What are MOOCs and Could They Replace the 4-Year Degree?

jobs without a degree replaced 4-year degree

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What’s a MOOC?

MOOC stands for Massively Open Online Course.

They are free and available to anyone with internet access, without restriction.

If you do a Google search of ‘MOOCs’, it will populate hundreds, if not thousands, of results.

Their quality and reach have seen varying increases in the past few years based on platform.

Consequently, they benefit people like you and I all over the globe. In fact, between 2012 and 2015, over 25 million people enrolled in MOOCs (Harvard Business Review).

Courses exist for almost any topic. Some courses are modeled after university classes and allow you to virtually audit University lectures (look for these types of courses on Coursera). Many others are less structured and teach industry-specific skills.

Who are MOOCs for?

For those who are unable to attend or are opposed to accredited programs, MOOCs can be a great option. Additionally, they are a great for continued and lifelong learning. Opportunities for free education generally see great interest. This is especially true in the current age of astronomical costs for a traditional education. Many individuals are looking to add skills and certificates to their resumes and these courses can definitely meet that need.

MOOCs have a strong backing, and rightfully so!

In a Forbes article, a contributor explains that MOOCs have “inherent advantages” over the 4-year degree: unlimited class-size, the ability to reach thousands of students, being self-paced, and not financially exclusive.


MOOCs are evergreen

Additionally, MOOCs adapt better to the times. As we see constant change with technology, jobs are also evolving. Inversely, job-related knowledge you obtained in college 10 years ago, may be irrelevant or dated now.

MOOCs can be updated for current market practices and needs. Your own skill-set and knowledge can adapt by registering for a new MOOC or reviewing one that has been updated.

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MOOCS may help with the U.S. skills shortage

According to an Adecco survey, 92 percent of executives think that American workers aren’t as skilled as they need to be (Adecco). While a 4-year degree produces an education, it doesn’t necessarily produce job-ready candidates.

Despite this fact, companies have long-been requiring 4-year degrees for positions that don’t NEED the credential to perform the job.

We’ve discussed in in a previous post about the need for skilled workers in our economy; specifically in the Tech Industry. Indeed, the lack of such has caused a skills shortage that has many employers scrambling.

MOOCs can fill-in where colleges sometimes fail. They offer specific, in-demand job skills. Which is something the current job landscape could use more of.

Are they worth a damn?

If they are free and available to anyone, does that mean they are lower in quality than classes at an accredited institution? Definitely not. While there will always be critics of non-accredited courses, there are plenty of higher-education figure-heads that are offering their own MOOCs. A good educator will educate in any capacity. A lecture hall is not required.

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow. –John Dewey

With MOOCs, you can enroll in a free online class taught by a Harvard professor. Or a pottery business owner. Or a digital marketing strategist. There are tons of options and you can get as specific as you like.

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Will they replace the Bachelor’s Degree?

Free online classes can prepare job-ready candidates. Companies are beginning to hire non-degreed people. So, how will the traditional 4-year degree fare under these circumstances in the next 10-20 years?

Ross Dawson predicts that “Rather than multi-year degrees, we will often get recognition for shorter learning journeys. Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are offering ‘nano-degrees’ that show competence in a specific domain”.

It’s hard to say exactly where that leaves the 4-year degree in the next 20 years. However, there are great things happening currently that may point to more growth potential and content improvement for MOOCs.

Coursera CS

Many companies like Google and IBM have kicked the 4-year degree requirement. They found that, for many jobs, it was not a reliable predictor of success. It’s likely that other sectors and companies will follow suit as well. MOOCs, in that case, may see a rise in registration and enrollment.

If this were to happen, the ‘free, accessible, in-demand’ MOOC would be competing against the ‘expensive, exclusive, 4-year degree with an expiration’. The ‘playing field’ would be leveled. That would be a good thing for you and me.


It’s difficult to say exactly how well MOOCs will be competing with the 4-year degree. They may take longer than 10-20 years to be competitive with the Bachelor’s degree.

But they may solve an immediate need in today’s job market.

And that’s a HUGE step in the right direction.


Harvard Business Review



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