Free Online Education Continues to Blossom
Many people stop learning after college. Sure, they may pick up certain skills on the job, but few seek out learning opportunities. It’s a sad fact when considering all of the benefits of “exercising your brain muscle”. So many studies prove health, mood, and intelligence all improve by doing puzzles, writing, reading, learning languages, and any other mentally challenging task.
Enter another player in this realm: free online education.
There’s been a huge evolution over the past year in ways people can learn new skills or brush up on old skills thanks to the internet. These websites range from offering small lessons that can be taken in bite-size portions at your leisure all the way up to structured, university-based courses. Here’s a run-down of a few of the websites I’ve tried as well as my thoughts on each.
This is the least “education”-like site I’ll write about, but I still feel like it deserves mention. I’ve been lucky enough to attend two TEDx events in person (TEDxCincy 2010 and TEDxBuffalo 2011), plus I’ve watched countless TED talks on their flagship website TED.com. If you’re unfamiliar with TED, simply go to their website and check them out. Brilliant people giving concise talks on extremely interesting topics. They’re 18-minutes or less, so you can easily watch 1 a day without breaking a sweat. The interface on their website to filter videos based on most viewed or how their related or the topic they’re on is very clever. Or you could check out the 20 Most Watched TED Talks to Date.
Speaking as a computer programmer, I love this site. It allows anyone to try programming at their own pace without the pressure of being in a classroom. Plus it’s all interactive and is focused around writing code and not reading or studying. Right away you start off learning the basics of programming syntax and you gradually build up to writing rudimentary games like blackjack. If you sign up for a free account, it keeps track of your progress so you can pick up where you left off every time you return. Plus, it uses “badges” and encouragement when you reach certain milestones.
I’ll never forget standing in line for lunch at TEDxBuffalo 2011 and seeing this video. I was blown away. Math has been my favorite subject since 1st grade, hands down. Plus, I’m a big data geek, so when I saw what Salaman Khan had developed to teach math online and how it could turn traditional education on its head, I was in awe. It’s something you really have to see to understand. Even if you don’t like math, I think you’ll like the video.
Since then, I’ve spent a good amount of time playing on Khan Academy and solving hundreds of math problems. It’s something I love to do, plus it’s one of those exercises that’s supposed to be good for your brain! This site also uses badges and points to help encourage people (mostly kids, but it works on me too: 740,000 points and counting!) to continue moving through the site.
Over the past few months, Khan Academy has caught fire as they’ve been featured on 60 Minutes and in numerous news articles. The latest news from Khan Academy is they’ve now branched out into Computer Science too. Now they can add that discipline to their hundreds of videos on math, science, finance, economy, and humanities. The list is staggering. You can also check out their YouTube page to keep up with new videos.
My first taste of a real, college-like, free online course was a 9-week class through Stanford University called Introduction to Databases that I took in late 2011. I’ve been working on databases for years, so I figured an “intro” class would mostly be brush-up. However, I was very impressed by the quality of the lectures (recorded directly by Prof Jennifer Widom), the relevancy of the topics, and the depth at which the topics were covered. The software used to run the course website and the quizzes / tests / videos was very impressive. Quizzes included random questions, lectures paused automatically and forced you to answer a multiple choice question, and a very cool forum are features. Plus, even after the course was over, Prof Widom posted a few extra videos on very current topics. That shows me how dedicated she is to helping others. Oh yeah, did I mention there were 10s of 1000s of people who took this class from all over the world? I can’t say enough about how impressed I was with it.
Since then, Coursera has blossomed to include over 100 courses from nearly 20 prestigious universities (Stanford, CalTech, Duke, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins, to name a few). I’ve started two other courses recently, but I’ve been less impressed by them. I tried an Internet History, Technology, and Security class through the University of Michigan, but it was boring me to tears. I should have known better since it was offered by that “school up North” (Go Bucks!). Ha! And I tried Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act through Penn since my current job is in the health care field. However, the lectures were of very poor quality and the subject matter simply was not exciting.
Despite those experiences, I’m not ready to write off Coursera because they keep expanding the schools and courses available. Some of the upcoming courses I’m excited to check out are:
- Statistics One through Princeton
- Data Analysis through Johns Hopkins
- Introduction to Logic through Stanford University
- How Things Work 1 through University of Virginia
Here’s a really amazing stat they provided:
To date, 700,000 students from 190 countries have participated in classes on Coursera, with more than 1.6 million course enrollments total!
Ironically too, I just watched a TED talk titled What We’re Learning From Online Education and it turned out to be one of the founders of Coursera. It was very interesting.
Hopefully this post will encourage you to seek out these educational opportunities. Or, if you know of any others that I’ve left out, I’d love to know about them!