Enrolling in a MOOC

To add a unique activity to your college application and resume, enroll in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in subjects ranging from essay writing to nanotechnology.

A MOOC is simply an online course with the capability to serve a large number of students (for example Stanford’s initial MOOC in 2011, Introduction into AI, enrolled 160,000 students) with open access via the web. Supplementary learning materials may include videos, lectures, e-books, or problem sets.  

The first MOOC debuted in 2008 when Canadian professors from the University of Manitoba launched a MOOC with 25 students and 2200 general public participants. Four years later, The New York Times named 2012 ‘the Year of the MOOC’, while Time magazine asserted MOOCs were now opening the ‘Ivy League to the Masses’.

There are a number of MOOC providers, with one of the best known being Khan Academy. Stanford after its aforementioned launch of three MOOCs in 2011 created Coursera, which now has partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and the University of Michigan. MIT, which initially labeled its MOOC development arm MITx, after setting alliances with Harvard, UC Berkeley, University of Texas system, Wellesley, and Georgetown, transformed itself into edX. Udacity, another MOOC provider, has, in conjunction with Georgia Tech and AT&T, launched the first MOOC-based master’s degree program for which it is charging a mere $7,000.

You may enroll at a number of sites including ‘MOOC List.’ (www.mooc-list.com) A recent visit to ‘MOOC List’ yielded an edX course ‘Introduction to Computer Science’, Coursera’s ‘Nanotechnology, the Basics’, and CDU’s ‘Charles Darwin’. Coursera alone, over its first full-year of operation-ending March 2013- offered more than 325 courses with 30% in the sciences, 28% in arts and humanities, 23% in information sciences, 13% in business, and 6% in mathematics.

What all this boils down to is if you’re applying to, say, University of California, Irvine, and you’re contemplating majoring in neuroscience, but haven’t taken a neuroscience course, you can now go to MOOC List and you’ll find “Fundamentals of Neuroscience, Part 1” hosted by three HarvardX instructors. They promise to teach you ‘how individual neurons transmit information…how to build a neuron, piece by piece using interactive simulation…and, how to conduct DIY neuroscience experiments.” This is a 12-week course ending in a free exam or final project, which also offers a free certificate to those who successfully complete the MOOC. By taking this MOOC, you’re not only better preparing yourself for the rigors of UCI, you’re also sampling a core class in your potential major, while getting a true taste of a Harvard undergraduate class and its demands.   

Keep in mind, however, that MOOCs, though stable and reliable, are still being perfected. Some MOOCs integrate  an entire learning community using discussion threads (called cMOOCs), while others are more like traditional university lectures (xMOOCs). MOOC assessments run the gamut: multiple choice quizzes, peer-reviewed written assignments, and machine-scored written assignments. Experience, of course, is the greatest teacher as MOOC producers are beginning to understand that most students will stop watching videos that are longer than 6 minutes.

A concerning statistic is the completion rate of many MOOCs is under 10%. A key reason is that a lot of the students who initially enroll tend to survey rather than actively participate.  These courses are full-fledged, challenging courses given at the host institution (such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT). They are demanding and expect substantial effort (Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence course, for example, took an enrollee with a master’s degree in computer science from Columbia, 22 hours per week to do the assignments, but her outcome was ‘rewarding’).

Enrolling in a MOOC places you with some of the top instructors teaching rigorous courses across a range of subjects. It also might serve to enhance your resume and application to select colleges, while, in all likelihood, teaching you something new in the bargain.