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Should I do a MOOC?

Ben Sampson

Massive Open Online Courses offer the opportunity for anyone with an internet connection to study engineering from some of the world's top universities

When Stanford University launched its first Massive Open Online Course in 2011, the idea that anyone can obtain a high quality university education for free, without leaving the comfort of your own home, spread around the world like wildfire.

A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is taught over the internet, usually via a series of videos, assignments and quizzes, with interaction between the teacher and students via a forum or similar web-based community tool. Your work is marked by other students on the course and online assessments, or a combination of both. The courses usually last several months, although they can be self-paced. They don't normally result in a qualification or certificate and further, more formal assessments, usually costs.

After Stanford's first course about Artificial Intelligence attracted 160,000 students, the “e-learning” dam burst. 2012 became known as the “year of the MOOC” in the US, as MIT launched the not-for-profit MOOC website edX in partnership with Harvard and the University of California. Meanwhile US companies such as Coursera, Udacity and Canvas.net began to offer “MOOC-platforms”, commercial websites through which lesser-universities could offer free online courses. All of these websites offer courses that anyone in the world can study. Today these organisations are the biggest and most established players in the sector.

In recognition of their potential to reshape the education and training sector, many universities and training organisations around the world have launched MOOC companies to provide massive online courses. Following the flurry of activity in the US in 2012, schools in Asia have started running MOOCs in places such as Japan and Malaysia. In Europe, the UK's Open University has launched Futurelearn. In Germany Iversity has become the largest MOOC provider. The French government launched the France Universite Numerique in 2013. Ireland based education website Alison offers online diploma courses, whereas in Turkey Universiteplus aims to serve the Turkish, Russian and Arabic regions.

In Australia a number of universities offer MOOCs, including the University of New South Wales, which offered its first MOOC in 2012. Since then Open2Study has become the dominant platform. The US experience also spread quickly to South America, where startups such as Veduca are offering MOOCs in partnerships with institutions such as the University of Sao Paulo.

The MOOC has become a global phenomenon, and around a third of the courses available online are in science and technology, the idea of MOOCs having initially developed from the computer science and IT departments of US research universities. Right now you could sign up for a MOOC in several fields of engineering, from nanotechnology to thermodynamics. All for free.

Mark Lester is global head of education partnerships at UK-based MOOC-provider Futurelearn. The company is an offshoot of the UK's Open University, an institution that has offered distance-learning for more than 40 years. He says that the essential difference between MOOCs and traditional distance-learning is size. Traditional distance-learning courses would usually comprise of tutor-led groups of 150 people. Do a MOOC and tens of thousands of people around the world could be participating and assessing your learning. It’s the power of internet “crowdsourcing”, applied to the education sector.

Lester says: “We back a discussion-led approach to learning because it is the best way to learn the content. But you rely on the crowd to help you. Most learners doing our MOOCs are graduates, and the quality of the comments is very good.”

“Engineering obviously has theoretical and practical elements, and MOOCs are going to be more useful with the theory. They could be useful for apprenticeships to learn theory for instance.”

The idea that one day you could put a MOOC down on your CV, or even use it as part of a professional qualification process, may seem alien to many. But Lester says they are already being used in this way. Two organisations to have announced partnerships with Futurelearn in the UK with international standings are the Institute of Engineering and Technology and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). Lester says: “It's already happening. They are absolutely a legitimate way of learning. You wouldn't get the likes of the IET and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) using them if they weren't.”

Andrew Spencer, head of learning and development at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), says that the IMechE is in discussion with a number of parties over the development of MOOCs. “It’s a question of when and with whom rather than whether,” he says.

Although doing a MOOC isn’t part of the structured learning programmes that lead to professional accreditation with the IMechE, learnings from a MOOC could count towards Continual Professional Development (CPD) for a qualified engineer as legitimately as learnings from another source.

“They’re an ideal way to enable CPD and learning,” Spencer says. “The format enables cost effective access from contemporary, credible sources. The obvious advantage is that they’re not location dependant, and as the access becomes more flexible with things like mobile devices, they enable access in environments that some engineers will be familiar with – the test engineer on a rig doesn’t get many opportunities to visit the head office training academy.”

Mark Lester from Futurelearn agrees that one of the first places where MOOCs will grow the fastest and have the most impact is corporate training. He says: “The corporate training market is ripe for disruption, it’s very fragmented and the quality is not assured. Using MOOCs universities can offer high quality courses quickly.

“The world is changing so fast – half of the top jobs in ten years time don't even exist yet. MOOCs give people everywhere an opportunity to upgrade their skills and that applies to people from the developed and the developing world. It's about levelling the playing field, creating equal opportunities.”

Lester adds that the only way to assess the quality of a MOOC before you enrol is to assess the quality of the university providing it. Then your level of satisfaction and whether or not you stay the course is down to your own individual preference for learning and interest in the subject. “Do something you are interested in, have an opinion on and contribute. Set aside some time every week and make it matter. But don't beat yourself up if you leave the course. You may have just learnt what you wanted to learn,” he says.


Top MOOC websites for engineering courses

The content of the following providers was correct at the time of writing, May 2014, and the list will be updated periodically to reflect the top providers of engineering-related MOOCs.


Edx
The not for-profit Edx platform, founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University has more than 2.1 million users and 176 courses online at the time of writing. This includes 44 online engineering courses in English, including MIT courses on advanced mechanics, mechanical behaviour of structural elements and flight aerodynamics. There are courses on thermodynamics from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and courses on how to create autonomous mobile robots from ETH Zurich.


Coursera
This large US-based commercial provider has 48 English language engineering courses online. Prominent are various courses on mechanics and robotics from the Georgia Institute of Technology as well as introductory courses on Electrical Engineering from Rice University and a course on nanotechnology from the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel.In April 2014, the Coursera reported it had 7.1 million users in 641 courses from 108 institutions onilne.


Stanford Openedx
This not for profit website uses a version of the software that Edx and Coursera uses and is free for other MOOC-providers to use. As well as offering a portal for developers of the Openedx to collaborate on, it acts as a portal to access Stanford’s courses, which has a strong science and engineering content. There are courses available on subjects such as machine learning and solar cell technology.


Iveristy.org
Based in Berlin, this website provides mainly a mix of English and German courses. Unlike Coursera, Iversity works directly with the Professor to develop each course.  By the end of 2014 the site aims to have 1 million registered users and more than 100 courses.

Currently there are eight engineering and design-related courses on the site, covering vehicle dynamics from the Universität der Bundeswehr Hamburg and a course on modelling and simulation with Matlab from the University of Applied Sciences - Wiesbaden Rüsselsheim.


Miriada X
For Spanish speakers only, this MOOC provider is funded by the bank Santander and telecoms firm Telefónica contains courses from Latin American universities including Peru and Colmobia, as well as Spanish university courses. As of April it had some 700,000 users and 96 courses, 6 of which are related to engineering, including introductory courses on  mechanical and structural engineering.


Open2Study
Backed by Open Universities Australia, at the time of writing this government-backed provider lists 11 science and technology courses, including courses on mining engineering and mobile robotics.  

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