of discussion forums online, so assess your ability to write before you enroll. Are you able to express your thoughts clearly and concisely, using correct grammar and spelling? Are you willing to proofread your writing before you submit it, to ensure that you come off as professional and thoughtful? Students who don't enjoy writing or who do better with face-to-face communication may not be the best candidates for online learning.
For many students, online classes are an ideal way to pursue an education. Like anything else, though, online classes have their limitations, and some students will do better with other forms of education. Before you sign up for any classes, research the program thoroughly. If you are realistic about your abilities and expectations, you'll be more likely to excel in whatever type of education you choose.