MOOCs: What's a Great College Class Worth When It's Free?

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Take Ivy League classes while snuggled cozily in bed ... for free? Sign me up! Thanks to the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, many elite institutions worldwide are offering some of their popular classes gratis. There is a hitch, however, to getting the knowledge without paying the college: Few of these MOOCs actual qualify you for college credit.

Virtual Ivy Leaguer

I actually did sign up for a MOOC through, which offers 600 courses in several languages from universities worldwide. Aggregator sites like list courses from Udacity, EdX (the Harvard-MIT partnership), NovoED, Coursera and more. Thanks to the European Credit Transfer System, some European colleges offer credit for MOOCs through Most U.S. institutions offer some kind of verified certificate.

For the last two months, I've been studying at Yale online with noted economist Robert Schiller. There were online office hours, graded quizzes, peer-reviewed papers, a final exam and notable guest speakers like billionaire investor Carl Icahn. If I wanted it, a verified certificate of study was $50. Online forums took the place of study groups.

My Financial Markets course consisted of the professor's in-class lectures and guest speakers on video. It took 20 to 30 hours -- whenever I wanted -- with quizzes and papers on a grading deadline. Had I taken it for a certificate, I would have barely squeaked by with a "Gentleman's C."

It was almost as hard as the on-campus Yale course. Schiller was engaging, if not endearing, always rubbing chalk dust into his Brooks Brothers jackets and cheerfully joking about notable figures in the field who hailed from rivals Harvard or Princeton, with entertaining anecdotes about the behavioral economics of casino gambling or the Dutch tulip craze.

For those who just want to learn, it is priceless. For those who need to brush up for their career, a verified certificate is worth the $50. For students who want to delve deeper into a subject or use a course as a study aid, MOOCs can help. For high school students, there are advanced placement prep courses. But only a third of Coursera offerings offer a certificate. For many professionals, MOOCs may not count as continuing education. And you won't get a degree.

What Do You Have to Lose?

The courses are also a low-risk way to gauge aptitude and interest in a subject. Would you want to be a geologist -- one of the "dirt people," as Dr. Sheldon Cooper of "The Big Bang Theory" says? Or is physics more your cup of tea?

It is only a matter of time before more U.S. colleges decide to grant college credit for MOOCs, especially considering the ever-rising rumble about the return on investment issues surrounding a college degree. (Rising tuitions vs. stagnant wages -- something has to give.) There is a groundswell of support from state governments, the American Council for Education, Google (GOOG) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's MOOC Research Initiative.

Subjects vary widely. The University of Edinburgh offers Warhol, and Brown has Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets. STEM courses are widely available. Stanford courses have featured Google alums and inventors. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a MOOC astronomy course with access to robotic telescopes.

Carnegie Mellon brags of its freemium model, "No instructors, no credits, no charge." It doesn't offer certificates. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers credit for some courses. There's even an app on iTunes.

I considered my course invaluable, but as with so many things, the value of a MOOC depends on what you put into it. The completion rate for most MOOCs is 10 percent or less, despite the chance to study at the world's best universities with the world's best teachers for free. I enjoyed, but was humbled by the material, and learned much more than expected.

Still, what have you got to lose? No one can ever take away what you learn.

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I've used the knowledge I gained in college to become very successful.
Even though it was the tec courses that resulted in the big money, the two most valuable were drama and food.
Most people don't even know how to get out of a chair or even how to walk. Say what ?
And most billionaires think they are eating well, but their chefs keep the best foods and recipes for themselves.

April 17 2014 at 7:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Affirmative action?

April 16 2014 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Problem is that most people start out with gangbuster enthusiasm at the excitement of learning something new, but then "life happens"...things come up at work, other projects take precedence, things happen with kids, vacation comes up, etc...and because you're not actually paying for it with hard currency, the course is put on a low priority list or forgotten altogether. Days and weeks pass and suddenly you receive an e-mail that the course is completed and realize what you missed. I would wager that of the 10% who completed the course, probably 90% paid for the certificate, which adds incentive otherwise you're out the funds.

Don't ask how I know all this.

April 16 2014 at 6:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Another in a long line of examples what an incredibly poor measure of value capitalism and markets can be. Another way that the system is badly broken.

April 16 2014 at 1:29 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to hsenpfeffer's comment

Are you a socialist or a communist?

April 16 2014 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to's comment


April 16 2014 at 8:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down


April 16 2014 at 9:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down

^^ Sounds like someone needs to take that free Yale course with Dr. Robert Schiller... Millions of people within a market can determine prices more efficiently than a handful of people in government can.

April 17 2014 at 2:12 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I love hearing people trying MOOCs there has never been so many topics available to study for so many,.
The completion rate is always mentioned by those detractors but like you said, you get out what you put in and plenty of people get a lot from learning new things, congrats on completing your MOOC anyway!


April 16 2014 at 1:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply