MOOCs Spur Countertrend of More Personalized Education

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By Nalini Indorf Kaplan, Center for Advanced Engineering and Technology Education

Advanced learning opportunities abound for professionals, particularly in technical areas, as a result of the introduction of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in early 2012. CU-Boulder is among the top universities around the world who are offering such noncredit courses online for anyone to take for free.

Cyberspace is filled with opinions about MOOCs, either heralding them as the greatest thing since sliced bread, or arguing that their impact on “traditional brick and mortar” universities is not as big as proponents claim.

Regardless of whether you see the advent of MOOCs as positive or not, it would be hard to ignore the unprecedented array of choices available in distance education today. Some of these choices have actually been available for decades and are being reinvented to better meet individual learning needs in response to the advent of MOOCs.

The College of Engineering offers graduate-level distance courses on a continuum of options ranging from real-time, interactive courses with both on- and off-campus students enrolled (see to noncredit MOOCs such as Introduction to Power Electronics, and Linear and Integer Programming, offered via the Coursera online platform (see

While we wait for the various online-education business models to shake out in the next few years, a promising development for individuals is the shift from lecture-style “canned learning” (the model followed by the majority of distance education programs, including most MOOCs) to a concept of “precision education” or personalized learning, which offers the greatest benefit to individual learners and is increasingly favored by businesses and educational institutions.

At the same time that MOOCs have focused on creating broad access to education, enabling anyone to study for free or minimal cost as long as they have a reliable Internet connection, we are seeing an accelerated philosophical shift away from “seat time” to demonstrable, competency-based learning.

Individuals will increasingly demand this since the purpose of education from their point of view relies on relevant skills for job acquisition and career advancement. Businesses also will demand credentials that reach beyond the conferred degree to help mitigate the risk of taking on employees who are unproven and to attract “just in time” specialty talent for specific areas targeted for market growth.

Another key development is the advancement of educational technology to be able to assess, respond to, and alter content and delivery methods based on the learner’s actions throughout a course. Given the increase in devices that our students want to use in their courses, we’ve recently built the capability to automatically make our lecture recordings available with full rich media (video and audio) that will work on just about any platform including mobile devices.

The philosophical shift to competency-based learning and the advancement of educational technologies combine to offer individuals an education tailored to their unique learning styles and abilities, along with the convenience of location or time shifting.

These trends, as well as the mass appearance of MOOCs, are encouraging educational institutions to create and configure learning options that meet market demand for flexibility, broader access and greater choice, while enabling them to respond to the increased need for customized and optimized learning that benefits individuals and institutions alike.

For more information about distance education from the College of Engineering and Applied Science, visit

Go to to download a copy of our eBrief, “Make the Most of Distance Education.”



CU engineering professors Bob Erickson, at left, and Sriram Sankaranarayanan, at right, will be teaching massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in addition to on-campus classes next year.


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Center for Advanced Engineering and Technology Education

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