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Who Should Take A MOOC?: 9 Types of Lifelong Learners Who Can Benefit

Six months ago if someone were to tell me that she is following a MOOC I wouldn’t have known what she meant. Halfway through an online course on Introductions to Genetics and Evolution, I still didn’t know what a MOOC meant until a teaching assistant answered my query in one the discussion forums. Since then MOOCs have been quite an interesting and novel experience for me.

MOOCs for lifelong learning via Flickr

For those still wondering what MOOC stands for, it is Massive Open Online Course. It’s the new kid on the block, taking the education world by somewhat of a storm, and you can learn more about how it is defined, its history, the different types of MOOCs and where to find them on the MOOC Resources page of this website.

In this article, I want to discuss who should take a MOOC, particularly lifelong learners who can benefit. When we think of education, we think of college students, dormitories, lecture halls and college classes, but MOOCs have changed this traditional way of looking at education. Online education is engaging many people from a wide range of age categories and backgrounds from across the world. In fact, as Carol Engler argues in this essay, MOOCs offer an opportunity for universities to redefine what they do to better include adult learners.

Building on my experience with classmates I met in the Introduction to Genetics and Evolution MOOC and couple of other shorter MOOCs I’ve followed recently, I’m going to detail below 9 types of lifelong learners, from home schooled children to career professionals, who should consider this type of free online education. Most of the examples I use will come from the classes I’m familiar with on Coursera, but the concepts behind these examples hold true for other classes in other subjects and on other platforms as well. (In fact, I hope you will suggest your own examples in the comments section below.)

Current students

Like I stated before, traditionally, students go hand-in-hand with education. Whether they are home-schooled, in traditional classrooms for children, university undergraduates or graduate students, all these traditional students could use MOOCs as support for their work for the courses they already follow in schools or on campus. It is not uncommon in a MOOC discussion forum to find some of these students seeking inspiration and support for their school or campus work, often with successful results. In another essay on this site, Robert Connolly describes how he directs his graduate students in anthropology to specific MOOCs either to help fill in gaps in their preparation or to underscore concepts from his own classes.

MOOCs can also help current students learn more about a specialized area of interest related to their chosen profession that isn’t taught in depth (or at all) at their current school. Take the case of a medical student who wishes to pursue a research career in neuroscience. He or she may be able to support their current studies by following Medical Neuroscience from Duke University while further following their interest in neuroscience using Computational Neuroscience MOOC from the University of Washington. Likewise, a psychology student who wants to learn about the neurological aspects of cognition may benefit from Basic Behavioral Neurology from The University of Pennsylvania.

Or you may be a law student interested in the ongoing debate of whether genes should be patented or not. You’ll find a host of biology and genetics MOOCs that could provide you basic principles of these subjects that you might not otherwise learn in your studies. They may even help you select a niche area of professional training to seek once you graduate, like an apprenticeship in intellectual property law related to bio-engineered products. Your MOOC certificates might even help you to justify your request for such training from a relevant party.

Prospective students

If you are a prospective student who wants to first get an idea of the breadth and depth of a subject and what it may take to study it formally, a MOOC is a rare chance to take a sneak peek into the subject and its uses. (Debbie Morrison discusses this benefit of MOOCs some in “Life After High School — Using MOOCs for Career Exploration.”) For example, by following the Introduction to Genetics and Evolution MOOC, a student may realize what it takes to become an evolutionary biologist, if it is something he or she has been contemplating.

Similarly, someone who wants to study neuroscience explore that subject in MOOCs such as the Fundamentals of Neuroscience from Harvard University on edX or, on Coursera, Medical Neuroscience from Duke University, Computational Neuroscience from the University of Washington, Synapses, Neurons and Brains from Hebrew University of Jerusalem or Drugs and the Brain from the California Institute of Technology.

Research students

Students pursuing advanced studies sometimes need to refine their focus, identify a specific research problem to work on, select a potential supervisor and even develop a proposal to get funding for graduate scholarships. Knowing about the ongoing research in a particular subject, and the problems being investigated, would be of great use in that case. Looking at one particular university and their researchers’ profiles may only give you a limited idea, whereas a MOOC could give you the broader perspective.

For example, in Genetics and Evolution you will learn that one of the ongoing debates is if the genomic variation we see today is predominantly a result of the evolutionary phenomenon called either “back ground selection” or “adaptive sweeps.” Scientists still have not resolved this, and research is ongoing. The MOOC may inspire an interest in this question and lead someone to pursue that or a related line of research. Research on genetics of common disorders, whether they are due to common variants or a multitude of rare variants, is another active research area you would learn about in this MOOC.

