Both within and beyond academia, there has been much lively discussion about how the future of higher education will be affected by massive online open courses (MOOCs)—classes taught over the Internet to a large number of students with limited involvement from professors. Predictions range from the mass extinction of universities as we know them to a fad that will soon join the dancing baby in the Hall of Fame of Internet Has-Beens. 

Even I entered the fray when I was quoted in an article about MOOCs in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which included a photo of me wearing a funny hat to an event that had been sponsored by Coursera in Menlo Park, Calif., last July. Coursera is an online startup that is working with a number of elite universities to offer MOOCs, which are free and widely available but do not confer academic credit.

Some of what I learned at the event may be of interest. Almost all of the Coursera students whom I met  were much like you, dear readers: Ninety percent of the 300 or so present were holders of degrees in science or engineering who were working in high-tech occupations. They were ambitious, career-minded, and eager to learn new skills.  The remaining 10 percent of attendees were either scarily smart high-school students or random fashion victims like me.

While the MOOC trend is clearly hot right now—the New York Times recently called 2012 the “Year of the MOOC”—no one knows how long it will last. So just in case the MOOC bubble is soon to burst, now would be a good time for the Bright Futures crowd to sample the merchandise, which is a steal at the attractive price of zero.  In addition to Coursera, courses are offered through the companies edX, Udacity and Stanford’s Classes2Go.

Some of the courses are stunningly good. They require intense, active involvement during brief periods of time, present challenging assignments and can even engage a social dimension of the learning experience.  It’s more than just watching lectures on YouTube.

They can’t all be as good as the first one I tried through Coursera, an introductory course on computer science taught by Nick Parlante. Nick is one of the best natural-born teachers I’ve ever seen, and within a few hours he had the students writing JavaScript code executed within a browser window to do image processing.  As the field matures, some turkeys will undoubtedly flock to it, but the early pioneers seem to be talented and motivated. After all, they are doing something new, innovative and hard.

While the concept of “distance learning” is certainly not new, what’s different about MOOCs is their scalability: the ability to teach tens of thousands of students, or more, all within the same time window. This is only made possible by eliminating one-on-one interaction between teacher and student. Although this seems at first like a grave disadvantage compared to traditional classroom learning, it also gives students a new opportunity to exploit the awesome power of social networking in order to advance learning worldwide.

Now struggling to build a MOOC myself, I have some appreciation for the real difficulties that are involved in their basic construction.  Just recording an ordinary classroom performance would, in most cases, yield pure box-office poison.  In addition, a sustainable business model for free MOOC distribution remains elusive. 

There’s no doubt that the MOOC landscape will be littered by the graves of pioneers, as was the railroad business and Internet retailing.  So now, while the going is good, and there is no potential loss other than your own time (which is, after all, subject to your control), why not give it a try? Coursera has a number of optics-relevant offerings in view. Sight unseen, I recommend Computational Photography, by Irfan Essa, scheduled to start on February 25, 2013.

Charles Clark ( is co-director of the Joint Quantum Institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Maryland, and an enthusiastic supporter of the OSA Student Chapter program. Web site: