Free Online Courses – The Answer to World Problem?

reading, studying

What would you do if you won the lottery? People say your answer shows a lot of who you are. I would want to go back to school. Sure, I would want to travel the world, buy a house, or start my own business, but I would really love to go back to school. Though if I think about it a bit more, it’s not really about the formal study that appeals to me, but the learning itself.

I like what I do for my day job and I’m pretty good at what I do, but there’s not a day pass by that I don’t think of my alternate life — the plan-B — the things that could’ve been, if my path just strays a tiny bit to the side, leading me to a totally different place in life.

Whether you yearn to learn things you wish you could’ve done, things you hope you can, or everything under the sun, there are now many more options for free online courses (widely known as MMOC or Massive Open Online Course — does it remind you of MMORPG?).

Now you might be a bit skeptical about anything free, I do too. But I have actually been following the progress of this idea for a couple of years now and I’m optimistic that we are going towards a brighter future, where the playing field is leveled and more opportunities available for everyone no matter you are in the world. I have a dream…

The idea of free courses made available for everyone is not exactly new. MIT has started this movement sometime in late 90s with their OpenCourseWare. Idea could be noble, but execution is always tricky. How do you substitute actual learning in college and University to long-distant learning for virtually everyone in the world? MIT has made the syllabus of their courses available, but it is difficult to follow the course without intermediary teachers.

In University we learn by the combination of lectures, assignments, examinations, and probably the most important and most under appreciated, the interaction with your fellow students. Even if you don’t feel like you learn anything in school, arguably the people you meet in this period of life would be one of the most important group of people you’d meet in life. MIT along with many other Universities to follow have made their course materials available online (yes I like to snoop around), but they always miss one of the elements I mentioned above. They’re rarely complete courses, a far cry from the ideal free education idea we start with.

In the past couple of years there’s a rise in providing education from bodies outside of University, like Khan Academy (P2PU is another known one). The TED video of Salman Khan is particularly memorable about reinventing education (go watch it if you haven’t). Learning with Khan videos is akin to having an older cousin giving you (semi) private tutoring. Though I found the videos to be useful in themselves, I missed the structure of a proper University course.

Then there are Udacity, edX, and my latest obsession Coursera, all work in partnership with well-known Universities. I’ve snooped around many many courses, but only with Coursera recently that I felt that my world has opened really wide indeed!

Coursera takes the format of University course of 2-3 months length, complete with videos made specifically for the course, plus various ways to measure your progress by assignments and quizzes. It also has schedule and deadlines. While you may think that this is bad, I found that deadlines could be good for you, like medicines of sort. If you have taken any online, long-distant course, or have done any kind of self-study, you’d know that the most difficult thing in the world is to motivate your lazy ass to do the stuff you need to do. There needs to be a push, and deadline could just be the thing you need. You make a commitment and you stick to the deadlines. People do things because time is limited. Often when there’s no time limit you end up putting it off until, well, the end of time?

In case you think I’m some kind of geeky hermit swallowing course after course with military discipline (maybe I am), know that I’ve taken many many courses knowing that I won’t finish them. As with any free-for-all courses, it could be tricky to find the ones that exactly cater to your level. It could be too low or too high, too easy or way too hard. But the great thing about being free is that you can taste them however you like. It took me a couple of philosophy lectures for example, to find out that maybe I don’t want to study philosophy after all.

A lot of the courses available are on the exact science subjects (since I came from Computer Science / Software Engineering background, all the CS courses don’t interest me as much, as I have done most of them before), but Coursera has started giving subjects on Literature and Humanities — which are what I’ve been looking for. These are the two that I’m doing right now if you’re interested: Fiction of Relationship by Prof Arnold Weinstein and Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World by Prof Eric Rabkin. And if you think I’m done with Computer Science, I’m not, as I’m also following this Startup Engineering course by Stanford Uni. Many many courses on my horizon, like Online Games, Comic Books and Graphic Novels, Algorithms, and so on. Shop around and go nuts!

I couldn’t get enough of the two literature professors whose courses I’ve been following that I searched the internet for more, then found that they also have courses available at The Great Courses website, which is not free. I’ve bought a couple of courses and found them to be the same level of quality as the ones on Coursera (different length and concentration). So can you imagine that these courses are offered for free?!

If you’re more into creative fields like design, storyboarding, and writing, consider Skillshare, which is another great site. The courses are taught mostly by professionals in the field and they’re not expensive (around $5-$20 each). I’ve tried one on Mapmaking (which is as quirky as it sounds). The courses here are more succinct, but if you’re in the creative trade, the connections you make here would probably be useful. There are a few people from Disney or Pixar for example, then designers and writers from well known magazines, heaps of freelancers. Most, if not all, the courses have projects of some sort that you can share with everyone. Great to showcase what you can do to the world, and to the right audience most importantly!

As you can probably tell, free or affordable education is something I’m really passionate about. Coming from a third world country where quality education were out of reach and unavailable, free online courses indeed seem like the answer to the problem! Again, imagine the potential if the whole world is on level playing field. A girl in a third world country slump with internet connection and a desire to learn is now possible to study the materials from the top American University. The potential is dizzying, and makes me very, very happy :).

I can go on the whole day, but I’m going to stop for now. Hope you find the information useful, and let me know anytime if you find any interesting course on the internet — I’m all sponge, I’ll absorb everything!


The Traveling Reader
I left home when I was 17 and never stop exploring the world since. Most days I'm a digital technician at one of the London's biggest visual effects studio. My alternate persona writes and travels and dreams of doing these as a living. I alternately call myself Indonesian or Australian whichever is more beneficial at the time, and I've been a Londoner since 2011.