The State of Online College Courses

Online courses have never been more accessible than they are today. Almost 7 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2011 term, according to a recent survey by the Babson Survey Research Group. Although the concept of free, research-based educational material seems too good to be true, that’s exactly what open courseware provides today. Access to online university courses has become available to anyone, and the quality of content available has drastically improved over time.

These resources can help you advance your education, get a feel for a given professor or subject area, and help you stay up-to-date in your professional field. But the most important aspect of open courseware is the opportunity to learn something new without breaking the bank. Open courseware programs provide free, accessible knowledge in almost every field, helping to meet the demand for higher education around the world. As more and more people seek advanced education, the growing menu of free learning opportunities like open courseware will meet that need.


Get to know the people behind the evolving free online courses movement.

It takes a team of dedicated professionals to realize the idea of free, accessible, computer-aided education that was pioneered in the ’70s. From professors to software developers, these are the key players in today’s open courseware movement.

Andrew Ng

Andrew Ng is a computer science professor working at Stanford University and a co-founder of Coursera, a system for delivering massive open online courses (MOOCs). The concept of MOOCs came from offering an open courseware program with an applied section, providing quizzes and graded programming assignments. Some of Coursera's free online courses permit you to earn college credit as well by paying a small fee for a proctored exam.

Martin Dougiamas

Martin Dougiamas is an educator and computer scientist in Australia, and a lead developer of Moodle, an open-source free system for delivering online courses for college credit and other applications. Dougiamas learned the nature of distance education first-hand, studying as a young child through the Australian radio-based "school of the air" and bringing those experiences to developing effective, low cost software for affordable online course distribution. As of 2011, Moodle had over fifty thousand registered sites with over 44 million users in 75 languages.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open CourseWare (MIT OCW)

MIT's Open CourseWare project set the standards for open courseware. Developed from 1999 onwards, MIT OCW broke new ground in order to further MIT's mission to disseminate knowledge and contribute to scholarship. Now featuring more than 2,000 courses, many of which involve video lectures and multimedia interactivity, all of MIT's courses are based on actual courses taught at the prestigious university.

Michael Chasen

Michael Chasen is the CEO, president, and director of Blackboard, Inc., one of the foremost distance learning technology and software companies in the world. One of the creators of the Blackboard Learning System, Chasen has provided course management programs for online learning as well as online support services for offline colleges. These systems make online education easier as they provide a simple and convenient platform for online delivery, grade recording, and student discussion.

Mike Feerick

Mike Feerick is an Irish entrepreneur whose firm, ALISON, provides free online courses in the MOOC style. Unlike many programs, ALISON focuses on basic education and workforce development, with topics such as project management, basic accounting, study skills, and using Microsoft Excel. Feerick, inspired by the UN Declaration of Human Rights statement that "Education shall be free," charges no fees for testing or for a system to allow students to demonstrate their skills to employers through a quiz generator.

Sal Khan

Sal Khan is the founder and a faculty member of Khan Academy, a free instructional resource with over 4,000 video lectures on a huge range of subject. Khan entered the field of online learning in 2004, while providing video tutoring in mathematics to his cousin, and quit his position as a hedge fund manager to focus on Khan Academy full time. The videos are integrated into free online courses with exercises and progress tracking, available free to any and all comers.

Growth in Online University Courses

Open courseware has grown exponentially in the last decade; what started as a grand idea has evolved into a reality that millions of students are taking advantage of across the globe. Check out the graphs below to see the numbers behind the story.


Total Enrollment & Online Enrollment
Trends - Fall 2004 to Fall 2011

Since 2004, both online and campus-based schools have experienced an upward trend in student enrollment. Though both formats are growing, online programs are growing at a rate of 10% per year, compared to the overall trend of about 2%. More than six million students were studying online during the fall of 2011.

These figures represent any student taking an accredited online course; 31% of higher education students were doing so as of 2011. Compare this figure to 2002, where about 1.6 million students - less than 10% of the total students enrolled - had the opportunity to study online. Two out of every three schools consider online learning to be a critical new strategy, and academic leaders find that student satisfaction is the same for online courses as for traditional study.


Online Offerings by Institution Type 2002 vs 2012

Online courses are growing rapidly, from the community college level to top accredited online college courses at world-class universities. This graph compares the explosive growth of online course offerings over a decade. Growth has been substantial across public and private schools, driven by student demand as well as the lower cost of providing online courses. As you can see, private for-profit institutions have been particularly eager to embrace online courseware, although the largest increase has been in private non-profit institutions.

In 2002, 34% of institutions offered online courses and full programs, while 37% only offered some courses, with the remainder avoiding the field entirely. As of 2012, the number offering online degrees has nearly doubled, to 62.4% of institutions, while the number making no online offerings has shrunk to 13.4%. For-profit schools have led the way, with public universities right behind. Private non-profit schools have stayed the most traditional; 22% offered online degree programs in 2002, compared to 48.4% in 2012. Compare to public and for-profit courses; online degree programs were similarly common (49%) in 2002, while 70.6% of public universities offered online degrees in 2012, as did 72.9% of for-profit schools. Even smaller schools have expanded their online offerings; in 2002, only 17% of schools with under 1,500 students offered online programs, with 28.4% managing at least some online courses. That number has mushroomed, to 51.6% offering online degree programs and 26% offering some courses online.


