Learning for the sake of knowledge

University courses provide knowledge but not credit

Did you hear?

You can now take free courses from universities like UBC, Toronto, and even Harvard through this crazy new thing called MOOCs (pronounced very much like a cow’s calls, ending with a hard-c). MOOCs stands for Massive Open Online Courses.

And, no, there’s no take-this-free-intro-course-and-pay-out-of-the-nose-for-the-real-content-afterwards nonsense. It’s straight up learning. For those with the drive and the stamina to do it on their own.

The common thread for these courses is that they are open — aka “free.” As with anything online, everything thrown against the wall (or the screen) is experimental. Until something sticks.

Currently, there are for-profit MOOC providers (like Coursera at coursera.org) and private providers (like ALISON at alison.com). The for-profit business model is based on funding revenue through certification. Proctored exams. Which is a fancy name for monitored exams, where the student pays for the final certification. But ultimately, the courses are free.

Non-profit providers like edX (edx.org) and MIT OpenCourseWare (ocw.mit.edu) offer online university-level courses at no charge.

The footer at the edX site sums up their offerings nicely.

“EdX offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities. Online courses from MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Topics include biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more. EdX is a non-profit online initiative created by founding partners Harvard and MIT.”

The open courseware programs are more self-guided. Depending on the course, online resources can include a syllabus, list of readings, assignments, exams and video lectures. As quoted on their About page, Professor Dick K.P. Yue, (MIT School of Engineering) writes, “The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.”

Interested in aeronautics and astronautics? Unified Engineering anyone? You’ll find it online at MIT.

According to the Wall Street Journal (“An Early Report Card on Massive Open Online Courses”, Oct 8, 2013), the largest MOOC provider has attracted five million students, and nonprofit provider edX had over 1.3 million students.

The biggest challenge seems to be course completion. The same WSJ article says that there’s a 90 per cent drop-out rate. A more recent article from Bloomberg puts the drop-out rate at a staggering 95 percent (“Harvard, MIT Online Courses Dropped by 95% of Registrants,” by John Lauerman  Jan 21, 2014).

Bottom line here is that if you consider yourself to be one of the few who stands above (or beside or outside of) the crowd, and if you are interested in expanding your current knowledge set, the tools are there for those who want.

We’re in the middle (or perhaps the beginning) of a paradigm shift here. There are whisperings of having people meet a minimum criteria, like a GPA or pre-requisites. If you want to help shape this year-old phenomenon, maybe it’s time to jump in, feet first with full gusto while it’s still free.

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