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Click and Learn From the Best

In the United States and India, students gain valuable knowledge from Massive Open Online Courses.

Not long ago, learning from the brilliant professors at Harvard University meant having to amass an outstanding academic record, complete rigorous standardized tests, emerge victorious from a brutally selective admissions process and relocate to the institution’s historic campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thanks to a recent trend that’s equal parts education and technology, though, students around the world can now study with Harvard’s top minds—using nothing more than a computer and the Internet.

Harvard is just one of the many institutions in the United States that has begun offering Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs for short. “A MOOC is taught by an expert instructor like an author or professor, offered for free or very cheap, has thousands of students enrolled and is composed of dozens of mostly video-based lectures that you can take at your own pace,” says Dinesh Thiru, vice president of marketing for the San Francisco-based MOOC company Udemy. “Four years ago, MOOCs didn’t exist. Now there are thousands.”

Udemy offers more than 16,000 courses in 10 different languages, reaching millions of students in over 190 countries. Participants can learn the ins and outs of designing iPhone apps or how to play classic hymns on the piano, take in an overview on quantum physics or plunge into a 90-minute crash course in the history of India. And that’s just the beginning.

Two of the biggest names in the MOOC world, edX and Coursera, offer equally diverse opportunities to learn from the best. A nonprofit initiative created by Harvard in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), edX offers 180 courses—a majority of them in English—created at renowned universities around the world, including Columbia University in New York, University of Toronto in Canada and IIT Bombay, the latter of which offers courses in computer programming and thermodynamics.

“Right now, they [students] can take the courses for free and the certificates that they get at the end of the course are also free. Our mission is to increase access to education for students around the world...The courses are developed by our university partners and each university has some key courses that they would like to offer...Many students have now begun putting these courses on to their résumés,” Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, said in a Google hangout interview with SPAN.

Founded by two professors at Stanford University in California, Coursera is different in that it was created as a for-profit venture, though it still offers courses on subjects ranging from cybersecurity to global affairs—for free. The service hosts over 400 courses from Yale University in Connecticut, Princeton University in New Jersey and dozens of other prestigious institutions from countries around the globe.

As Thiru describes it, the seeds of the MOOC movement began in the 1990’s through experimental online courses created by MIT, though he himself first discovered the phenomenon in 2010 when he stumbled across the Khan Academy website. “I was incredibly inspired by the way Khan was teaching calculus to hundreds of thousands, and now millions, of students on YouTube,” he says.

“With online learning, it has become much easier to supply content through videos and interactive exercises where the students can self-pace themselves and the millennial generation is very comfortable with doing things online,” says Agarwal.

Though MOOCs offer convenient, affordable and flexible ways to learn new skills, they are not without their flaws. In an article entitled “The Year of the MOOC,” The New York Times cited retention of students as an issue that MOOCs grapple with, though discussion groups, such as those sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s MOOC Camp program (See sidebar), have been shown to help. The article also mentions the difficulties that can arise from grading the work of thousands of participants—especially on assignments that cannot be evaluated by computers—and spotting cheaters as challenges that MOOCs and their administrators face as they try to take top-notch education to a global level.

Despite such challenges, MOOCs continue to create powerful learning opportunities. “We have students that write into us every week, telling us that they’ve started a business, changed careers or just learned something they never thought possible because of a course they took on Udemy,” says Thiru.

Through increased international expansion and an ever-growing catalog of courses, Thiru and his colleagues plan to continue focusing on the mission of helping anyone learn anything, online. His hope? That MOOCs will serve as a great equalizer, both within the United States and across the globe.

“No matter who you are, how rich or poor, or where you are in the world,” he says, “if you have a desire to learn something, a MOOC—and a world-class instructor—is waiting to teach you.”


Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.