Online Education: What’s out There and How Is It Being Used?

Education, like so many other things in this modern world, has officially gone online.

College classes facilitated via online “distance learning,” which provide students with course materials and instruction over the Internet as part of students’ regular college curricula, are more popular now than ever before. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2011 more than 75 percent of all U.S. college presidents reported offering their students online course options, with an affirmative answer from 89% of public and 60% of private institutions.

College professors largely agree that the boom in online college distance learning has succeeded in providing students with a more flexible, affordable, and attainable path to a college education.

“What used to be expensive and inaccessible becomes convenient and accessible,” said Clayton Christensen, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. Additionally, Christensen said online college courses are becoming more price-competitive with traditional face-to-face college courses.

Yet, though they are intended to make it easier for students to pursue or complete a college education, such online courses have limits. For one, the only people who can take online distance-learning college courses are students enrolled at a given institution or those who enroll as non-matriculated students.

Also, though typically less expensive than college courses taught face-to-face on campus, online distance-learning courses still cost money, a potential hurdle for low-income students. And then there are caps on enrollment, which can effectively lock students out of full courses, or force them onto waiting lists at best.

Recognizing these limitations, the first “massive, open, online course,” better known as a “MOOC,” was offered in 2008 by Stephen Downes, senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, and Dr. George Siemens, executive director of the LINK Research Lab at the University of Texas, Arlington. The MOOC was meant to serve as a form of higher education that would defy some of the constraints of traditional online college classes—with no enrollment cap or costs.

The first MOOC, “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge/2008” or “CCK08” for short, was a philosophy class offered by Downes and Siemens through the University of Manitoba, Canada. It is reported that the first year it was offered, 2,200 people signed up. The professors used a variety of web-based platforms to facilitate communication and contribution with and among their students, including social media, email and blogs.

Today, Downes and Siemens offer many more MOOCs, covering a wide variety of topics, from Java workshops taught in German to courses covering the nuances of oil and gas exploration and distribution on their website.

Since CCK08, free online courses—both structured and freeform—have taken off, with Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other renowned higher-education institutions following suit. In the past few years, free online course startups have also begun to spring up, giving students the opportunity to access free, online educational resources from kindergarten to the college level. Today, millions of people all over the world register for MOOCs and similar free online courses each year primarily as a way to supplement their standard educations.

So, are MOOCs and other no-cost online courses really worth all the hype? Read on to learn more about what’s available today, what’s working and what’s in store for the future of free online education.

What’s available?

As mentioned, MOOCs have become an extremely popular free online education option. The standard MOOC has an average enrollment of 40,000 “students” and is typically offered by a MOOC vendor that is partnered with a college or colleges. Though there are dozens of MOOC vendors in existence today, yet most popular are edX, Coursera, Udemy, and Udacity, according to a July 2014 Research and Markets report.

MOOCs can be further categorized into two groups: cMOOCs and xMOOCs. The former stands for “connectivist” MOOC. Like the original MOOC offered by Downes and Siemens in 2008, cMOOCs encourage participants to use digital platforms to communicate with each other and contribute to the group’s collective knowledge. xMOOCs, on the other hand, more closely resemble traditional online courses, structured around lectures and quiz-style assessments, and use mostly content inside rather than outside MOOC vendors’ platforms.

For students worried about keeping up with coursework or being graded in a MOOC, there are also free online course options that are more flexible, allowing you to learn at your own pace.

iTunes U, which can be accessed via Apple’s iTunes application, is one flexible option when it comes to taking online courses. Colleges offer free courses through iTunes U, which are taught in a format similar to xMOOCs, as students are provided with video lectures, audio podcasts, and/or texts, depending on the course. Unlike an xMOOC, however, students using iTunes U can complete courses at their own pace and can be easily accessed on a computer, iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. Some popular iTunes U courses include Stanford’s “How to Start a Startup” and Yale University’s “Game Theory.”

What’s working?

Anyone who has access to an electronic device with an Internet connection can take open and free online courses. This web-based education model has made high-quality instructional materials available to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds from all over the world. Thus, these courses—cMOOCs in particular—encourage global collaboration and communication.

Further, students participating in free online courses are afforded a more flexible educational experience than students taking traditional face-to-face courses on campus. This can be especially helpful for students who have packed daily schedules, physical or psychological impairments, or otherwise may have trouble commuting to class.

Variety is another benefit to free online courses. With so many MOOC vendors, colleges and non-profits getting involved in the free online education scene, students are offered a greater number of free online course options today than ever before. Some of the courses offered are also extremely niche, allowing students to learn intensely about a specific subject matter. Many free online course vendors also offer students the opportunity to opt for paid online course options, and at the culmination of each course—given they pass an assessment based on the course materials—they can earn a certificate of completion through the college or non-profit sponsoring the course.

Though many free online courses are aimed at college students, free online courses are now also being directed to students both younger and older than the typical 18- to 24-year-old college set. In fact, a November 2013 journal Nature survey found that such students are more likely to already have a college degree. Thanks to free online courses’ accessibility and flexibility students report using free online courses to supplement the education they have already received, or are currently pursuing.

What will come in the future?

With an increasing number of free online course purveyors offering students certificate course options at a cost, some wonder if the free online course will always be free.

“MOOCs have started out as a free opportunity—and free is a great way to get people interested,” said John C. Mitchell, vice-provost for online learning and overseer of Stanford University’s Stanford Online, the institution’s online Stanford-sponsored course aggregator. “But traditionally, students in the U.S. pay tuition to go to college or university and I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask people to pay a little bit for education activities that help them to move forward in their careers.”

Although such certificate options aren’t free, they are typically much cheaper than taking a traditional college course for credit. What’s more, a growing number of colleges and employers are recognizing such certificates as legitimate educational credentials. Currently, the American Council on Education (ACE) says it is working to adapt its online course review and recommendation service—which had been limited to traditional distance learning courses—to MOOCs, and has already approved several MOOC courses for credit recommendations.

In the future, many experts predict that free online courses will become more than just a supplemental form of education for anyone who wants to learn more about a particular subject. Some see such courses as a gateway to college for many students who lack the financial means to otherwise pursue a degree.

Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University—and a Coursera MOOC instructor—thinks free online courses should come with college credit, and colleges should recognize those credits. Then, he said, high school students could come to college with credits earned at no-cost, helping to reduce the overall expense of completing a college degree. In Roth’s opinion, whether or not that will happen on a wide scale is yet to be determined.

“I’ve told [college] faculty it really is an experiment,” said Roth. “And that means we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”


Erica Cirino is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a technology platform for private academic tutoring and test prep designed to help students at all levels of education achieve academic excellence.

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