Career Success

How MOOCs Work: A Quick Guide

By Mike BergelsonJanuary 9, 2014

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) now enroll millions of students and have gained acceptance from many employers as a valid form of corporate training. Why are they suddenly hot?

Let’s see how MOOCs work and how they compare to traditional, classroom education, in the following quick guide.

What is a MOOC?

Many of the top universities, from MIT to Harvard, have now set up free or low-cost online versions of their courses. Courses are availabile in a huge variety of subjects from statistics to sociology to Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets. When you sign up for a course, you can access the course materials online, usually in the form of recorded video lectures and written class notes. The courses are called “massive” because there’s no limit on enrollment, and often you’ll have thousands of fellow students.

They’re similar to the online training offered by sites like Lynda and Khan Academy, but incorporate the class structure of a college course, with weekly assignment and specific start and end dates. You follow the course from week to week, completing your assignments at home and uploading them to the course website.

Because of the numbers involved, there’s not much chance to interact directly with the teacher, but you can connect with fellow students to ask questions or collaborate on assignments. Most MOOCs are free or low-cost, and require no special qualifications.

How does it work?

Let’s take an example. Your boss has been asking you to come up new ideas for extensions to your current product line. You feel stuck. You realize you need some creative influence, but you’re not sure where to begin.

You search online using a directory like MOOC List, and find this free online course on Creativity, Innovation and Change, run by Penn State University and provided by Coursera, one of the three main MOOC providers in the U.S. (the others are Udacity and EdX).

The course runs for 8 weeks and the workload is about 6 to 8 hours a week, which means you can fit it around your existing work and family life. Most of the course is delivered in the form of videos, but you can also read extra materials online, collaborate with other students on projects, and participate in class forums.

There are weekly quizzes and assignments, but they’re not formally assessed by the teachers as they would be in an in-person class. The quizzes are graded automatically. To gain a certificate of completion, you just need to show that you’ve completed most of the quizzes, at least one weekly exercise, and a weekly “self-reflection survey.”

Here are a couple of examples of what it looks like when you’re inside the course. This is a video lecture:


And here’s an example of the forum page, where you can communicate with teachers and fellow students. You’ll see the weekly modules listed down the left-hand side, along with links to other pages within the course.


By the end of the course, you’ll have learned specific techniques to help you generate ideas and work better with other people to solve complex problems – like the one your boss is pushing you on. And while you won’t receive university credit, you’ll get a certificate for completing all of the coursework.

The Bottom Line

MOOCs are a great way to access quality education inexpensively, easily and on your own schedule. You can learn a lot if you put in the time and effort by yourself, although you’ll need to be strongly self-motivated, because there are no consequences like an “F” grade for failing to follow through with the class.

It’s still relatively early days for MOOCs. Universities, companies and non-profit institutions are pouring in millions of dollars of investment, and the technology is always moving forward. In the future, expect better course design, more interaction and more accredited courses.

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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