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Massive Open Online Courses and Their Economic Value
May 1, 2016

This century has seen many innovations and transformations within the fields of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). They have brought forth new developments in education by transferring conventional learning cultures into virtual environments. ICT is enabling us to acquire knowledge from electronic platforms, namely online encyclopedias, online courses, social media sites, online video portals, online newspapers, and blogs. We benefit greatly from these developments without sacrificing much in the way of economic expenses or physical hardships.

ICT has facilitated numerous new forms of educational platforms, technologies, programs, and projects. MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is a new terminology that has been added to our dictionary. MOOC is an online course provided through a website, and which is open to a large number of students. Besides providing study aids like lecture videos, reading materials, and problem sets, it has interactive user forums to enable students to share and learn from each other.

Coursera is a successful MOOC platform which was only launched in April 2012. As of today, it has more than 5 million students registered worldwide. Coursera has signed collaborations with 108 leading universities – not only from the USA, but also from China, the UK, Singapore, etc. It offers more than 640 courses in various disciplines, including management, computer sciences, arts, education, social sciences,  and more.

Coursera states that its vision is “a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.”

Under the Global Translation Partners Program, Coursera is partnering with translation companies, non-profits, philanthropic organizations, corporations, and universities from around the world to translate courses into other languages. This will enable non-English speaking citizens to benefit from these courses. At present, complete lectures of selected courses are translated into Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Kazakh, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, and Ukrainian.

Another successful MOOC project is edX, which also offers various courses for free. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the two world leaders in higher education, have come together to develop this free online educational project. This initiative intends to educate 1 billion students.

The calls for free education are growing louder. Today in the US, the outstanding total student loan debt amounts to 1 trillion dollars, which is higher than both auto loan and credit card loan debt. More than 37 million US citizens are indebted with student loans. Some people will be paying off their education until the day they die. Even though there are a good number of community colleges which offer economic programs, many students opt to secure mainstream degrees in reputed colleges, despite the cost. The MOOCs that provide courses free of charge could revolutionize the way people are educated. In terms of real learning experience and exposure, the virtual system is no match for the conventional physical environment. But since human resources are limited, online courses can be valuable to a wide range of target groups. This new trend could bring a lot of socio-economic benefit to marginalized groups. Here are some economic values of free courses for both students and institutions:

  1. Opportunity – This is probably the most important benefit of online learning. The student will be enabled to continue his or her day-to-day job and family duties while also pursuing an educational program. Our life is full of opportunities as well as duties; when we start having more duties, we start to sacrifice opportunities. If a person gets married, thinking about a full time Master’s degree becomes challenging. But engaging in online courses reduces this gap, putting forward a wide range of new prospects by bringing down the costs of opportunity.
  2. Skill development – As our technology develops, new jobs are created – and these jobs require new skills. Acquiring knowledge from these classes will prepare students to be part of a changing workforce. There are classes available in mobile programming, web technologies, digital marketing, portfolio management, etc.
  3. Flexibility – This is one of the distinct characteristics of online learning. Depending on availability, the student can easily track the lectures as he or she wishes. The examination and assignment pattern can be built around the student’s schedule.
  4. Overcoming distance – Students can take courses and learn from the comfort of their own home. Students can even take classes from foreign universities. Imagine the costs of traveling to a foreign country! Now, the foreign country can come to you.
  5. Saving time – “Time is money.” Online learning reduces the vast amount of time – and money – that is often spent acquiring knowledge. The student won’t need to commute to class, or miss school for an important work meeting. This is not only time saved, but earned. The student can study during holidays and other free time.    
  6. Saving miscellaneous expenses – An online course eliminates petty expenses, such as transportation costs, lunch, books, and study materials. These small expenses create an added economic weight for students in a conventional educational environment. For people struggling financially, these seemingly “minor” costs can add up quickly.
  7. Career shifts – Free classes are great for someone who feels stuck in their career. They can acquire the new skills necessary for a career shift.
  8. No age limit – As people get older, it becomes harder to find the time for an education. They have responsibilities – whether financial, professional, or filial – that prevent them from taking classes. MOOCs enable older students to learn on their own schedules.
  9. Taking rare courses – MOOCs enable students to enroll in rare courses. Not all colleges offer courses in Energy, Critical Thinking, or Designing Cities. Coursera offers a wide range of interesting multidisciplinary courses. Having access to such diverse fields of study is exciting for students.
  10. Employment – MOOC platforms are also developing partnerships with HR representative at major companies, creating employment opportunities. Good students can be connected with good jobs.
  11. Branding – Higher educational institutions collaborating with these MOOC platforms are also marketing themselves. Thousands of students are getting acquainted with these institutions through their eminent professors – and in turn, the students are realizing these are the best learning institutions in the world.
  12. Virtual Infrastructure – Conventional institutions have spent millions of dollars for physical infrastructure, including buildings, libraries, laboratories, sports and recreational centers, etc. For online courses, the universities have to acquire technology to build virtual infrastructure. The basic physical infrastructure will be able to cater to thousands of students, as lectures from limited physical classrooms will be broadcast to thousands online.
  13. Recorded lectures – When an institution records lectures delivered by professors, these recordings will remain an asset for the institution. These recorded lectures can be accessed at any time.
  14. Vast number of enrolled students – The conventional classroom can accommodate a limited number of students. In virtual classrooms, thousands of students can follow an online lecture.


We have not discussed the shortcomings of MOOCs, as our focus is on bringing attention to the possibilities of this platform. The way we learn is changing, and these changes present real opportunities. It is probably too early to calculate the return on investment from MOOCs, as the technology is still developing and is not yet widespread. But the early returns suggest that these kinds of programs will have real economic and social benefits for both students and institutions.