MOOCs: What's a Great College Class Worth When It's Free?

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Take Ivy League classes while snuggled cozily in bed ... for free? Sign me up! Thanks to the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, many elite institutions worldwide are offering some of their popular classes gratis. There is a hitch, however, to getting the knowledge without paying the college: Few of these MOOCs actual qualify you for college credit.

Virtual Ivy Leaguer

I actually did sign up for a MOOC through, which offers 600 courses in several languages from universities worldwide. Aggregator sites like list courses from Udacity, EdX (the Harvard-MIT partnership), NovoED, Coursera and more. Thanks to the European Credit Transfer System, some European colleges offer credit for MOOCs through Most U.S. institutions offer some kind of verified certificate.

For the last two months, I've been studying at Yale online with noted economist Robert Schiller. There were online office hours, graded quizzes, peer-reviewed papers, a final exam and notable guest speakers like billionaire investor Carl Icahn. If I wanted it, a verified certificate of study was $50. Online forums took the place of study groups.

My Financial Markets course consisted of the professor's in-class lectures and guest speakers on video. It took 20 to 30 hours -- whenever I wanted -- with quizzes and papers on a grading deadline. Had I taken it for a certificate, I would have barely squeaked by with a "Gentleman's C."

It was almost as hard as the on-campus Yale course. Schiller was engaging, if not endearing, always rubbing chalk dust into his Brooks Brothers jackets and cheerfully joking about notable figures in the field who hailed from rivals Harvard or Princeton, with entertaining anecdotes about the behavioral economics of casino gambling or the Dutch tulip craze.

For those who just want to learn, it is priceless. For those who need to brush up for their career, a verified certificate is worth the $50. For students who want to delve deeper into a subject or use a course as a study aid, MOOCs can help. For high school students, there are advanced placement prep courses. But only a third of Coursera offerings offer a certificate. For many professionals, MOOCs may not count as continuing education. And you won't get a degree.

What Do You Have to Lose?

The courses are also a low-risk way to gauge aptitude and interest in a subject. Would you want to be a geologist -- one of the "dirt people," as Dr. Sheldon Cooper of "The Big Bang Theory" says? Or is physics more your cup of tea?

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%It is only a matter of time before more U.S. colleges decide to grant college credit for MOOCs, especially considering the ever-rising rumble about the return on investment issues surrounding a college degree. (Rising tuitions vs. stagnant wages -- something has to give.) There is a groundswell of support from state governments, the American Council for Education, Google (GOOG) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's MOOC Research Initiative.

Subjects vary widely. The University of Edinburgh offers Warhol, and Brown has Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets. STEM courses are widely available. Stanford courses have featured Google alums and inventors. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a MOOC astronomy course with access to robotic telescopes.

Carnegie Mellon brags of its freemium model, "No instructors, no credits, no charge." It doesn't offer certificates. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers credit for some courses. There's even an app on iTunes.

I considered my course invaluable, but as with so many things, the value of a MOOC depends on what you put into it. The completion rate for most MOOCs is 10 percent or less, despite the chance to study at the world's best universities with the world's best teachers for free. I enjoyed, but was humbled by the material, and learned much more than expected.

Still, what have you got to lose? No one can ever take away what you learn.

Originally published