By Published: June 1, 2018

illustration of graduation cap

CU Boulder pioneers a MOOC-based graduate degree in electrical engineering.


Bob Erickson has won 13 patents, co-founded two companies and earned the title “CU Boulder Inventor of the Year.” Doing new things is old hat for him.

Lately he’s been at it again, leading a large cast of CU engineers and digital learning experts who are developing a new way for students to study engineering from afar — and earn a CU Boulder degree in it.

This fall, CU plans to offer the world’s first MOOC-based graduate degree in electrical engineering, a program that grew out of a massive open online course Erickson developed five years ago.

Anyone with an Internet connection will have the chance to earn a bona fide CU Boulder master’s degree in electrical engineering at their own pace, without setting foot in Colorado and at a far lower cost than studying on campus.

With the program, CU broadens access to graduate-level engineering training and enters the company of other online science education innovators, such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, which drew attention in 2014 with a fully online, low-cost master’s in computer science.

“Expanding access to the technological world and increasing our global engagement is what our college is all about,” said College of Engineering & Applied Science Dean Bobby Braun, who came to CU from Georgia Tech in 2016.

Students will pay about $20,000, or about half the cost of CU’s campus-based equivalent.

CU leaders believe the new online degree will attract motivated learners unlikely to enroll at any American campus — full-time professionals and foreign residents unable to move to the U.S.

“It is finding a new market,” said Erickson, who recruited fellow CU electrical engineering professors to develop the curriculum with the campus’ Office of Strategic Initiatives.

CU has offered various forms of distance learning for decades, including less-flexible online engineering degree programs. The new degree represents a major evolution that takes advantage of MOOCs, a class of online course characterized by low-cost, frequent (sometimes continuous) enrollment opportunities, virtually unlimited class sizes and extreme flexibility for students to watch video instruction and complete assignments, all untethered to the traditional semester schedule.

CU Boulder now offers nearly 45 MOOCs, mostly in engineering and including “Introduction to Power Electronics,” an updated version of Erickson’s debut 2014 MOOC, plus hundreds of other online courses. The university offers about half a dozen online degrees, though none entirely organized around MOOCs.

The new program represents a step forward for both CU and for engineering education generally.

There’s no admissions application, and there are no prerequisites — not even a bachelor’s degree, though the curriculum assumes competence in advanced mathematics. Students will be able to enroll online anytime through the online MOOC platform. Coursework is largely machine-graded.

Students pay as they go, making progress toward the degree with each successfully completed course. They also can earn credentials short of a degree, such as certificates. Much of the course content will be available for free, without the option of a credential.

A growing number of traditional nonprofit universities are offering credit-bearing online courses and degrees at various costs and with varying degrees of flexibility.

CU Boulder hasn’t announced additional MOOC-based degrees yet. But don’t be surprised if it does.

“In every discipline on campus,” Provost Russell Moore said in February, “our faculty are looking at new ways to teach and conduct research.” 


Illustration by The Heads of State