Two things about higher education have become clear. First, your children need it more than ever to stay competitive -- and so might you, if you need to upgrade for a fast-changing job market. Second, the model colleges use to deliver that education is broken. Rising tuition, high student debt, and stingier funding for public colleges are making it more difficult for families to keep up.
So it's hard not to get excited about this: Right now, for the unbeatable price of $0, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Anant Agarwal is teaching a class on circuits and electronics to thousands of people online -- no MIT application required. Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, and other top schools have also started open courses for everyone.
The academic world is buzzing with the notion that this could change, well, everything. "We are at a pivotal moment," says former Princeton president William Bowen. "Two forces are combining: extraordinary technological progress with economic need."
True, it's a long way (and many spinning "video loading" icons) from here to a day when students can put together respected degrees with Ivy simulations.
While logging in is free and easy, getting official credit for what you learn still isn't. Online courses have bugs, including raucous student discussion boards and clumsy grading systems, and for many they are an inferior substitute for real classrooms. Yet there's promise here for adults who want a new career skill, for traditional students looking for learning aids, and for anyone hoping to speed the path to a degree. More change is coming.
Here's what you and your kids should know to make the most of it.
You Can Really Sit In on Courses with MIT Profs
Agarwal's course is known in education jargon as a MOOC, or massive open online course. Web courses and online degrees have been around for years. As the name implies, MOOCs are different for their size (with tens of thousands of students at a time), their free price tag, and, frankly, the cachet of the schools that started them.
A typical massive online class includes several short recorded lecture modules each week and reading assignments. You'll chat with other students online, and there's homework, which may be graded by a computer or by peers. Some classes offer a few online meetings in which professors address questions posed by students. Although there may be a weekly schedule, it's flexible.
"I completed the first three weeks of classes while patrolling the Bering Sea," says Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Greg Tozzi, who took a finance course taught by a Georgia Tech professor.
Tozzi's class wasn't delivered by Georgia Tech, but through a website called Coursera.org, which offers more than 300 classes from 62 schools. Two Stanford professors kicked off the for-profit venture with more than $22 million raised from colleges and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. (Where profits will come from, as with lots of tech startups, is hazy.)
Harvard and MIT have started a similar nonprofit hub at edX.org, where you can learn Greek classics from a Harvard prof or quantum mechanics via Berkeley.
Don't want to wait for a course to start? Carnegie Mellon has free self-paced courses that you can try anytime at oli.cmu.edu, and so does the nonprofit Saylor.org.
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