"Online Education is Critical to the Long-Term Strategy of My Institution"

The chief academic officers of a range of universities were asked to respond to this statement every year, beginning in 2002. Less than half agreed in the first year, but the number has steadily risen, nearing 70% as of 2012. Most of this positive change is a result of neutral answers turning positive, as the number of administrators who have disagreed remains stable. Despite agreeing that online education is a critical strategic component, many schools do not formally include online college degree programs in their strategic plan. Only 60% of schools that offer full online programs have included online teaching in their school's plans, with the number even lower (30.4%) among those who offer online courses, but not online degrees.

Backers of online education claim it will be more efficient, allowing teachers to conduct more courses with less effort, potentially saving money and time. However, this has not been the case, according to many instructors. In 2006, 40.7% of academic leaders said they felt it took more time and effort for a faculty member to teach an online course than a traditional face-to-face course, although that may be attributed to the need for the faculty to gain experience with the new form of instruction. In 2012 that discrepancy has become even more pronounced, with 44.6% of academic leaders agreeing that it is more time-consuming to teach online, and with less than 10% disagreeing. However, the trend has been different at for-profit schools, where only 31.6% of leaders felt online courses were more difficult to teach in 2006, down to 24.2% in 2012.

Open CourseWare Movement and its impact on Online Education

Originally, online courses were published experimentally using early learning management systems, often following the model of old “correspondence” classes. Open Courseware, a concept pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), set out to publish every course taught at MIT online to the greatest extent possible. These courses would be made available to anyone in the world at no cost; a high school student could take a summer online course in a topic they wanted to study just as easily as an MIT student.

Open courseware has flourished beyond MIT's expectations. Since the site opened in 2003, MIT's own collection has been viewed nearly eight hundred million times, with their video lectures on iTunes and YouTube receiving more than 40 million views each. Free online courses from top schools other than MIT are available as well; more than 250 universities are offering open courseware collections in the same vein as MIT. Other groups, such as Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity have even introduced a new model - the massive open online course, or MOOC.


Plans for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Massive online open courses involve a course with thousands of enrolled students; the majority of them may only browse, but typically, several hundred complete the entire program, interacting with other students and taking examinations to demonstrate completions. Some of these programs even allow students to earn college credit for a fee, providing access to cheap accredited online college courses. Only about 3% of institutions offer MOOCs, with about 10% planning to offer them soon. One-third of all colleges have decided against the idea entirely, with the remainder not yet decided.

MOOCs require a major commitment of resources. A single MOOC may have over 100,000 enrolled students, even if only a fraction of those enrolled will actually complete the program They are also experimental in many ways, and the majority of academic leaders are neutral on whether or not they can work in the long term. However, many of administrators do feel they are an important way to learn more about how to deliver online courses effectively, even when they do not feel they will directly help the institution by attracting new students. Given their cost, many administrators are taking a cautious stance in implementing MOOCs.


Major Institutions Offering Open Courses

While many institutions offer open courseware, some schools provide more than others. MIT has led the way with a commitment to putting at least the outlines of all courses taught at the school online; an increasing number of those courses contain video lectures and other supplementary materials, but even the simplest has a syllabus and exercises for an independent student. The University of California's Berkeley campus had experimented as early as 1995 with broadcasting web video of courses and events, and currently offers over 100 courses through streaming and downloadable video and audio. Tufts University's Open Courseware offerings focus on the health professions, while internationally, the University of Southern Queensland and the Open University in the UK provide a range of similar materials.

Many private and non-profit groups, such as Khan Academy, Coursera, and edX, also provide open courseware, as do many non-English speaking universities. The larger educational groups in the English-speaking world often offer materials translated into other languages as well for international learners.


MIT OpenCourseWare

As the first and largest collection of Open Courseware, MIT's OCW program merits further discussion. The OCW program began in 1999 as a project to put MIT on the e-learning map, as well as to contribute to scholarship across the world.

MIT led the way in forming the OpenCourseWare Consortium, a group of major providers of online courseware and MOOCs, who work together to expand the reach of open courseware as well as find methods to pay for the costs of distributing these materials free of charge. Currently, MIT OCW costs about $3.5 million per year to run; their funding comes from gifts from large donors, donations from users, and from MIT itself.


MIT OCW started with 32 courses in 2002 as a test of their system, increasing to 500 by September of 2003. By September 2004, 900 courses were available, and over 2,000 by 2012. The growth has tapered off somewhat due to most of MIT's courses being already uploaded, leading to less opportunity for expansion; however, MIT has also improved the content they include in their open courseware to provide a better user experience.


Their most popular initiative has been the release of video lectures recorded from MIT classrooms and edited for portable video formats. MIT OCW's main site has been visited more than 120 million times since they began tracking usage in 2003, but its free video offerings on iTunes and YouTube have received over forty million downloads each.

The ease of access to high-quality educational materials from a renowned university has driven the massive success MIT has experienced with its open courseware experiment. As more universities follow suit, we can expect the popularity of free online courses to grow in the decades to come.