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  • Getting in the MOOC

    Massive open online classes offer enrichment during down time, and the ROI is better than TV
  • Free entertainment online is nothing new, but what if you could access a form of entertainment and enrichment over the Internet that others pay thousands of dollars for and that keeps you occupied for weeks at a time?
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  • Free entertainment online is nothing new, but what if you could access a form of entertainment and enrichment over the Internet that others pay thousands of dollars for and that keeps you occupied for weeks at a time?
    That's one of the allures of MOOCs — massive open online classes. They're college classes taught online, some by the world's leading experts in their fields at famous universities.
    And they're free, making them a fabulous form of entertainment and personal improvement for adults who don't need the academic credit.
    Imagine taking an eight-week course on financial markets by last year's Nobel Prize winner in economics, Robert Shiller at Yale University. Or a marketing course from professors at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
    Dozens of universities have joined partnerships during the past few years to put popular courses online for free.
    People worldwide can sign up for the classes, which aren't for credit and don't lead to a degree but might offer a course-completion certificate.
    Students typically watch short, recorded video lectures, take online quizzes, and connect in online forums with classmates and teachers. They participate in the classes on their own schedule at their own pace.
    And admission standards are generous — everyone is accepted.
    "In the time it takes to watch one episode of 'Parks and Recreation' on Netflix, you can instead choose to get several lectures on really different topics," said John Ciancutti, chief product officer of Coursera.org, the largest repository of MOOCs.
    "You're learning and you're stretching yourself in ways that make you better as a person."
    Here are some questions and answers about MOOCs as a form of free entertainment and enrichment.
    QUESTION: Where do I find information on offered courses?
    ANSWER: The largest provider is Coursera.org, with 108 partner institutions, 624 courses and more than 6.7 million students, according to the company. Coursera also has a smartphone application.
    Other platforms to check out are EDX.org, operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University; NovoEd.com; and Udacity.com, which releases its own courses. Aggregator Class-Central.com is a directory of courses at those websites and many others globally. For example, FutureLearn.com has courses from universities in the United Kingdom.
    "Almost every country in the world is trying to figure out how to offer MOOCs," said Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central.
    How do I get started?
    Browse the courses and choose something interesting. Register with the site, and sign up for the course. Typically, an email address is all the personal information you have to provide.
    What costs are there?
    Some professors will suggest books, whether textbooks or other reading, but they are optional to buy. And you can pay on some sites for a course-completion certificate.
    For example, you can pay to get a signature track certificate from Coursera and the university giving the course, as proof that you took, completed and passed the online class. It's not the same as a college credit, but you might feel it's worthwhile to include on a resume or on your LinkedIn profile if the course relates to your profession.
    That certificate on Coursera costs $50, and you'll give up some privacy, because the company needs to be able to identify you. It also offers a specialization certification for completing a series of courses on the same subject.
    Q: What kind of courses should I take?
    A: Many people take courses to help them with their jobs, by signing up for classes related to their field or retaking classes they took decades ago in college.
    Marketing majors, for example, might have no academic training in using social media. Or you might find courses related to a side job or hobby.
    Q: Are there less hard-core courses?
    A: Yes. For example, Ciancutti is a father for the first time, to a 14-month-old son. On Coursera, he found a class called "Child Nutrition and Cooking" by a Stanford University professor. "It's great, because it teaches the fundamentals," he said.
    You could go for "The Music of the Beatles," offered by the University of Rochester, or learn more about a favorite topic of this column, consumer behavior, in "A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior," by Dan Ariely at Duke University.
    "Maybe you're traveling to Italy and you want to take a course on Roman architecture because you think that will enrich your experience there," Ciancutti said.
    Q: When can I take the courses?
    A: Classes have start and stop dates and flexibility on when they're available, but many courses are not available on demand indefinitely.
    If a course interests you but won't start for a few weeks or even months, you can enroll, and you'll be reminded by email when the class starts and new materials are available. Once a class starts, it's up to you when, where and even if you want to listen to a video class.
    "You got 10 minutes somewhere? You can pull your phone out and get a great lecture," Ciancutti said. Or, like binge-watching TV episodes on Netflix, you can view lectures back to back.
    Q: Is there any interaction with real people?
    A: Some platforms offer forums where you can interact with other students and professors. Or there may be "peer assessments," in which your assignments will be graded by classmates and you will evaluate theirs.
    Q: Can I get credit?
    A: Though you won't get academic credit directly, what you learn may be equivalent to a college course — and you may be able to get credit. Such services as learningcounts.org allow you to build a "learning portfolio," which can then be assessed by experts and awarded college credit through partner colleges.
    "Online learning has been around for a long time . but the access and availability of MOOCs, and the fact that it's all free, is what's really appealing," said Gabi Zolla, chief operating officer of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
    Q: Is there any other benefit?
    A: If nothing else, a MOOC will teach you how to learn online — or let you know whether you like it before you pay for online courses to get credit.
    Q: What is the dropout rate?
    A: Dropout rates are reportedly very high, 95 percent. But if you're taking the course as recreation or a career brush-up, you might decide to skip parts.
    "Don't feel like you have to commit to a whole course. Just try it out," Ciancutti said. "It's a great way to spend your leisure time that's a little more rewarding than watching TV."
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