By Aaisha Zafar Islam

Image source: Coursera

Image source: Coursera


2012 was declared as the Year of the MOOC’s by New York Times. Pronounced ‘mook’, and short for Massive Open Online Courses, leading platforms for MOOC’s today include Coursera, edX and Udacity. The term was coined in 2008, by Dave Cormier at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada and Bryan Alexander, then Senior Research Fellow at National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.

MIT’s Open Course Ware (OCW) was one of the fore-runners of MOOC’s, starting off in 2002 with sharing course material taught in its revered classrooms to the world for free.

The premise of a MOOC is simple as an extension of distance and online learning. Students are spread all over the globe, anyone with an access to a computer and connected to the internet can register on any of these sites, for free, and embark on a journey to educate themselves.

What sets MOOC apart from the usual e-learning model, however is the range of courses it offers, the span of subjects it covers and of course the fact that it is, in most cases, free.

Top universities from around the globe have their faculty record and upload their lectures on these portals.

For Stay At Home Mothers (SAHM) who often complain about lack of intellectual stimulation in the routine of their everyday lives, MOOC’s are a great way to gauge their readiness for going back to school, learning new subjects or brushing up past knowledge.

It also means that they can actually learn subjects that they would not have had a chance to pursue otherwise. For instance, one of the most popular courses on Coursera has been Think Again: How To Reason and Argue.  Conducted by Faculty of Duke University the course is not one you would enroll for in a college or university. It does not promise any returns on investment. However it saw more than two hundred thousand enrollments when it was first launched in November 2012.

Image source: Coursera

Image source: Coursera

The MOOC Model

When you enroll in a MOOC, you will have world class faculty upload video lectures on a weekly basis. They may vary in length. Some courses run for 15 weeks, other wrap up in as little as five weeks. Expect to put in at least three to five hours weekly per course.

Every week a video lecture is uploaded on the MOOC portal, and students have to sit through e-quizzes based on each lecture, submit assignments on time for peer-reviews and participate in online discussion forums.

While the teaching faculty may not be able to mark and grade your papers, the system is devised such that every student has their time spent online, whether it for ‘sitting through’ lectures or quizzes, clocked in.

Certificates and Credits

Upon completion of the course, and on meeting all ‘graduating’ requirements, a student can get a Statement of Accomplishment or Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction.

Another difference in course offerings is that of signature-track and non-signature track.

The non-signature track course is free, you just get a piece of sheet to print, with your name on it that you completed the course. You will not have to verify your identity. Do bear in mind that this will have no academic value, that is no credits.

The signature track is halfway between being just an online course and a course with some academic merit. For a small fee, and after confirming your identity, you can get a verified certificate from the institute offering the course stating that you have successfully completed a course with them. Some universities and colleges are beginning to recognize these certifications.

Endless choices, at times incomplete

For seekers of knowledge, MOOC’s are like taking a child to a candy/toy store. The choice of courses is staggering – when Coursera rolled out, there was a time I was enrolled in no less than eight courses! Was I able to complete them? Not really.

As a mother and former academician, I revelled in the chance at being able to work my rusty grey matter. It was an opportunity not to be missed, there was so much to learn! I also realized, as I started falling behind and ultimately giving up on courses, that it was best to have chosen shorter courses.

Think Again, was a very interesting course, but spread over 12 weeks, asking for a good three hours weekly, it was not something a mother with two young kids could attempt. On the other hand, Critical Thinking in Global Challenges, conducted by faculty at the University of Edinburgh, ran for just five weeks. The lectures were shorter, more concise, to the point and most importantly, pared down the essential from Think Again, into slightly over a month.

When you attempt e-learning, you have to factor in how much time you can actively dedicate towards learning and assignments. Since you can’t get feedback from the faculty, you have to be active on the portals own forums and other social media outlets to interact with other students. Your assignments are also peer-reviewed, and at times you learn more from these discussions than the actual lecture.

Image source: Coursera

Image source: Coursera

Are you a MOOC Mom?

If you are planning to go back to school, as an adult student, MOOC’s are a good spring board to prepare you for the rigours of a regular academic program.  Distance learning aspirants can benefit greatly from MOOC’s, as it closely mimics the online learning model.

If you are just a life-long learner who wants to know a bit about everything, from Web Application Architectures  to Cloud Computing, The Modern World: Global History to the Constitutional Struggles in the Islamic World, MOOC’s are your window of opportunity. You don’t have to opt for signature tracks, or angle for a certificate of completion, though that is an impressive accomplishment in itself. The fact that all these lectures are free, all this knowledge is accessible to you whenever you have the time, is astounding!

For people who just want to stay on top of their fields or simply brush up their knowledge of subjects learnt long ago, it is the very best of refreshers.

The MOOC model is not without its share of critics who decry its lack of interaction with the faculty, acknowledgement by academic institutions and extremely high fall-out rates. Like all things in its infancy, it has a great many issues to perfect. However one cannot deny how MOOC’s have thrown open the doors to hallowed grounds of prestigious universities, making their faculty expertise available to all, making all kinds of knowledge available to everyone. Well almost all, early this year the US government had forced Coursera to block residents of certain countries from benefiting from them. But that is another story.


 About the author:

Aaisha Zafar Islam is the Executive Editor at Her next MOOC attempt starts next week.


Have you considered e-learning, what kind of online courses appeal to you? Do you look for a return on investments in academics or are a knowledge seeker? Share your ideas with other moms.