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Harvard at Home? Consider a Massive Open Online Course

September 25, 2015
Massive open online courses (MOOCs)

It’s officially fall and the kids are back in school. Maybe it’s time for you to hit the books, too?

The idea of returning to college can be daunting. Between an already-full schedule and the cost of tuition, university-level courses may seem out of reach. But massive open online courses mean it’s easier than you may think to return to the classroom.

MOOCs, as they’re known, have been around for several years now. They offer thousands of real courses from established universities around the world, taught by actual professors—including many from Ivy League schools.

To participate in a MOOC, students generally watch video lectures and do homework that’s graded by machines or other students. This setup allows the professor to teach classes that may have thousands of enrollees. Would you like to take a course on the principles of justice from Harvard? How about a class on game theory from Stanford? Those and thousands more are available.

The More You Know

There are several ways to browse available classes. The top MOOC sites include the for-profit Coursera and the non-profit edX (governed by Harvard and MIT). Both sites offer massive open online courses from top universities around the world, including Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the Sorbonne, and thousands of others.

Many courses are free, but for now, you won’t get credit. This isn’t like registering as a student in a university; MOOCs are a lot more like auditing a class.

And don’t expect to become the teacher’s pet, either. As the MIT Technology Review has pointed out, MOOCs really just offer content. Professors who are teaching thousands of students at the same time generally can’t give you personal help with your homework. Your best bet is student interaction via discussion forums or social media.

Finally, check the timing for any course you’re considering. Some classes are self-paced, but others have definite start and stop times. Find something that fits your schedule as well as your interests.

Need to drop out? Don’t worry about it; a 2013 study by University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education noted that course completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses.

The Third “Degree”

Some specialization courses, like business foundations classes offered by the Wharton School via Coursera, do cost money. For $595, Wharton’s courses cover core business skills such as marketing and accounting, and include a “capstone project” similar to those MBA students complete. Those who finish the series get a certificate of completion, but no degree. On the other hand, an MBA from Wharton costs about $100,000 for a first-year student.

Some business schools, including Arizona State University, are starting to create credit-bearing MOOC classes. Students of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s MBA MOOC can also apply to business school and, if accepted, pursue the full MBA degree.

As the sun is setting earlier and the leaves start to fly, plenty of us feel that hankering to learn something new. Continuing education is always a sound investment. Thanks to massive open online courses, lifelong learning is readily available like never before.

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