More than 160,000 people took Stanford University's 2011 course on artificial intelligence from the comfort of their own homes. Yale's most popular class in its 317-year history, “Psychology and the Good Life,” is now open to non-Ivy Leaguers. So how are over 101 million people worldwide getting access to curriculum once reserved to students paying high-cost tuition? It's called “massive open online courses” — more commonly known as MOOCs.
These free and relatively low-cost e-learning classes offer education on an expansive array of subjects. There are close to 12,000 MOOCs on topics ranging from digital photography to paleontology, according to Class Central, which has a searchable database of MOOCs and tracks trends in this area. Content can vary, but in general, each course will have a video of the lecturer speaking, related reading, quizzes and an online discussion forum.
MOOCs were initially offered by universities that wanted to openly share their courses with a mass audience. Now, more than nine hundred universities — including prestigious institutions such as Harvard and MIT — produce these courses, according to Class Central. Nonprofits, trade groups and companies such as Google and Microsoft have created MOOCs as well.
MOOCs are ideal for knowledge-seeking older Americans, says Laurie Pickard, partnership lead at Class Central. These courses enable workers to learn new skills that could fit in with their existing jobs, as well as explore potential avenues for second careers. At the same time, hobbyists can get in-depth information on a wide array of areas such as writing, art and design.
Adult education and online learning is not new (and neither are MOOCs, which started to really gain traction in 2012), but now with high-speed internet available almost everywhere, distance learning is exploding.
“It's like the opportunity that you can get if you live in a college town,” Pickard says. “If you're a retiree, a lot of times you can audit classes and sit in the classroom with the people who are taking those courses for credit. (With MOOCs) there's an opportunity to be in university-caliber courses and just satisfy a love of learning on really any topic imaginable."
Pat Bowden, 61, discovered MOOCs in 2012 after retiring from her job as a member relationship adviser with a credit union. She's since taken more than 100 courses, including Stanford University's Computer Science 101, University of Pittsburgh's Nutrition and Physical Activity for Health, the California Institute of Technology's The Science of the Solar System and the University of Tasmania's Preventing Dementia.
She created the website OnlineLearningSuccess.org to educate others about internet-based education and does some part-time work for Class Central.
Bowden didn't expect her online dabbling to lead to so many new opportunities.