It was while teaching my tenth grade Academic English class that I first became aware of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Alex, one of my resident brainiacs, directed me to what he described as "the coolest website EVER," MIT Open Courseware, the home of MIT Free Online Courses. Alex is the student who aspires to run Google someday, so his choice of an MIT website was not a surprise at all. However, I was surprised that the general public is now able to virtually experience courses at one of the most elite, rigorous, and expensive institutions of higher learning in the whole world for free.
It’s a revolutionary idea, for sure, and it’s also very exciting. MIT has led the MOOC movement, and has been offering courses online for over ten years. The courses are most heavily used by self learners (43%), students (42%), and educators (9%). Both students and educators report using the courses to enhance personal knowledge. Students and self learners use the courses to plan a course of study. No matter what reason someone has for exploring an online course, the ivory tower is more open now than ever.
In addition to MIT’s 2150 free and open courses, other prestigious institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Tufts, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Irvine, and Yale have many classes available for home learning at no cost. But with so many options, how does one decide which courses to take? If I had to advise my own students on this decision, here is what I’d tell them.
1. Open your mind. Attending college is a time to both to expand your existing knowledge and also to try new things. With these resources available to us, why not practice for college by trying something different? Shake off the idea that it might be too hard, but if a course does not appeal to you at all, then move on. For instance, if you love English but have focused mostly on British Literature, why not try a course about American Literature? Or, expanding even further, why not take a course about the History of England and see if you can find any connections between the literature you know and the history you’ll be learning?
2. See what’s available. Visit the open online learning websites of the institutions that most interest you. Browse the courses by category or level, and make a list of the classes you’d most like to take.
3. Check out the materials. The required materials will vary from course to course. Most will have required reading, and the materials will be listed in the syllabus, or on the front page of the course. See if you can find the books and articles at your local library before buying. If you live in a college town, you may be able to use the local college library for research. If materials for one course are too hard for you to obtain, then take that course off your list.
4. Plan the time commitment. The course syllabus will include all of the assignments and projects. Commit to working on your MOOC for a set number of hours per week. While it’s not the same as attending college, it is good practice. If the work needed for the course will not fit into your free time, then strike that course from your list.
5. Think about how you will use the knowledge you gain. Information garnered from MOOCs could be perfect for research projects, papers, or presentations in school. If there is nothing planned, you can ask your teacher if you can do an extra assignment to share and get some feedback on your new knowledge.
6. Follow your heart. Look at your list of remaining MOOCs and see which one really speaks to your heart. We are lifelong learners, and learning is meant to be enjoyed.
My MOOC ended up being Stanford’s “The Structure of English Words,” which I found on iTunes via the Stanford website. I’m a grammar geek and etymology has always been a topic of interest to me. If you choose an online course, please leave a comment in the notes. I’d love to hear about your learning.