Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The craze of online education

Among all the things the Internet has to offer, the one I find the neatest is all the online resources for learning.

Starting with the "self study" found as free online course material, such as MIT's OpenCourseWare, Yale's Open Yale Courses or  Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative. These are free materials covering a large number of topics in Sciences, Humanities or Economy. This is slightly more than a self-study book, it may have recording of actual lectures and possibly have assignments with solutions. The great part is that there are social sites such as OpenStudy to gather self students. There you may find some help, people to explain the topics that are less clear, or have a validation of your solutions.

Then, there are some site with a variety of topics, usually presented as lessons. The most famous is undoubtedly the Khan Academy. Each topic and subtopic is presented almost as an independent unit: it is up to the student to have a rational progression through the topics, but nothing will prevent one from starting at the end and making its way back.

And then there are the online lectures such as edX or Coursera which groups courses from various universities or Udacity which has its own courses. These are courses in the more classical academic sense, with a progression through different subtopics. There are assignments and quizzes and one would usually end up with a certificate of completion upon success.

It is to note that the latter start to have a model in which the courses are free, but either the certificate has a small fee or companies can subscribe and get the contacts of the top performers. For instance, Coursera and Udacity give access to corporations, such as Facebook or Twitter, to their registry of students, enabling them to find the talents of tomorrow. Think about it: you are studying in your living room and next thing you know: you have an e-mail from a big company showing some interest in your career. How cool is that?

Bottom line: the online course offering is growing fast and one could find pretty much anything to learn: almost all possible topics are present and available. However, this will not change who people are, and the one who will benefit the most from this are those who could have had other resources to learn this. My hope is that this will be made available to emerging countries as a possible start for a real education once low cost computers and Internet access have been deployed.