Nothing is hotter in the education world right now than the massive open online course, or MOOC. Behind the goofy acronym is an idea that flips the old “online degree” on its head. Instead of Internet diplomas offered by sometimes dubious schools for a price, MOOCs make an elite education available to anyone, typically for free but without course credit.
While online materials from MIT and a few other universities had been available for years, these courses first grabbed the public imagination in 2011, when an artificial intelligence class offered by Stanford University attracted 160,000 online students. Today, some of the world’s top educators are extolling MOOCs as a phenomenon that could transform the lives of people unable to attend top colleges in person, including young people in Third World villages, American working moms, and restless retirees.