Thursday, March 7, 2013

Learning Online For Free

     The advent of the Internet and digital media has done wonderful things for the human race. I feel one of the most important aspects of this is bringing about free access to education. As some of you know, you can learn how to do just about anything from YouTube. From changing a tire, to changing a light fixture, to hanging a door, to even skinning a deer. Really, as a matter of fact, when I picked up hunting, that's how I learned to do it. But if we want to talk about learning at a more academic level, then that has become widely available to anyone with Internet access. So lets look at a few sites that are offering this free education.

     Academic Earth provides a library of university lectures, on a range of subjects. These are always available, and you can watch them at your leisure. MIT Open Courseware is much the same as Academic Earth, but focus' just on courses offered by MIT. Some of the courses have questions to help you learn as you watch the videos. These sites are great if you're just interested in auditing a class or two. The learning is unstructured, so you can watch lectures in any order. With the exception of a few courses on the MIT Open Courseware site, there are no practice questions to help you along, no tests, and no additional help. The MIT site however does offer some assignments for some of their courses, ungraded if you do them of course.

     If you want learning that is a little more structured there is Khan Academy. This site functions like a tutor. There are over 3000 videos, with helpful quizzes in between. This site is great for additional help learning a subject, or to learn a new subject.

     So, this seems like a good start to learning stuff online, but what if we want a more structured experience, with people to help us, and grades to track our progress. Well, there are two sites that have done a great job in doing this, including offering certificates of completion for those who finish the courses.

     This first of these sites is Coursera. This site offers a wide selection of courses from many different universities. These courses are structured. There is a series of lectures for the week, with in video questions to help you understanding. Then there is homework assignments, which are graded and due at the end of every week. Participants that make a certain grade will usually be issued certificates at the end of the course. Here is the Coursera about:

We are a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.
Through this, we hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

     The other site for this is EdX. This was a collaboration between Harvard and MIT. This site is much the same as Coursera, but a bit more structured. They have a lot less courses than Coursera as well, but they are adding more all the time. Here is what they say about themselves.

EdX is a not-for-profit enterprise of its founding partners Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that features learning designed specifically for interactive study via the web. Based on a long history of collaboration and their shared educational missions, the founders are creating a new online-learning experience with online courses that reflect their disciplinary breadth. Along with offering online courses, the institutions will use edX to research how students learn and how technology can transform learning–both on-campus and worldwide. Anant Agarwal, former Director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, serves as the first president of edX. EdX's goals combine the desire to reach out to students of all ages, means, and nations, and to deliver these teachings from a faculty who reflect the diversity of its audience. EdX is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is governed by MIT and Harvard.
     So in conclusion there is no reason for any of us to not learn anything we want to. I'm using these sites to the best of my abilities, and am learning quite a bit. Coursera seems to be offering some very good courses for those wishing to improve their critical thinking skills. I feel privileged to live in a world now, where university level education is available to anyone willing to put in the time and effort.

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