Four letters might be reshaping higher education as we know it: MOOC.
During the last two years, massive open online courses have taken the world of distance education by storm.
Why? Because they are free and open to anyone with access to the Internet. And major employers are supporting the top providers, who already have many of the big names in higher education as partners.
Here is what you need to know about MOOCs:
1. There are three big providers. One is edX, a nonprofit project founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, and Harvard University in May 2012. The other two are for-profits: Coursera, which was founded in April 2012 by two Stanford University professors, and Udacity, which launched in February 2012 and also has Stanford roots.
2. By and large, the courses are free and students receive certificates upon completion. Credits are starting to factor in as MOOCs are evolving. The Georgia Institute of Technology, more commonly known as Georgia Tech, is even experimenting with a new master's degree in computer science, delivered through a series of MOOCs, for a fraction of the cost of its traditional program. Other degree programs using MOOCs are surfacing.
3. MOOCs have opened the door for big corporations — AT&T Inc. and Google Inc., for example — to help develop and fund online courses that would allow students to earn specific credentials. Google is taking the additional step of creating a one-stop-shop website with edX called MOOC.org. A niche certificate on a resume from a prestigious university might open a door or provide career advancement opportunities.
"I do the same with anything that is relevant to the profession," said Karen Young, owner of HR Resolutions in Lower Paxton Township, who helps small businesses in need of HR management.
It's also cheap for an employer who is looking for professional development opportunities for a group of employees.
4. Many courses are available only for specific periods of time and are broken up into weekly segments. Other providers, such as Udacity, offer self-paced courses.
5. Enrollments are huge, because anyone can take these courses from anywhere. There is a high level of "tourists," people who come and go, given the structure.
"Many people come in just to look around, because it's free and they have nothing to lose," said Kathryn Jablokow, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design at Penn State.
Jablokow is group teaching in her first MOOC, called "Creativity, Innovation, and Change." MOOCs are like shopping for groceries, she said.
6. The diverse audience and frequent sampling of courses by users often translates to a very low completion rate. Many are there just for general knowledge of a particular topic, not to get a credential.
7. MOOCs might be creating better classroom instructors, because they are learning to present information in different ways. Plus, the mass audience could be helping to facilitate research and disseminate findings, bolstering networking opportunities.
8. It takes time and money to develop these courses. Estimates range from less than $100,000 to reports of $400,000 per course, plus instructor time that is likely beyond the normal courseload. Jablokow pegged the average at between $100,000 and $200,000 for a six- to eight-week course.
9. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has not yet gravitated to MOOCs.
Tom Fletcher, associate vice president and dean of extended programs at Bloomsburg University, said the university is "keeping an eye on the pulse of things," as it relates to MOOCs.
PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said he was not aware of anything in the state system.
MOOC providers have to permit new partner institutions, although they could choose to start their own model.
"There are times when I think if they all get in at once that it will be a madhouse," Jablokow said. "Yeah, but maybe a small school could really explore one aspect really well and we all learn."
10. This is still an experiment. "MOOCs are the Wild West," Jablokow said. "Everyone is still exploring the ways we could use them."
Expect ongoing changes in the months and years ahead. The "flipped classroom" is one approach being used. This entails using lecture materials via the MOOC, while saving class time for more student interaction.
Digital badges to recognize achievement in MOOCs also could be used to dictate the financial model for offerings, plus track someone's digital resume. That could add up to certificates or some sort of degree, Jablokow said.