Last updated: April 15. 2014 7:16AM - 1791 Views
Ben Loftis Contributing Columnist

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The influence of computers and smartphones has greatly changed the vocabulary of many Americans by introducing terms such as blog, high definition, and streaming video. One new term related to technology you may not be familiar with is MOOC, an acronym for Massive Open Online Course.

MOOCs are especially common in the academic world, with many colleges and universities offering online classes to hundreds or thousands of students. MOOCs developed from the concept of distance learning, a field which has used online courses for quite a while (video lectures and correspondence courses pre-dated online courses in the realm of distance education). These courses became so common that the Oxford English Dictionary added the term “MOOC” to its listings in August of 2013 and the New York Times deemed 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.”

Outside the realm of academia, discussion of MOOCs is not nearly as common. Still, they do serve as an opportunity for the average person to take a class that is of interest, possibly experiencing a college setting for the first time or learning from a professor they otherwise would have had no opportunity to hear.

A variety of companies and websites offer on-line classes in a variety of formats — some are free, some are not; some offer some form of credit or a certificate for completion, others do not. Several major providers of MOOCs include Coursera, Udacity, and EdX (of those, only EdX is a not-for-profit). Also, popular is Khan Academy, a site offering short mini-lectures as well as a “gamification of learning” concept in which badges are awarded for completion of various courses or tasks.

Another free website (and one linked from the Digital Resources page at unionlibrary.org) is the OpenCourseWare Consortium. OpenCourseWare refers to MOOCs created by universities and offered free to the public. The OpenCourseWare Consortium brings together a variety of these colleges and universities’ free online courses to make them available to the public in one convenient website. Among the universities represented are MIT, the University of Notre Dame, Tufts University, and the University of Michigan, as well as other well-respected institutions worldwide.

A variety of other universities in the United States also offer free online classes, including Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard. These universities’ online offerings can be found online, and Wikipedia (though not typically a scholarly source itself) also offers information on other schools and providers of online classes.

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