The MOOCs have landed!

What is a MOOC,” you ask.

It’s the newly trendy acronym for Massive Open Online Course – the kind of free online course on offer at startups Coursera and Udacity, and by the non-profit Harvard-MIT-UC Berkeley consortium edX.

MOOCs differ from other free online courses in a number of ways.

  • A MOOC unfolds in real time like a real class.  There is a start-date and an end-date, and **gasp** homework and exams.
  • A MOOC offers opportunities to interact, either with tutor-like software or with other students.
  • Some MOOCs also provide certificates of completion if you do the homework and exams.

Silicon Valley rivals Udacity and Coursera are shaping up to be the Hertz and Avis of MOOC-dom, although it’s still an open question which will be number one. Coursera is way ahead in the number of courses planned or in progress, and this week it announced that 12 more universities were joining its lineup, to make a total of 16 schools represented. Its more than 100 courses include humanities and social science along with math, engineering and science.

Meanwhile, Udacity has a roster of 11 math and science courses, heavily focused on computer science. But Udacity may have the edge with its innovative course delivery software. Taking inspiration from the popular Kahn Academy, Udacity’s courses are built upon a simulated whiteboard, with an instructor’s voice-over. Animations and colorful illustrations add interest, and there are frequent pauses for the student to answer questions and solve problems. To see the software in action, check out Udacity’s Introduction to Statistics, taught by Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun.

Sample screen from Udacity’s Intro to Statistics.

Judging from the courses I sampled, Coursera’s courses are less interactive. Typically, you can answer a question or two after each video segment. But some courses, such as Introduction to Sociology, rely on static videos of the lecturer – not exactly a riveting visual.

Other notable entrants in the new world of MOOCs have been MIT with 6.002x – Circuits and Electronics and Caltech with Learning from Data. For a great directory of ongoing MOOCs, check out Class Central.

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