One of the things that inspired me to start blogging again has been my experience lately with Massive Open Online Courses. So far it has been a great experience, and it is really something I can get behind. Though I don't think it will be the only thing happening in the future, I believe that this concept will play a huge role reshaping education for the information age. My experience thus far has been with the startups Coursera and Udacity, and toward the end I will look more specifically at each of them.
For you who don't know, MOOCs are a form of online education that aims for the same goals as an actual class, as opposed to just a tutorial or a surface level introduction to a subject such as is typical on the internet. They come in a variety of flavors, but there are quite a few common links. The classes are free, available to anybody who wants to sign up and take them. Typically you will be in class with people from all over the world, including people who don't have access to higher education otherwise.
Another thing is that they are very interactive. You aren't just watching lecture videos. There are questions along the way to test comprehension and make sure you are paying attention, as well as problem sets after each unit. The discussion forums are always active, giving you the ability to get extra clarification or discussion on the topics covered. There are final exams testing whether or not you learn the material, that you have to pass in order to get a class certificate.
Speaking of certificates, most of the classes you take give you a certificate if you do well on the homework and final. You don't get actual college credit, but you are able to track your progress, and demonstrate to others that you are learning these things. Both will provide your transcript (and resume, if desired) to companies looking for skilled employees, so at least for now the certificates could potentially do something for you.
At the moment all the MOOC's I have encountered skew heavily toward the tech fields. There are some humanities courses, some math courses, etc. but for the most part they work best for computer science type fields. This is great for me, but limiting overall.
The other limiting factor I have encountered is more personal. It is something that is a problem with all online classes, but seems worse for the MOOC's. This of course is the motivation factor. There is no class you need to show up for, and you aren't even paying for the class. It is easy to not take it seriously, and I find myself having to consciously remind myself to take it seriously. So far it has gone well for me, but I have witnessed quite a few dropouts already in my Crypto class.
So as to some specifics, the two differ in some significant ways. Coursera teams up with top universities, getting people in the top of their field to offer content. In addition, The classes are more traditional in that they go for a set time, with material released week by week and assignments with due dates. They also have a much wider course offering at this point.
Udacity, on the other hand, creates its content in house. It is always available, and the classes are completely self - paced. Their classes are basically all CS classes, with the exception of one physics class and one statistics class. It feels slightly less class like, and you can re-take all the assignments until you get them right. The big upsides are that you can start a class whenever you want, and learn at your own pace, both of which aren't possible with Coursera.
They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and for what its worth I think they are both worth checking out. I have completed one course through Udacity and am working on a second. I am currently enrolled in one with Coursera, and am starting two more in January. If you are interested in the tech fields and are a decent self learner, I can highly recommend checking them out.