Nothing is hotter in the education world right now than the massive open online course, or MOOC. Behind the goofy acronym is an idea that flips the old “online degree” on its head. Instead of Internet diplomas offered by sometimes dubious schools for a price, MOOCs make an elite education available to anyone, typically for free but without course credit.
While online materials from MIT and a few other universities had been available for years, these courses first grabbed the public imagination in 2011, when an artificial intelligence class offered by Stanford University attracted 160,000 online students. Today, some of the world’s top educators are extolling MOOCs as a phenomenon that could transform the lives of people unable to attend top colleges in person, including young people in Third World villages, American working moms, and restless retirees.
Among several star-studded new ventures, MIT and Harvard are each pouring $30 million into edX, a nonprofit they founded last year to develop interactive classes from those and other premier universities. “We’re witnessing the end of higher education as we know it,” Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun declared in an opinion piece in the Globe in November.
But how completely can online courses reproduce the college experience? Lexington writer and entrepreneur Jonathan Haber wanted to find out. This January, he set out to earn a “one-year MOOC BA.” He is trying to cram about 32 courses, all free, into 2013—with enough breadth and depth to fulfill the distribution requirements for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.