The week of August 17, 2014

How to educate yourself online for free

By Matthew Saccaro

A college degree is the adult version of a macaroni painting your parents put on the fridge. Both are trophies valued most by those who hang it up, but one means taking on debt—lifelong debt, as many people in their 50s are still making student loan payments. The problem has pervaded society to the point where calling it a “student loan crisis” is inaccurate because it affects more than students. The price of education is burying the future under bank notes and sending entire families—not just the students attending college—to the poorhouse.

Even though the rising cost of college is exaggerated in some studies, the ever-increasing average student loan debt of $33,000 is not. If words can’t sway you, the Wall Street Journal sums up the problem in one simple image here.

The touted purpose of college is to educate people, broaden their horizons, and expand their worldview—as well as any other cliché you can name. However, research has shown that college fails at this. One study conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education found many graduates leave college without having learned anything. They become “academically adrift” for the rest of their lives.

You don’t have to spend $33,000 to learn all the different variations of beer pong. And if you’ve already spent this sum of money and saw no intellectual stimulation for your efforts, there’s a way you can right your neural meandering.

This isn’t a scam. It’s called progress.

No, we’re not peddling some kind of scam. We’re just telling you there’s a great thing out there called the Internet. You’re probably on it right now if you’re reading this. Did you know you can use the Internet to achieve many of the same benefits you’re supposed to garner from college, for free?

This isn’t a scam. It’s called progress.

Here’s your first lesson: In the education world, progress is spelled M-O-O-C, for massively open online courses.

Knowledge-seekers have a multitude of options here, starting with Coursera, Udacity, and edX; the latter is a joint project between MIT, Harvard, and University of California, Berkeley. A vast majority of the courses on these networks are free—with courses taught by experts. MOOCs aren’t Drunk History; they are high-level courses taught by authorities in their field.

Let’s say you’re prepping for a bar trivia night (the only reason to learn outside of a genuine love of acquiring knowledge) and want to study some history. You can go to one of these networks—we’ll say edX. Search for history courses, and then sign up.

It’s literally that simple—and by literally, I mean actually mean literally, not figuratively. After quickly perusing edX’s history course offerings, you’ll notice Eric Foner and Andrew Bacevich teachingcourses. If you’re not a history buff, let me clue you in: Eric Foner is one of the most highly touted historians of American history, specifically the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. Not only is he brilliant, he’s extremely prolific. Just look at his Amazon page. Andrew Bacevich, too, has published many books and is a highly regarded historian and political scientist.

You can learn from both of those guys. For free.

Here’s your first lesson: In the education world, progress is spelled M-O-O-C, for massively open online courses.

It’s almost criminal how good a value that is. And there are many other experts teaching if you check the other categories.

There has been a lot of negativity around MOOCs in recent months due to their poor completion rate. Critics question the effectiveness of MOOCs, since a high percentage of people can’t even finish them. This line of thinking lacks nuance. Basing a platform’s worth on one obsolescent metric is, according to Juho Kim, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, “too simplistic.” Kim stated people who enroll in MOOCs may be searching for a specific skill or specific bit of knowledge. Once they have it, they no longer need to take the rest of the course.

Justin Reich, a research fellow at Harvard, agreed with Kim’s assessment:

“As this research effort continues, our hope is that our frames of reference for MOOCs can change.  The story of MOOCs is not going to be told with conventional statistics borrowed from brick-and-mortar classroom models. Rather, our research describes an emerging learning ecosystem, one where enrollment can be casual and nonbinding, learning happens asynchronously, and registrants come from all countries in the world, with diverse intentions and patterns of learning. The metrics we choose should respect their intentions and encourage their learning.”

MOOCs cannot be evaluated like traditional college courses because they are not traditional college courses. Different kinds of people take MOOCs than take college courses, and for different reasons.

And MOOCs are only continuing to innovate. Some of the changes are small, like reorganizing courses and adding material to help students. Other changes are huge—game-changing huge.

Have you heard of LectureScape? Memorize it because it’s going to be the “YouTube for MOOCs.” Not only does LectureScape offer online lectures, it analyzes user behavior in order to innovate the field of MOOCs. Already, LectureScape has provided insights into how learners watch videos and what they like.

As time goes on, Internet denizens will have educational content from experts that’s been optimized to their tastes. Educating oneself on the Internet is always getting easier.

And if you’re still a skeptic about MOOCs, there’s always r/TodayILearned.


Money photo via Andrew Magill (CC BY 2.0) | Graduate photo via Rennett Stowe (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed