A flurry of tweets this week showed people signing up for classes with Coursera, edX and Udacity, three organizations that work with universities to provide massively open online courses to anyone at no charge.
These student sign-ups follow two major announcements recently: 12 more universities partnered with Coursera and UC Berkeley joined edX.
In light of these events, three working professionals share why they decided to take massively open online courses.
1. To access high-quality courses
The variety, no cost and high-quality courses on Coursera drew Andrew Guttormsen, founder of Exploreous Inc., to take "Computer Science 101" from Stanford University last year. This year, he's taking "Internet History, Technology, and Security" from the University of Michigan and "Gamification" from the University of Pennsylvania. The "Gamification" course fits perfectly into his business, which creates an Amazing Race-style game for cell phone owners in New York City to explore.
@coursera is getting really, really good. There are 20 or so courses I'd love to take. Signed up for two that I'll have time for.— Andrew Guttormsen (@AGuttormsen) July 25, 2012
Compared to traditional in-person classes, massively open online classes are more flexible and not as structured, said Guttormsen, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Delaware two years ago.
"It's very easy, it's very simple, and it's more fun because you chose to be in the class," said Guttormsen.
Another course participant, Ramon Suarez, agreed. The founder of BetaGroup Coworking Brussels in Belgium contrasted his motivation as a university student and as a student in Udacity massively open online courses.
"What has changed for me from the university to now is that now I want to learn and I want to learn for myself," said Suarez, who holds two master's degrees in political science and business administration from Universidad Complutense de Madrid and Solvay Business School in Brussels. "I don't care about grades or anything like that. I just want to learn and understand it and be able to use it. This makes it very easy. And seriously the quality of the courses is amazing."
2. To experiment
signed up for MITs -Intro to Computer Science/Programming Oct 1st & Berkeleys -Artificial Intelligence Sept 24thEDX.ORG— Naveed Ashraf (@atlnav) July 24, 2012
Online resources have been efficient, effective and educational for Naveed Ashraf, a managing director of software development for Sony in Atlanta who graduated from the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. He has watched recorded lectures from professors through MIT's Open CourseWare initiative as well as Khan Academy. And he's used resources like these to supplement his fourth- and sixth-grade children's education.
After reading The New York Times article announcing that UC Berkeley joined edX, he signed up for two courses: "Introduction to Computer Science and Programming" from MIT and "Artificial Intelligence" from Berkeley.
"Primarily I'm very curious to see how they approach the process of studying online and what technologies and processes they use, and then secondarily I'm interested in improving my knowledge about artificial intelligence," Ashraf said.
3. To gain independence
After taking "Intro to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine" from a University of Virginia professor, Suarez signed up for three more Udacity courses this summer. One of them, "Web Application Engineering: How to Build a Blog," follows the first course he took. The other two are "Algorithms: Crunching Social Networks" and "Intro to Statistics: Making Decisions Based on Data."
He chose to continue learning the Python programming language in the "Web Application Engineering" course because he wants to learn how to do simple programming tasks. These courses allow him to go at his own pace, tackle challenging problems constantly and come away with knowledge that will help him in his young coworking business.
Couldn't sleep trying to solve a problem from python course with @udacity (been working on it for days).May have found the solution at 2am— Ramon Suarez (@ramonsuarez) July 25, 2012
For example, Suarez is using his master's in business administration knowledge to decide what business information he wants to get out of databases he creates. From what he's learning in Udacity courses, he's planning to make a dashboard that tracks information such as customer lifetime value to inform business decisions.
"I want to be able to do that by myself," Suarez said. "I don't want to have to go out and find a programmer who is willing to do something so small."