MOOC may be a silly-sounding acronym, but this new breed of online classes is shaking up the higher education world in ways that could be good for cash-strapped students and terrible for cash-strapped colleges. Taking a class online might not sound revolutionary—after all, in the fall of 2010, 6.1 million students were enrolled in at least one online course. But those classes were pretty similar to the bricks-and-mortar kind, in that students paid fees to enroll in classes taught and graded by a professor and some teaching assistants. But MOOCs, short for massive open online courses, are a different animal. They can be taken by hundreds of thousands of students at the same time. And perhaps the most striking thing about MOOCs, many of which are being taught by professors at prestigious universities, is that they’re free.
Since MOOCs first made waves in the fall of 2011, when then-Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun opened his graduate-level artificial intelligence course up to any student anywhere and 160,000 students in more than 190 countries signed up, the free online classes have been heralded as revolutionary, the future, the single most important experiment that will democratize higher education and end the era of overpriced colleges. Thrun has even gone so far as to say he envisions a future in which there will only need to be 10 universities in the world. In January, he launched Udacity, a private educational organization, offering a dozen courses that anyone can sign up for and complete at his or her own pace; it now says it has more than 739,000 students. A similar company, created by two Stanford computer science professors, called Coursera, launched in April with four major university partners—Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Since then, Coursera, which features humanities as well as science courses, has added more big-name partners, including Duke, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, and says it has one million registered students. The third major player in this space, edX, was launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in May. It has a more limited, high-level course catalog, but announced in July that the University of California-Berkeley was joining.