22 April 2013

Learn more, spend less

Free online education is a tempting offer, especially when it can earn you real credit towards a university degree. For anybody motivated and curious - with time available - there are now many options for free courses from top universities. Some attract thousands of students and cover a wide spectrum of subjects.

Students enrol in these courses from all parts of the world. The fact that they can easily share their experiences and thoughts online, adds depth and enriches these courses in a way I have not seen before. It has been a long time since I studied on campus and many years since I studied for my masters degree by distance learning, using printed books and study notes delivered by post. These Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are a very different experience, with tools and features that make great use of modern web browsers, video, digital publications and discussion forums.

But be warned: these courses demand as much effort as a regular campus course. Anyone studying online also needs an extra helping of motivation and they need to be sure they have the time available to study, think, research and write. Watching videos and clicking a quiz sounds easy, but composing a quality essay and scoring the work of your peers can take many hours.

They are also not for everyone. Some students struggle with the language requirements (many courses are in English) and some complain about having limited internet access - not surprising, when students enrol from the remotest parts of Africa. Others express concerns about the focus of the courses (many of them are provided by universities in the USA, and the data and examples used can betray a lack of global focus).

Yet, if you have the energy and determination, these courses might be just what you need to keep your mind ticking over, follow your passion or develop your knowledge for a career move.

I recently completed a course on public health provided by the University of California, Irvine through the online platform Coursera.com. Among my fellow students was Larry Gordon, a journalist who recorded his experiences in this LA Times article. As many as 15,000 people enrolled in the course initially - it takes only a click - but fewer than 2000 got a passing grade, with many dropping out on the way. But that is no cause for shame: there was no penalty for failure and everyone is welcome to repeat the course... perhaps when they have more time available.

Coursera has already come a long way since the TED video above by the co-founder Daphne Koller in August 2012. For many of the reasons she lays out, online education has a lot of potential but also a long way yet to go. 

Take a course today!
These platforms offer many options:
UK Futurelearn: http://futurelearn.com/
Stanford Class2go: http://class.stanford.edu/
Standford venture lab: http://venture-lab.org/
MIT OpenCourseware http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm
Open University OpenLearn http://www.open.edu/openlearn/