Free Online Courses: The New Future of Higher Education?

Professionals will pay for credential programs, workshops, and continuing education courses to stay up-to-date in their field, but what if you could get the same benefits and knowledge for free?

Online education is not a new concept. Remote degree programs, webinars, and filmed lectures have been around for years but two new start-ups might completely change the way we think about online courses. While most online programs offering credible certificates or degrees require enrollment in a university or membership in a professional society, both of which can be quite costly, Udacity and Coursera offer university-quality courses completely free of charge. Their courses offer many of the same benefits of a classroom experience including lectures, assignments, student interaction and participation, and exams but do they truly have the potential to replace undergraduate or graduate degrees?

Stanford professor and creator of Udacity Sebastian Thrun certainly believes so. According to the April issue of Wired, Thrun believes that in “50 years. . . there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them issue.” Udacity was created after Thrun offered free enrollment in his artifical intelligence course to anyone in the entire world last fall. Within a few weeks 160,000 students enrolled, two-thirds of whom live outside of the United States. (Wired magazine describes the phenomena in detail here.) Although the enrollment itself was a shock, the most astounding aspect came after the course started and extracurricular student participation began. Students took their own steps to make videos available in countries where YouTube is blocked and participated extensively in message boards that offered help and suggestions. One student even created a platform with puzzles that allowed students to test and practice theories presented in the class. It’s difficult to imagine undergraduates devoting an analogous level of collaborative effort for an on-campus course with graded assignments but these students were acting of their own free will with only a certificate of participation on the line.

While Thrun and Norvig developed Udacity, fellow Stanford faculty member Daphne Koller launched her own online system called Coursera. Her version of free online education offers over 119 courses from nineteen universities in sixteen different categories ranging from business and management, to medicine, to humanities and social sciences. Participating universities include colleges from around the world such as the University of Edinburgh  École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Dehli, which brings a whole new aspect to the idea of “studying abroad.” Students in America might have the opportunity to study at two universities through a study abroad program, but few can access anywhere close to nineteen. The fact that anyone in the world can participate means student body make-up reaches a level of diversity nearly impossible on a geographically based campus.

Free from university obligations and bureaucracy, both programs can create their own version of learning. Udacity approaches education with problem solving projects and an emphasis on creativity. Students can even opt to send their resume to one of twenty partner companies after completing a course. Coursera students can watch lectures and complete interactive assignments. Koller states, “In many of our [online] courses, the median response time for a question on the question and answer forum was 22 minutes — which is not a level of service I have ever offered to my Stanford students.” Students taking classes with assignments that cannot easily be auto-graded by a machine, like poetry and business, learn a process of peer evaluation that can be a valuable skill in a managerial position.

Although the idea of free education seems to offer many benefits, their future in changing education remains unclear. Will free online classes be able to make a university education available to anyone, regardless of location and economic background? Will classrooms eventually dissolve altogether? Do students lose an important aspect of learning when they collaborate online rather than in person? Would programs like MEM function in an online format? Both programs are quite new and still developing and only time will tell, but the range of participation across universities and the fact that others (such as MIT) are set on creating their own similar systems suggests the implications could be quite important in the future of education. Tell us what us your thoughts on the future of education and the role online courses will play.

Daphne Koller delivers a Ted Talk entitled “What We’re Learning from Online Education”

2 Comments

  1. Definitively its a notorious trend and i think can create a radical change in the education systems. I am a MEM and Coursera Student and I am very impressed of the powerful interaction that i have had with my online classmates that i met via skype and chat. Methodologically I am also impressed of how e-learning allows students to advance at their own pace, for example pausing the videos to search for something not well understood.

    I am from Chile, and this is also a very important issue for developing countries. Since college education is not accessible for everyone due to its high cost there is a barrier for social-economic promotion. With this model, companies would tend to be responsible of the costs of the formation of the work force, highly reducing the families cost of education and allowing a fair access to knowledge, works and wealth. For example a student that have successfully approved some courses via the online method could waiver some traditional courses and reduce the economic load of his education.

    In the case of professional education, i think it can also have a deep impact, because of the flexible format that fits well with people that works and study. Although, it would probably take longer because them also look to develop skill that are better worked in person, but it the same way than above, it can allow a broader access to this kind of programs, that definitively would help to fill the gap because of the lack of prepared professionals that the market require.

  2. Surely it is one of the most drastic change in education system and it will definitely help the students with various e-learning through which they can understand the subject clearly and put great impact on students through which they can flexible in work and study.

    Northwestern College

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