World and Nation

Are Massive Online Open Courses right for you?

As part of the latest wave of online learning platforms, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have gone viral. They can be useful for certain students, although those interested in changing or enhancing their careers should consider their more intensive sister, distance learning.

A MOOC is a mostly free, open course that nearly anyone can apply for and “attend” online. While there may be readings and lectures, students are generally not graded by a professor the way they would be in a traditional college course. You may often come and go as you please.

More than 4.5 million students were enrolled in MOOCs at the end of last year, with some 6 million expected to participate by 2015, according to Kate Worlock, an analyst with Outsell, a research and advisory service based in Burlingame, Calif.

The growth in MOOCs, though, spurred by course offerings from top-tier schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Yale, has yet to eclipse the population of traditional online learners, which was about 21 million at the end of 2013.

For many, MOOCs are the online intellectual equivalent of wine samplings or tasting menus. You don’t have to commit to an entire course if it doesn’t satisfy your intellectual palate or time constraints. Unlike the older distance-learning programs, which have been around for decades and are usually offered through individual colleges for credit, MOOCs may grant noncredit “certificates” or “verifications” that have questionable value.

If you’re looking for career advancement or a new job, do MOOCs make sense? Despite the astounding variety of courses offered — including computer science and zoology — if judged by completion rates, MOOCs may not be the ideal vehicle for online learning.

In a 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, course completion rates were 4 percent among the programs surveyed, which followed the activity of about 1 million users. Relatively few of the users were considered to be “active,” with “engagement falling off dramatically — especially after the first one to two weeks of a course,” the study said.

Worlock, who has studied the low completion rates, surmises that many students may not have the time to complete a course because of family and work obligations. The typical user is “a lot older — 35 is the average age,” she found. “You need to be an extremely dedicated individual to complete a course.”

No standard rating system applies to online courses the way one is used for movies or vehicles. You have to know what you want.

Will a MOOC meet your needs? First, decide if the MOOC environment is right for you. For many, this is not an effective way to learn. If you find it difficult to “attend” online sessions, can’t budget the time or complete a course in a self-paced environment, then you might need the structure of a distance-learning program, although it will cost much more.