Will MOOCs Ever Replace a College Degree?

An interesting point of comparison when it comes to online education is that of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) versus online credits. To the untrained eye, they both seem like the same thing: students sit in front of their computers and learn information, interacting with their professor(s) and classmates through chat forums, Skype and email. In each situation, they become a little more learned about a particular topic, ranging from the humanities to the hard sciences. Both offer students and learners the opportunity to become more knowledgeable at a deeper level than simply stopping with a high school diploma, but does that necessarily mean that both MOOCs and a college degree are the same thing? We're here to take a look by examining both, and then delivering a verdict.

MOOCs: A New Innovation on the Academic Landscape

MOOCs are fairly new when it comes to different ways of learning academic material, having just had the term coined in 2008. It was only in 2012, though, that MOOCs really started to explode in popularity, with Coursera, Udacity and edX becoming the "big three" to offer thousands of courses (many of them for free) to anyone interested in becoming more deeply acquainted with a particular topic.

What precipitated this big explosion was the addition of a number of brand name colleges putting their weight and reputations behind MOOCs, such as Harvard, Stanford, the University of Texas system, Wellesley College, Georgetown University, the University of Miami, and more. Now, instead of looking upon MOOCs as being about as reliable as Wikipedia, there was actually credibility attached to them. The Big Three also enacted security measures so students would be able to prove it was them, and not someone else, who'd taken the course and learned the material.

What also happened in the last two years was other continents got on board with MOOCs, such as Malaysia's Taylor University in 2013, the UK's Open University in 2012, Australia's University of New South Wales in 2012, and Guatemala's Galileo University in 2012. MOOCs had moved beyond being a fad in education, and firmly into the realm of a legitimate way of learning.

Online Degrees: Branching Out in Traditional Education

The biggest difference between MOOCs and online courses offered by universities is the former can be taken piecemeal without necessarily leading to any kind of certificate, diploma or degree, while the other does. Online degrees are a natural extension of a regular degree, with students having to follow the same syllabus and course requirements as they would if they were studying on campus. This means that things like essays, assignments and exams are more structured and follow a certain dateline fairly rigidly, even though students have a great deal of freedom and flexibility in how they complete the coursework. And while they don't necessarily have to appear on campus to attend lectures or hand in work, they also don't have a schedule that's completely theirs, either.

Further, online degrees consist of course credits, of which students have to successfully complete a number of them before they can be granted a degree. MOOCs have none of that, as they're offered in a more non-official setting. To complete the course credits for an online degree, students have to meet requirements along the way, such as contributing each week to the online chat forum, posing questions, doing readings, writing essays, and other things that can be found in a regular, on-campus course.

The Verdict: Will the Two Ever Amount to be the Same?

We don't think there's ever a chance of it. While both streams of education have a lot of similarities, at the end of the day, they're just too different for MOOCs to replace online college degrees. Even the fact that they're free doesn't sweeten the pot, but does the opposite. While tuition may be massively overpriced right now, education still needs money to keep going and offer a solid product continuously and to offset their overhead costs.

Another one of the differences that'll keep MOOCs and online college degrees firmly separated is their idea of structure. MOOCs are pretty loose, open and free, allowing its users to complete a course entirely at their own leisure. And once they're done, they have little more than the satisfaction of having completed a course, which may or may not be marketable for future job opportunities.

But an online college degree, on the other hand, has been proven time and time again to be worth something to employers, as it shows that you had the discipline, intelligence and perseverance to complete a monumental academic endeavor, and are highly knowledgeable and skilled in the area you're applying for.

So if you're interested in learning for the sake of learning and expanding your mind in different directions than what's just in front of you, MOOCs are a fantastic option. But if it's a job path you're after, or pursuing an academic pursuit that'll leave you a near expert in a certain field, then you're better off getting an online college degree.

However, learning in any aspect is never a bad thing, and you'll always be better off than when you started, whether it's through a MOOC or online courses.