Back-to-School for Grownups: Take a MOOC

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.

The opportunity to learn from a professor at an elite university is tempting, but few stick with it to the end. Even free courses from illustrious institutions like Stanford University report a 95% drop-out rate.

Still, it's a chance to explore topics one may otherwise not have the time or money to spare. Just don't expect a free degree from Harvard. At least not yet. (Georgia Institute of Technology may be the first -- it recently partnered with MOOC provider Udacity to offer a genuine master's degree in computer science for $7,000, an 85% discount.)

MOOCs span topics from hard-core classes like "Artificial Intelligence for Robotics" taught by Stanford University computer-science Professor Sebastian Thrun at Udacity, to business-minded courses, like "Welch Way: Leadership in Action," taught by former General Electric ( GE) CEO Jack Welch over at Udemy.

Here's a list of MOOC providers to get you started in learning something new:


Founded 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?


Another 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.


Harvard 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.


A newer MOOC started by Stanford Professor Amin Saberi was launched in April 2013, with a focus on group participation. It splits the thousands of students enrolled in a single course into smaller groups, based on location or similar interests. The collaboration aims to keep students accountable to the course and one another. NovoED offers a variety of technology and entrepreneurship courses. Some courses are free. Others, like Venture Capital 101, cost $999.


Launched in 2010, this business and career-friendly MOOC put together a roster of CEOs, New York Times best-selling authors and even some Ivy League professors to teach the masses.

Courses have a practical, less-academic approach, with sessions on designing a logo, hacking your sleep and learning to juggle. Udemy also charges for most courses and professors apparently can make a living. The 10 most popular professors earned $5 million in total.


Learning PHP, jQuery, Python or another computer language can be intimidating, especially if you don't know a lick of code. But beginner-friendly and free Codeacademy guides newbies through the basics with clear instructions, a spot to write test code and the actual result. There's group discussion and there's also a cheat button for answers -- and virtual award badges, if you're into that.

As with any online course, it's easy to overlook reminder emails to finish your Codeacademy course, but perhaps reading some of the success stories may inspire you to complete the lesson and launch a new career.


Can't figure out what course suits you best? Knollop is a new aggregator that tracks an extensive variety of courses from many MOOCs. Search by topic, session dates and open enrollment. Each course has a description, links to the MOOC and ratings by users. Not every MOOC course is on Knollop but the site welcomes submissions.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @gadgetress.

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