MOOCs: What Are They Good For?

Massive open online courses or MOOCs seem to be popping up everywhere. I first noticed the term in the advance flyer for Law via the Internet 2013. Then I began seeing it more often so I decided to explore this new phenomenon both for myself and to share through this blog. I wanted to learn if such courses could be useful for law librarians, law professors, law students and practicing lawyers

The three major names in the world of MOOCs are:

  • edX, a non-profit consortium of universities offering 60 courses, five of which are law-related.
  • Coursera, “an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.” It offers 386 courses, eight of which are in law.
  • Udacity, whose “mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right…” Its courses offerings are almost entirely in computer science, mathematics, physics and psychology. 

Although thirteen law courses from these three sites does not appear to be a substantial number, we must remember that MOOC offerings are still relatively new. The number and variety of courses appears to be growing rapidly. Five of these law courses will start in the near future, including one on English Common Law from the University of London and one on Constitutional Law from Yale University. Despite some criticism that such courses from elite schools might foster a cadre of superstar professors, I think that more exposure to excellent teaching will only serve to raise the level overall.

There are also many more courses that one can take to enhance skills in the areas of web design, computer science, public speaking, writing and much more. After searching around in MOOC lists and aggregators, such as Class Central, I decided to take a course on Writing for the Web in May. This four week course is offered by Open2Study, a new consortium of Australian universities. Our class started out with over 1,500 fellow students from all around the world, but most lived in Australia.

The course was aimed at those who are writing to market goods and services on web sites, but much of the information was relevant to writing in general and to web content and design in particular. The bulk of the course consisted of short videos of the instructor, pop quizzes after the videos, and assessments at the end of each of the four modules. The videos also had interactive transcripts in order to accommodate various learning styles and disabilities. I found I could concentrate better and take notes while reading the transcripts. On the whole I thought the quizzes and assessments were fairly basic, but having the videos available to review did prove useful at times. I finished the course with 100% and a certificate.

This site also has community forums where students can introduce themselves, ask questions and provide feedback on the courses. I posted a few times to try to engage other students. Here are some of the responses to my question ‘How many students are in the US or Canada?”

 I am in Maine, and I take many MOOC courses, including ones on Coursera and EdX also. So far I’ve had a great experience. The classes are good, I learn more things, and the classmates are helpful. However, while online courses are awesome and, I think, should be kept, it is also important to have an in-class experience where you sit in the lecture and participate and discuss with other students.

From Florida: “The only criticism I have is that the assessments were pretty simple.”

“I am in Montana. I like being able to learn at my own pace and when I have the time. I wish i could go faster in these classes though…” [In the next round of classes Open2Study did allow students to go faster and kept the assessments open for longer periods.]

So what are MOOCs good for? They are not a good substitute for courses such as seminars, learning languages and improving writing where more individual give and take with instructors and students is needed. Yet I think they are good for disciplined and motivated learners of all ages who want an introduction to or a review of a subject. They also can serve as laboratories for universities and colleges to explore different ways to present subjects and evaluate students using a variety of technologies. The next course I plan to take has an option to allow students to videotape projects and give and receive feedback on them. I will report later on how successful this was.

Please share your views on and experiences with MOOCs in the comments section.


  1. Today I received the February 2014 issue of AALL Spectrum. On page 9 there is a very interesting and informative article by Sara Sampson and Leslie Street entitled “The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses: MOOCs and the role of law librarians. Of particular interest is Sara’s experience taking a MOOC and their experience assisting one of their faculty members prepare a MOOC on environmental law.

    I have continued to take MOOCs and am currently halfway through the four week long Open2Study course on The Art of Photography. There are 4,923 students enrolled in this class.

  2. A very relevant new MOOC course on edx has just been announced: Library Advocacy Unshushed from the University of Toronto. This six week course will begin on the 24th of February.