Similarly, Genes and Human Condition: Behavior to Biotechnology from University of Maryland, by Professor Raymond J. St. Leger and Tammatha O’Brien, speaks of the latest research and developments in the fields of human behavior, biotechnology and transgenic organisms, including crops. These are very stimulating MOOCs for anyone interested in the latest developments in these areas of study.

All the above would be especially helpful if you plan to renew your studies after some lapse or to change the direction of what you are already studying. Depending on where you live in the world, it may not be easy for you to otherwise get the same exposure to some of these specialized subjects in such a concise manner, especially without leaving the comfort of your home, and especially not for free. The certificate of accomplishment you receive at the end may not be formally recognized if you decide to pursue formal studies, but it definitely will be an indication of your interest and enthusiasm in learning the subject.


Lifelong learners who can benefit after college



In the Genetics and Evolution class it was not unusual to find biology teachers who had enrolled to brush up and update their knowledge on the subject and to learn new ways of delivering material to their students. Whether the subject is finance, art or mathematics, teachers can find a wide variety of MOOCs to learn from and renew their inspiration for the subject they always loved and taught. There are also many MOOCs specifically for teachers on the subject of education. Debbie Morrison covers many of these on this list of MOOCs for professional development.


Parents, too, can use MOOCs to help out their children, particularly parents who are homeschooling their children. Sometimes both parents and children follow a MOOC together making it a family affair. Even if your kids are not home schooled, MOOCs may help you to assist with their studies. Sometimes your child may want to take up a subject you are not familiar with yourself. A relevant MOOC may equip you with the information to help them decide whether they should pursue that subject.

People personally affected by the issue covered in a MOOC

In our day-to-day lives, we face many unfamiliar circumstances or may need to obtain unfamiliar services and products. Some of us may want to learn more about the science or social issues behind these different products and services or life scenarios. Enrolling in a MOOC that deals with the particular subject or concern may be one very good way of doing this. You not only get reliable information but you would be getting it from expert academics in the field.

Once again, take the Genetics and Evolution MOOC as an example. There may be those who are planning or have obtained genetic services like diagnostic tests, risk assessment tests or or legal services that involve genetics. Similarly, you may be a person with a concern about a diagnosed genetic disorder, a family member or other caregiver or a member of a healthcare team and wish to know more about genetics behind the disorder. Those patients and professionals may find it helpful to learn a few basic principles of genetics from a MOOC.

To give you a couple of more examples, consider parents who want to learn more about the subject of vaccination. Coursera has a few courses dealing with different aspect of vaccination, like the one offered by the University of Pennsylvania called Vaccines and another called Vaccine Trials:  Methods and Best Practices from John Hopkins University.

Or you may be caring for someone in your family with a health issue. Those of us with aging parents might be better prepared after participating in Understanding Dementia, an independent course from the University of Tasmania. Likewise people you could consider Growing Old Around the Globe from the University of Pennsylvania. If you are concerned about the risk of diabetes that runs in your family or you are caring for someone who has these health concerns, Diabetes – a Global Challenge from the University of Copenhagen would probably be a good MOOC that helps  you to get informed about the subject.

People seeking personal enrichment at different life stages

I noticed that some students who are enrolled in MOOCs simply want to learn new things about the world around us that they did not have the time for or access to earlier. Sometimes they developed the interest recently and they learn simply for their own personal satisfaction and fulfillment.

A student in Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, Benjamin Somberg, a retired psychologist, discusses in this interview how he developed an interest in evolution and was inspired by the class to take more online classes in genetics and biology. Likewise, let’s say you are a career nutritionist with a busy client schedule but were always fascinated by robotics and wondered how they worked and if one day you could have a robot to do your housekeeping so that you could spend more time with your family and children. Whenever you have time, you watch movies about robots. You were good in mathematics and even engineering in school, but soon these interests and skills were forgotten as you chose different subjects and career options. Why not try out the MOOC on Artificial Intelligence for Robotics on Udacity?

Or imagine you met someone you like spending time with. The only hiccup is that he is heavily into science fiction. Though you like science fiction and to talk about it with him, your knowledge of it is limited. Of course, you only studied political science in university, not aliens, right? Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World from University of Michigan may be a MOOC that could help you out. Similarly, let’s say you are a retired languages teacher with a lifelong fascination with Astrobiology that goes into your childhood and never had the opportunity to learn much about it. I am sure Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life from University of Edinburgh would be useful.

In general, if you have an interest that is not shared by your immediate circle of friends, colleagues and contacts, a MOOC that deals with the subject matter may help you to get in touch with people with similar interests and with whom you can share opinions and engage in discussions you otherwise may not be able to have.

