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Back-to-School for Grownups: Take a MOOC

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Shopping for No. 2 pencils, packing little lunch boxes and sending children back to class may have some grownups nostalgic to return to school themselves. Education, of course, never ends and today there are massive new options, which barely existed five years ago.

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, open up college classes to anyone in the world with Internet access. Typically, it's free. While online courses have been around for years, they were relegated to video-based lessons, online quizzes and tuition-payers.

Today, an estimated 100 universities nationwide offer a MOOC, plus countless others around the globe. Classes can attract thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of students.

Providers like Coursera and Udacity have turned MOOCs into a business and are building their own network of online courses, taught by university professors. Yet, the first MOOC dates back to just 2008, when two professors at the University of Manitoba in Canada opened their course to anyone who wanted to take it. Around 2,200 signed up, according to MOOC News and Reviews, which tracks the industry. P/>While critics are skeptical about the effectiveness of MOOC learning and no one is quite certain how to make money, MOOCs offer people a taste of education from top-ranked schools.

Lessons may be abbreviated from a regular academic sessions, but students get the essentials and, if they complete the course, a plug for their resume. Some universities even offer college credit -- for a fee.

"I think we can say this confidently: Right now that the only money out there is from venture capital or foundation money. Coursera and Udacity are living off their venture capital money and edX is living off its foundation money. Everyone else is chewing gum," said Robert McGuire, editor of MOOC News & Reviews. "But you can't deny the energy of these tens of thousands of people. To me, the fact that there are tens of thousands of individuals signing up for a course, that's meaningful."

Anyone can sign up for a MOOC, but to complete the course, it takes dedication and commitment. Courses tell prospective students how much time is needed each week. Many are actual college courses that start on a certain date, encourage virtual study groups, include online quizzes and end with a final exam. Others are self-paced with no deadline.