NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Shopping for No. 2 pencils, packing little lunch boxes and sending children back to class may have some grownups nostalgic to return to school themselves. Education, of course, never ends and today there are massive new options, which barely existed five years ago.Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, open up college classes to anyone in the world with Internet access. Typically, it's free. While online courses have been around for years, they were relegated to video-based lessons, online quizzes and tuition-payers. Today, an estimated 100 universities nationwide offer a MOOC, plus countless others around the globe. Classes can attract thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of students. Providers like Coursera and Udacity have turned MOOCs into a business and are building their own network of online courses, taught by university professors. Yet, the first MOOC dates back to just 2008, when two professors at the University of Manitoba in Canada opened their course to anyone who wanted to take it. Around 2,200 signed up, according to MOOC News and Reviews, which tracks the industry.P/>While critics are skeptical about the effectiveness of MOOC learning and no one is quite certain how to make money, MOOCs offer people a taste of education from top-ranked schools. Lessons may be abbreviated from a regular academic sessions, but students get the essentials and, if they complete the course, a plug for their resume. Some universities even offer college credit -- for a fee. "I think we can say this confidently: Right now that the only money out there is from venture capital or foundation money. Coursera and Udacity are living off their venture capital money and edX is living off its foundation money. Everyone else is chewing gum," said Robert McGuire, editor of MOOC News & Reviews. "But you can't deny the energy of these tens of thousands of people. To me, the fact that there are tens of thousands of individuals signing up for a course, that's meaningful." Anyone can sign up for a MOOC, but to complete the course, it takes dedication and commitment. Courses tell prospective students how much time is needed each week. Many are actual college courses that start on a certain date, encourage virtual study groups, include online quizzes and end with a final exam. Others are self-paced with no deadline.
CourseraFounded by Stanford University Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, Coursera is just two years old but one of the largest and most recognized MOOC providers. To date, 4.6 million "Courserians" have enrolled. Current classes include topics from "A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers" from the California Institute of the Arts to "Financial Engineering and Management Part I" from Columbia University. It currently offers 435 courses from 85 partners, including Yale, the National University of Singapore and Stanford. A search box on the homepage asks the simple question: What would you like to learn about? coursera.org
UdacityAnother Stanford University startup, Udacity began as an experiment by research Professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. The couple of dozen courses, heaviest on computer science, aren't all linked to a university. For example, "How to Build a Startup" is an eight-session course led by Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. For the most part, courses are not timed and are available at any moment, so students can self-pace. Still, there are assignments and a final exam. Udacity splits its courses into categories and then levels -- beginner, intermediate and advanced. udacity.com
edXHarvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started their own MOOC and created a consortium of other impressive schools like Berklee College of Music, UC Berkeley and the University of Texas. With Harvard and MIT in the lead, courses are heavy on math and science, with a bit of poetry and Shakespeare thrown in. edx.org