Classroom, eLearning

MOOCs: Is Online Learning an Affordable Option?

It has been several years since the technological revolution turned towards improving the state of education. Many advancements have been made in improving access to higher education with initiatives such as Open Learning and an increase of technology in the classrooms.

Online learning

One of the more recent developments, Massive Open Online Course or MOOC, for short, draws on the Open Learning concept and has a chance to revolutionize access to higher education.

What is a MOOC?

The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by David Cormier to describe a course that last 12 weeks and was delivered online. The first course was “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge.” It was designed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and premiered in Fall 2008 at a Canadian university in the Province of Manitoba – the University of Manitoba. It was available to 25 matriculated students, as well as another 2,300.

The name of the course directly relates to the online role playing games, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games). Since the introduction of the course, this method of offering a variety of courses online to students has been accepted as an option to traditional teaching methods.

Who are MOOCS for?

MOOCs are for anyone who wants to take a course. They do not have to have previous instruction in the field or be matriculated or currently enrolled in the area of study. All that is required is access to a computer, interest in the topic and, in many instances, a required fee. Yet, many MOOCs are free, opening them up to anybody who is interested in learning about the subject.

Who offers MOOCS?

MOOCs are currently being offered by various organizations as well as accredited universities and colleges. Some institutions are active in their creation of MOOCs; others are using MOOCs that have been produced by other institutions. Several universities and colleges are doing both — producing some MOOCs and using others.

What is the purpose of MOOCS?

MOOCs were created to fulfill several goals. They were intended to:

  • Provide a quality education
  • Ensure everyone has a chance at a college education
  • Improve access to higher education, which can be restricted to elite institutions
  • Help reduce the upward spiral of the costs of higher education

This was the intent, but have the goals been achieved?

What have MOOCS achieved?

According to some research, MOOCs have achieved a few goals. They do provide access to quality education at no cost or at least for a reasonable price and have increased opportunities for those who would not otherwise be able to access higher education.  This includes:

  • Those who cannot afford to make the trip to schools
  • Those who do not even live in the United States
  • People with busy schedules
  • People who work during school hours or terms
  • Older individuals
  • Those who cannot physically make the journey

Moreover, the education being offered can be high in quality and content.

What are the issues with MOOCs?

Despite this, MOOCs are not without their problems. They are facing several issues, which some researchers consider serious. This type of learning has been accused of having a high drop-out rate.

A study done in 2013 found the completion rate of 17 courses to be only 5%. Other research has indicated that the numbers are closer to 13%. However, these studies do not take into consideration that enrollment figures are not necessarily a reflection of the success of the program. Many students are “window shoppers.” They drop out before the first class or following the first assignment. Over half of those that continue go on to earn their certificate of course completion.

MOOCs do tend to be very large and, frequently impersonal. A student may never experience one-on-one time with the instructor. Some of these students may end up frustrated and drop out. As a result, many of the students who are successful in such programs are those who were not the original target for MOOCs.


As researchers, studies, supporters and even naysayers are quick to note, MOOCs have the potential to create a revolution within the educational system. They are a valid option in higher education and give lifelong learners and new students alike the opportunity to test out a new field.

Yet, if MOOCs are truly to be an effective tool in the educational revolution or reformation, researchers and developers need to look closely at who these courses actually reach and what those students need to be successful in their learning.

Photo credit: Official GDC / Flickr

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The Author

Mary Brown

Mary Brown

Mary Brown has enjoyed writing about education and finance related topics, such as scholarships, student loans, college, vocational degree choices, and adult education since the early 2000's. She also writes about school budgets, accreditation and fundraising.