Free, online tech courses driving open education revolution

Want to sample a free tech university course before committing to a program and even get an e-certificate for passing? MIT’s first free course in circuits and electronics was taken by 120,000 students. Last fall, Stanford University offered three of its most popular computer science courses online for free and the artificial intelligence course attracted 160,000 students, according to a Network World story.

It’s all part of the open education movement that’s pushing for free public access to educational resources. But don’t get excited thinking you can string together a bunch of free courses for a degree. Post-secondary institutions have too much invested in campuses, teachers and course development to give it all away for free. They are experimenting though with new approaches to digital education like the MIT and Stanford free courses.

There are also digital education companies like Udacity and Coursera which offer free university-level courses for you to try out. Udacity has 160,000 students from 90 countries taking a wide range of courses including web application engineering, programming a robotic car and programming languages. Some course elements offer “credentials” to students who pass the exams.

Coursera provides access to top university courses from its partners like Princeton, Stanford and University of California Berkeley, complete with lectures, homework and deadlines. Students interact with professors and other students around the world through online forums.  Coursera says it helps “improve your resume, advance your career, expand your knowledge and gain confidence by successfully completing one of our challenging university courses.”

The fact Coursera raised $16 million in venture capital funding this month shows the free open education movement isn’t a passing fad and it isn’t even that new. A non-profit called Khan Academy has been around since 2006 and now has a video library of more than 3,000 free lectures and tutorials for elementary and high school students.

Even Apple is into open education with its iTunes U app  which it says, “puts complete courses - and the world’s largest online catalog of free education content - on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.”

A New York Times story headlined – Building schools out of clicks, not bricks - reported on this month’s annual meeting on open education in Cambridge, England, where academics from 21 countries wrestled with the issues of open education like how universities and employees should treat skills achieved through free courses.

Over the past decade, the New York Times says, virtual education has exploded from “a handful of courses available online - all of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Today there are more than 21,000, with more being added every week.” Certainly not all these new courses are free.

Universities have been growing their online offerings to attract tuition-paying students from anywhere in the world who’d rather study virtually at their own pace or without the expense of moving to attend a top-ranked university. Universities also provide resources like live teleconferencing of lectures with professor and teaching assistant mentoring to help online degree students. Support like that isn’t cheap so it’s no surprise there’s a global debate on what value and credibility should be given to free courses.

It’s still early days for the open education movement but if you aren’t sure how you’ll handle university, free tech courses are great for giving you a feel for what university-level studies require. Or, you use them to get up to speed on basic skills like programming or computer security. If you see your future as a tech entrepreneur you can mix and match free courses that are most relevant to your business venture.

If you’re not even sure which part of tech fits your interests, scan our CareerMash Career Profiles. You can also watch videos and read our Meet The Pros Profiles to discover which education paths tech professionals followed to their current jobs. That’s all free too!

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