Rise of the MOOCs

The Internet is revolutionizing universities, giving pretty much anyone, anywhere access to a world-class education. Here are seven massive online open course providers you need to know about.

Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Clark Kerr, a former president of the University of California, once observed that there are 85 institutions that have survived in recognizable form since the year 1500 — and 70 of them are universities. But the rise of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) could very well change all of that. Convenient, interactive, and often free, MOOCs are challenging universities’ monopoly on higher learning, so much so that Sebastian Thrun, Global Thinker No. 4 and the founder of Udacity, predicts that degrees will eventually go the way of the ham radio and the calculator watch. "It’s pretty obvious that degrees will go away," Thrun told Forbes in June. "Careers change so much over a lifetime now that [the degree] model isn’t valid anymore." If Thrun is right, the following seven MOOCs will have had something to do with it.


Founded as MITx in 2011, edX‘s initial mission was to recreate the MIT classroom online — minus the body odor. It has since grown into a $60 million partnership between Harvard and MIT that offers free online courses on a range of subjects, from electrical engineering to artificial intelligence. But edX isn’t just trying to bring elite education to the masses. Its goal is to fundamentally reimagine university learning through a "flipped classroom" that allows students to solve problems alongside their professors. Sure, Stanford’s been doing this for a while now, but edX has taken it a step further partnering with community colleges and offering "gamified" lab simulations for students without access to costly scientific equipment. edX also plans to gather data on how its students learn with an eye for improving educational delivery. "It’s a live laboratory for studying how people learn, how the mind works, and how to improve education, both residential and online," edX’s chief scientist told the Chronicle of Higher Education last month.


Available for free through Apple’s nearly ubiquitous music player, iTunes, the company’s education initiative, iTunesU, has seen widespread adoption in its first six years of operation, accumulating 500,000 audio and video files from more than 1,000 universities. The system allows universities and educators to upload educational materials onto the platform in the form of audio and video recordings. While it lacks some of the interactive components of more recently launched MOOCs, iTunesU provides access to an incredible wealth of material, including lecture materials from some of the world’s top universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. As the late Steve Jobs might say, iTunesU does nothing less than put a university in your pocket.

University of the People

The rapid rise of MOOCs over the past year can in part be traced to increasing numbers of major, brand-name universities signing up for online education initiatives, but the educational options at the Yales of the world often have little to offer individuals in developing countries, for whom practical skills are far more important. For this group, University of the People presents a promising alternative. Founded by Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur and Global Thinker No. 36, University of the People offers essentially free four-year bachelor’s degrees in computer science and business administration. If online education has a chance to change the developing world, University of the People is where it will have started.


Founded by Google’s Sebastian Thrun (Global Thinker No. 4), the same guy who brought us the driverless car, Udacity is a private educational organization devoted to making higher learning more democratic. Thrun dreamed up the idea for Udacity when he was teaching Introduction to Artificial Intelligence at Stanford in the fall of 2011. He and co-instructor Peter Norvig offered the course online for free and more than 160,000 people from every country in the world except isolated North Korea have signed up to take it. Now headquartered in a barn-like structure in Menlo Park, Udacity offers 12 online courses — in subjects from computer programming to physics — free to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. It also offers certification for completed courses at any of 4,500 testing centers worldwide for a small fee.


Founded by a pair of computer scientists at Stanford, Coursera is partnered with more than 30 traditional universities – like Stanford, Michigan, and Princeton — and offers a range of courses in engineering, computer science, and math, though it is also expanding into the humanities. "[A]s Internet access improves globally," founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng (Global Thinker No. 37) write in Forbes, "online education is becoming a very real solution for students who might not have the prior experience needed to enroll in local colleges, who can’t afford tuition  … or who can’t commute to schools far away from home." The for-profit tech company, which attracted $16 million in venture capital, does not offer degrees, but its course-by-course certification scheme ensures that students don’t approach potential employers empty-handed. So far, Coursera has enrolled more than 1 million students from 196 countries.


More marketplace than classroom, Udemy is a platform that allows anyone to build and market a course without having to build their own web infrastructure. Its founders, entrepreneurs Bali, Oktay Caglar, and Gagan Biyani, think of it as a place where experts come to teach the world, with everyone from famous yoga instructors to top-notch coding gurus offering courses through their platform. "The world is filled with experts who have deep knowledge in a particular niche, but they have never had the tools to share that knowledge," Bali recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Udemy’s new course creation platform allows these experts to transform this knowledge into a high-quality online course." To date, Udemy users have published more than 4,500 courses on topics ranging from music theory to iPhone app design.

Open Learning Initiative

A self-paced MOOC platform developed at Carnegie Mellon University, the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) has so far posted some impressive results. According to one recent study, students enrolled at OLI, which is one of the smaller MOOCs with just 51,000 enrollees, posted similar or better results than students enrolled in the same course taught in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. Those findings indicate that OLI, which currently offers 16 different courses in subjects like French, programming, and chemistry, has developed a model with the long-term potential to deliver real results. OLI’s course in statistics, for example, makes a point of placing individual lessons within the context of a broader structure, includes student evaluation within the course materials, and provides students with quick feedback, methods that evaluations of the program indicate are helping students participating in the MOOC outperform their peers in a traditional brick and mortar classroom.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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