menu icon

Try before you buy with a MOOC

Last Updated:

13th January 2016

First Published:

04th March 2014


Starting a masters is a great opportunity to completely change direction, not just in your education but your career as well. But how can you know what you will be good at or what you will enjoy the most? If you know which career you are hoping to pursue then a choice of subject may be obvious, as may a particular university, but for many this isn't always the case.

Why not get a taste of a subject you’re interested in via a MOOC? (Yes, you read right). A MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and less than 8% of the UK population know that they exist...

In the UK MOOCS are run through Future Learn, who have a full list of all the courses from UK universities available on their website, which range from Coding to Creative Writing to Human Anatomy and even Kitchen Chemistry. There is even a beginner’s guide to writing in English for university study, perfect for people coming to the UK to study with English as a second language.

However, due to the flexible nature of online learning these are just the tip of the iceberg; in America, MOOCS are available from a large proportion of institutions as are they around the world. There are various websites listing MOOCs, Future Learn lists the courses supplied by UK providers, is an aggregator directory of all MOOCs and Coursera lists primarily courses run by US universities, but also by various European, Asian, Russian and Australasian institutions. The vast majority of MOOCs are taught in English, but there are courses available in other languages.

Future Learns findings after releasing the site in BETA, demonstrated that 60% of those who registered for and completed courses were people who had been educated to degree level, however most courses are open to anyone, regardless of previous qualifications. 


Pie chart: Futurelearn


Jonathan Bosch, Engineering Fellow at Cern, studied an 8 week MOOC provided by North Western University in the US, entitled, Everything is the same: Modelling Engineered Systems. 


Why did you decide to do a MOOC?

Apart from generally being intrigued about MOOCs, I also had an interest in broadening my skills as an engineer in order to demonstrate to prospective employers and institutions where my specific interests and skill sets lie as a professional engineer, and furthermore that I showed the curiosity and motivation to complete a relevant course independently.


 How did you find out about it?

I had read about MOOCs from a number of news stories and found the model quite attractive. After checking a number of sites occasionally for interesting courses, I found the above-mentioned course and thought it looked particularly interesting and relevant to my profession.


Was it free?

Yes, although I paid small fee for completing the course on the "signature track", meaning my certificate was verifiable.


Was it easier or harder than you thought it would be?

The level was about as expected. There were some challenging topics and also parts which required a lot of time commitment to study; mostly where there was a lengthy homework to complete. However, the course was aimed at people with a broad range of backgrounds and one was expected to have only high school level calculus as a starting point - granted, for those who did attempt it at that level, a lot more time commitment would have been necessary to understand the mathematical concepts which most engineers learn normally only in an undergrad course.


What were the main challenges you faced?

Time commitment was the primary issue for me. Completing the course requirements in my own time, outside of work and around other commitments presented a challenge. The recommended time needed to follow the course was 5-7 hours per week, which doesn't sound much, but is probably the equivalent amount of time spent during a university module and additionally requires one to have time to work for at least an hour at a time to follow the video lectures and do the homework problems to a good standard.


How much work was there?

This MOOC consisted of 8 weeks of lectures, which were generally 3 weekly video lectures of between 5 and 10 minutes each. There was one piece of graded weekly homework, which required about 1 hour of work, assuming one had studied the relevant material first, and one 2 hour exam at the end of the course. For distinction, one could also submit 3 video demonstrations for peer grading.


Were there any problems with studying online?

All in all, this particular course was very well managed and organised by the Northwestern professor and his teaching assistants, who offered a good presence on the class forums and also produced weekly "after-hours" videos, covering the main issues students had in the previous weeks' homework.

The actual online format of the course was revelatory for me. The material was well organised on the web-page, with class forums, notes and even revision sheets to help you through. The concise video lectures offered a very efficient way of presenting the required information without the need for full hour long lectures. Although one had to concentrate or re-watch each video multiple times to digest everything, it was clearly evident that a lot of thought and preparation on the part of the lecturer was therefore necessary.


Would you do one again?

Most definitely. There are courses for a plethora of topics and at every level of competence. If anything, being online enabled a much more interesting environment for collaboration. One could find on the class forums people from a wide range of backgrounds which brought incredible insights to a subject.


Useful links

MOOC list



Yale MOOCs

MOOC news and reviews



Receive regular newsletters packed with useful tips.


Don't miss out

Receive regular newsletters packed with useful tips.