MOOCs for professionals development

MOOCS could be the answer for those busy professional who either want to refresh their subject knowledge or who find themselves requiring knowledge in a subject area different from their own original background qualifications.

For example, you may be a member of an interdisciplinary team in evolutionary biology research but have a slightly different academic orientation, such as ecology. Or you may be from another field completely, like statistics or mathematics, with no primary qualification in biology. Introduction to Genetics and Evolution would help you get a basic introduction to the core principles so you can better relate to your colleagues and to the team’s work. In a MOOC, you will not only learn the basics of the subject but will also get the opportunity to know what the most current thinking about a particular issue is and who are the leading researchers in the field.

Similarly, other professionals who want to learn a subject that they are not specifically qualified in but have to deal with as part of their day job would find a wide range of MOOCs available that can be very helpful. Think of a marketing professional taking up a management role who needs to inform herself about finance. There’s a range of courses she could select from. On Coursera, the University of Michigan offers Introduction to Finance, and  University of Pennsylvania offers Corporate Finance., (not quite a MOOC by this site’s definition, but a valuable resource of free online courses) offers Public Finance and Money, Banking, And Financial Markets. Many interesting MOOCs are offered outside the major platforms, including Introduction to Management from the University of Oklahoma.

Any professional who plays a general role in an organization that deals with a specialized product or service could use MOOCs to learn about that specialty. Consider a practicing lawyer who would like to specialize or divert into a niche area of law like criminal law or environmental law. U.S. Criminal Law on the Canvas Network and Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Coursera may help give a basic idea of the content that they may have to learn. The same MOOCs may similarly help a writer who wants to specialize in writing about legal matters.

You may be primarily qualified in the humanities or the social sciences and now work either in public health or other social work and may want to learn about wider issues that you come across in your day-to-day work. I am sure there’s a MOOC that could help you in your work among Principles of Public Health from University of California, Irvine, Introduction to Global health from University of Copenhagen and Globalization and You from University of Washington on Coursera or The Age of Globalization from the University of Texas on edX.

Recent college graduates who are on the job market for the first time should also look at Dianna Sadlouskos’ advice on using MOOCs to land a first job. MOOCs are ideal for these different types of professional development and in many niches in different disciplines. Though they may not give a lifelong learner formal qualifications, they may certainly be an adjunct to the vast working experience you may have gathered over the years and may even give a theoretical basis that you can effectively use to navigate your career, whether your goal is to be more effective in your current work, to progress to a higher level or to make a career diversion.

Institutional users

As Professor Noor, who taught the Genetics and Evolution class, himself once pointed out, individuals are not the only ones who could benefit from this course. Institutions that provide related services could use it internally for employee training. One example of using MOOCs that kind of informal employee development and organizational learning is how a small study group from the global risk management consultancy JLT Group signed up for a public speaking class and meets weekly to work together. Employers could even structure the MOOC experience in a way that the certification is recognized within their organization as a valid measure of continuous professional education, as is being done by the Adamjee Life insurance company in Pakistan in partnership with A university department could itself use some of these MOOCs provided by other universities in their own teaching and training if they do not have the exact expertise on their own faculty.

Other miscellaneous categories of lifelong learners

MOOCs could be a good way to learn for a host of other lifelong learners. As of now MOOCs are still offered free. Therefore, if your studies are held up due to financial reasons, a MOOC could be a godsend. Some people may not prefer to go to a university to learn because of physical, psychological or social challenges they have to face in the process. What better way than MOOCs to still fulfill your desire to study?

Or else maybe you were the tough one in your school. You never bothered going to uni but started on your own and are now a proud and successful business owner with plenty of experience and practical knowledge. But now you feel you are at a stage in your business that in order to take your venture to the next step you need compete shoulder to shoulder with all the college smarties with MBAs, for which you need some kind of theoretical background and framework you could expand your business on. Leaving your business in others’ hands and heading for a university degree not only has no appeal but does not seem the wisest thing to do. Maybe there’s a MOOC that suits your need like Introduction to Business Communication by Scott McLean on the Canvas Network?

As you can see, how you use MOOCs or who can use it is limited only by your own interest, enthusiasm and imagination. Being the new kid on the block of online education, it is difficult to say what twists and turns MOOCs will take few years from now, but as of today, they are a blessing for lifelong learners with that insatiable thirst for learning and knowledge.


Ruchira Kitsiri (2 Posts)

Graduated in medicine, I moved out from clinical practice to explore alternative career options. Having worked in research projects across diverse sectors including market, social, education and mental health and a brief teaching stint in psychology, I now work as a research assistant in Cardiology. But my interest is in learning genetics and neuroscience of human behavior and its problems from an evolutionary perspective for which MOOCs have been very helpful.

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