MOOCs — a New Era in Higher Education

On: September 10, 2013
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About Nora Wohlfeil
Born and raised in Germany with a stop over in Japan. In my Bachelor's I studied Communication & Cultural Management. I am interested in what cultural heritage means in the digital era and how new media affect our society - in whatever ways that may be. Also I love cheese and music.


Imagine you don‘t have to share a classroom with 150 other students, while summer is in full bloom. Imagine you can attend a class at the beach. Imagine you just need to go online. Imagine education is for everyone. Welcome to the university of the 21st century.

200 years ago Humboldt revolutionized the university system by introducing his thoughts on modern education – an idea most universities still consist of today. Now the revolution comes in the form of MOOCs. “There is a tsunami coming” as Stanford University President John Hennessy put it. This tsunami is forcing universities to re-position themselves in the educational arena. But what exactly are those MOOCs?

A Short Overview of the Phenomenon 

MOOCs, the short form for massive open online courses, have gained great popularity during the past one and a half  years. Especially US-based platforms like Coursera and Udacity, both initiated by former Stanford professors, have recorded impressive numbers since their foundation. Coursera tripled its fundings in July 2013, to all in all 65 million dollars and hit the 4 million student mark since going online in April 2012. In Europe the concept is still fairly young. The Berlin-based start up iversity is currently pushing into the market.

An image film by iversity explaining the idea of MOOCs

The objective of these platforms is to offer online courses that allow access to everyone. Coursera defines itself as “an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.” The offer is diversified and reaches from humanities (A History of the World since 1300), law (Introduction to International Criminal Law) and software engineering (Programming Languages), to name a few. Students get the chance to follow lectures at their own pace, test their knowledge, monitor their own progress and watch lectures by world-class professors – all for free. Even obtaining a certificate, which is not for free, in the end is possible.

 A Democratization of Education

Does this mean that our society is facing the democratization of education? The idea that everyone can study for free, being their own director, listening to experts from around the globe seems promising. Especially for those for which education still is a luxury product and that cannot afford an educational qualification. But apart also for anybody else the offer is of interest – spanning from employees, that want to educate themselves. Mothers and fathers seeking for challenges or disabled people for whom it may be difficult to attend classes. Additionally since the quality of content and didactics become publicly comparative, the competition between institutions regarding their teachings rises. Thus the hope is, that there will be a higher level of education. The MOOCs concept opens up a new world, a more democratized educational world.

Now, how does this MOOCs-tsunami affect our understanding of universities nowadays? Is it the end of universities? Elite institutions like Princeton and Stanford in fact are contributing a lot of online content to these platforms. With success. When Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity and at that time professor at Stanford, introduced his first MOOC about artificial intelligence, 160.000 students from over 190 countries signed up, 23.000 completed the course.

Is this the university of the 21st century?

Yes and No. Yes, because the possibility that technology brings to reach out to many people, offering an education at a minimal cost is a tremendous opportunity for those who cannot afford higher education and should not be disregarded. Our lives are intertwined with modern technology, why ignore it? Also the contribution of elite universities sharing their level of knowledge is tempting.

And no, because studying the knowledge of a Harvard professor in a MOOC is not equal with studying at Harvard. Elite universities and their power as a brand are not to be underestimated. MOOCs will probably force institutions to decrease their costs at some point and may be more risky to second and third tier universities. Further the network and emotional bonds students form at their universities is probably the most valuable aspect. Also the associated economic outcome isn‘t clear yet either.

MOOCs should be considered as a complement to universities, not as a substitute. However, the phenomenon is still quite young in order to make definite predictions. Until then I happily share a classroom with students while there is an unexpected summer wave swapping over Western Europe.



Anders, G. (2013, July 10) Coursera Hits 4 Million Students – And Triples Its Fundings. Forbes, retrieved on September 5 2013.

Brooks, D. (2012, May 3) The Campus Tsunami. The New York Times, retrieved on September 5 2013.

Lewin, T. (2012, March 4) Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls. The New York Times, retrieved on September 6 2013.

Sandeen, C. (2013, July 18) From Hype to Nuanced Promise: American Higher Education and the MOOC 3.0 EraThe Huffington Post, retrieved on September 7 2013.

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