MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) are a relatively new addition to online and distance learning. MOOC’s became popular in early 2012 when Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, both formerly of Stanford University, launched their online learning platform Coursera.

coursera-astrobiology

The idea behind MOOC’s is to bring education to the masses, enabling anyone throughout the entire world with access to the internet, the opportunity to study college or university level courses, gaining a quality educational experience. All the courses are free and in most cases so are all of the learning materials.  For courses which follow a textbook a free read only version of the text  is made available and any courses which involve using software, this is either already freely available in the public domain or can be access through one of the providers portals.

In this article I will look at the 3 main providers of MOOC’s; Coursera, Udacity and edX and compare what exactly these 3 different providers have to offer.

Each of these providers has their own online learning platform.  The main difference between them is the courses they have to offer and the structure and style of delivery of these courses.

udacity-interactive-rendering-course

Of the 3 providers Udacity stands out because all of its courses are openly available.  There are no start and finish dates, the courses can be taken at any time and you can work at your own pace, completing each unit or module at you own leisure with no time constraints whatsoever.  You are free to go back over any of the course material and retake quizzes as much as you need to.  Although I personally do favor this system as I often have more than one thing going at once, I do agree that without any sort of deadlines it can become very easy to ‘put it off until tomorrow’, and the next day, and the next day!

The final exam can be taken at any time and upon passing you can then print out your certificate, certificates are awarded at different grades depending upon your final exam result.  This does bring up the question of cheating, although discussing exam questions is forbidden in the forums there would be nothing to stop someone else taking the exam in your name and earning you a pass.  One solution to this is taking a proctored exam which is carried out under strict exam conditions but there is an extra fee payable for this and is currently only available for one of their courses. Both Coursera and edX also offer proctored exams .

Coursera, by far have the most courses available and also the broadest range, at the time of writing there are 215 courses available.  Of these 215 courses, some have already started and finished and some have yet to start.  If you want to take a certified Coursera course and gain your certificate at the end you will need to complete it within the stated time frames.

The following chart compares the subject areas in which courses are available

Coursera Udacity EdX
Biology & Life Sciences O O O
Business & Management O O
Computer Science O O O
Economics & Finance O
Education O
Electrical & Materials Engineering O O
Food & Nutrition O
Health and Society & Media Ethics O O
History O
Humanities O
Information technology & Design O
Law O O
Mathematics O O O
Medicine O
Music, Film & Audio Engineering O
Physical & Earth Sciences O O O
Social Sciences O
Statistics & Data Analysis O O

Both Coursera and edX courses are much more structured than those of Udacity.  You will need make a commitment in terms of your time in order to achieve the weekly deadlines.  It is possible if you miss a week to catch up but is not recommended as these courses are already demanding within the normal course deadlines.

The format of these courses typically include a more mainstream approach; following a textbook as would be in the traditional university setting with video lectures from university professors.  The videos range from 5 minutes to 1 hour in length, there are quizzes and problem sets to reinforce you knowledge and learning throughout the course and weekly homework assignments which must be completed within the deadlines given.

edx-intro-biology

Coursers and edX both offer some of their courses on a self-study basis. Basically this means that you can review all of the course content at your own pace but upon completion the course will not be accredited and you will not get a certificate of completion.  These is especially good news for people who have an interest in the subject taught and want to learn more to expand their own knowledge and understanding.

As with anything, all of these providers have their good points and bad points. Below is a table highlighting these points:

Pros & Cons

Coursera

Udacity

edX

Pros:
- Great range of courses covering many subject areas
- Lots of information provided on individual courses
- All courses feature a video introduction to the course
- Many of the video lecture have an option to display subtitles in languages other than English
- Almost all courses offer certification
- Offer a career matching service
- Central forum, following a gamification rewards system
Pros:
- Able to sign in with Facebook or Twitter
- All advertised courses are available to enroll onto straight away (apart from 4 courses which are coming soon)
- All courses feature a video overview of the course
- Courses do not follow a traditional textbook format
- Highly interactive tutorials
- Able to learn at your own pace with no deadlines
- All courses offer certificates
- Community forum where user are rewarded for participation
- Some courses offer a proctored exam (fee payable)
Pros:
- Good range of courses covering different subject areas
- Lots of information available on individual courses
- Most courses have a video introduction
- Some courses have foreign language options, either in text transcription or whole course format
- Certificates of mastery available for all courses
- Proctored certificates also available if exam is taken under proctored conditions (there is a fee for this)
- Course forums available to interact with peers of that course
Cons:
- Not all advertised courses are currently available to enroll onto
- Operate peer grading for some exercises which can be off putting
- To achieve certification you must meet all course deadlines
- Estimated weekly hours and deadlines can be difficult to meet for some people
Cons:
- Limited range of courses
- Not much written information on individual course contents
- Does not currently offer any form of translation into foreign languages
Cons:
- Not all advertised courses are currently available to enroll onto
- Some courses that require prior knowledge offer a self-assessment but this is not available until the course has actually started
- Estimated weekly hours and deadlines can be difficult to for some people to meet

MOOC’s have opened a massive door in terms of online learning and making high quality education free for all and open to the masses.  With the promise of more universities getting involved and much, much more to come including MOOC2Degrees which will be launched later on this year, offering college and university credits as part of the course, the future of online education and distance learning looks exciting.

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