Giulia Forsythe

Modern times have made available a sheer number of alternatives to conventional, formal education. In most developed/developing areas of the world, access to the internet has become not only part of people’s lives, but the main medium for acquiring new knowledge, for connecting with others and ultimately for bettering one’s self. Rostra Economica salutes this way all the remarkable initiatives that have helped, are helping and will help people everywhere to make a step further into their evolution, to become something closer to well-rounded, complete individuals. Whether we talk about tools for learning languages, dictionaries, encyclopedias or online courses platforms, the past 15 years have seen a massive boom in terms of educational opportunities. This came along with – and maybe as a response to – society’s bigger and bigger demands. Perhaps incentivizing at core, the general expectations of today from anyone are to speak as many languages as possible, to master as many domains as there are and to have interests and knowledge in all kinds of different fields. There is pressure in that sense, but somehow it is productive and I consider it to be a key change driver and maybe part of our development and growth. It is simply not enough anymore to hold a degree and to speak only one internationally useful tongue, but it is rather encouraged to be ready to switch, to adapt and to be flexible in what you do. And I really consider that a big step further, of course, when there are possibilities.

In this light, I would like to spend a couple of lines on celebrating something that has been here for a while now, but that only today has reached the peak of its growth stage – MOOCs. Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are (university) online courses aimed at the general public, with unlimited participation opportunities and open access via the web. They have been born on the grounds of “distance learning” – a popular trend from more than a decade ago – and today they represent a supplemental source of knowledge and learning, in the form of recorded lectures, slides, problem sets, readings, etc. MOOCs feature some of the more traditional learning’s characteristics, such as communities and interactive forums for students, the curious and teachers alike to get engaged in the pursuit of achieving the greater good. Moreover, what actually makes MOOCs resemble traditional education even more are the testing methods – quizzes, tests, final exams, etc. -, but most importantly, their being (almost always) free to take. People have the opportunity to enroll in university-level courses without actually completing a whole degree, and that is only one of the advantages. Below, some of the others:

  • MOOCs are an alternative for overcrowded classes – ever been forced to miss a class at your own university? No problem. Probably there is a MOOC on the exact same topic, with a very similar content, at the exact same time, maybe with a different approach. However, make sure you always attend your own classes if possible!
  • They can represent support materials for your classes – sometimes a fresh approach, a different perspective and maybe a bit of guidance from the very active communities/forums can help you get that extra point for your exam.
  • MOOCs can help you get some insights in new fields. They can help you explore and then understand whether a certain topic is suitable for you.
  • They are accessible from anywhere, via the web – your home, your school, your workplace.
  • They are interactive through communities, through objective feedback, online assessments, etc
  • They offer the possibility to earn a certification at a top university.
  • In my opinion, if implemented correctly, MOOCs and the consequent technology might be one of the solutions for fighting some of the biggest societal issues – illiteracy and the lack of access to (free) education. Please take a moment to think about it!
  • And then again, they are most of the time, FREE!

Except sometimes they are not, but that is understandable. There is, of course, some criticism towards MOOCs, but I personally believe the challenges they face are subject to the stage of development they are in at the moment, and also a matter of popularity. Most universities offer courses with no commercial strings attached, but a small fee is sometimes required if you want to get a signed and stamped certification. And I consider that a small token of appreciation if the course was really good. Also, what you need to know before starting to take MOOCs is that the drop-out rates are high and subsequently the completion rates are quite low. Perhaps that will change with the years and perhaps that requires more people to pursue them. Moreover, MOOCs benefit from a lot of user-generated content, especially on the discussion forums. In spite of being moderated by teachers and administrators, sometimes subjective and unreliable opinions can be formed, leading towards a chaotic learning environment. Students must self-regulate and set their own goals and expectations. MOOCs are certainly not an alternative for conventional learning and teaching, but rather a support medium, a supplement and a source of new insights.

These are some of the most renowned websites for taking Massive Online Open Courses: – edX is one of the pioneers of online courses – Coursera is a greatly designed platform with dozens of courses in different languages – Udemy offers over 32,000 courses and over 8 million students enrolled – Khan Academy is one of the biggest non-profit organizations committed to offer free online education — Codecademy offers data science and software programming – HTML Dog is specifically focused on Web development tutorials for HTML, CSS and Java Script coding – Dave Conservatoire is an entirely free online music school offering a self-proclaimed “world-class music education for everyone”

… and many more. The world-wide web is a beautiful place.

On top of these, a lot of universities have their own platforms. Standford, MIT, Harvard, Yale and recently University of Pennsylvania. But the list will not stop here.

Even here, at the University of Amsterdam, there are many super interesting courses available online. Among these, Introduction to Communication Science, Quantitative Research Methods, Ebola: Essential Knowledge for Health Professionals, Descriptive/Inferential Statistics, Introduction to Grid Computing etc, are all worth taking a look at.

MOOCs are certainly not an alternative for conventional learning and teaching, but rather a support medium, a supplement and a source of new insights. I encourage everyone enrolled in university programs to not regard this as a mean of only passing an exam or as a sufficient requirement for self-growth. But MOOCs are certainly worth trying! You will love them.

Good luck studying!