Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Free for All

I've been a college student three times in my life. The first time around, I went to classes every day, studied in the massive brutalist structure San Jose State called a library back then, and came out at the tippy-top of my class with a degree in Political Science (or as some would refer to it, a degree in wasted time and low job expectancy). This was 1998-2002. I only touched a computer in order to type papers or check my grades on their primitive website. In fact, I think I had to register for classes through a cumbersome automated phone service.

The second time was in 2007. At that point I was studying at American River College in Sacramento to become a mortician. Saying that I was studying "in" Sacramento is a bit of a misnomer. Since ARC was the only game in town for the death set, I was living in San Jose and commuting to Sacramento while trying to find time to study somewhere in between. It's not a particularly great way to get ahead on your classes. Alas, as much as I wanted an online course for human anatomy to avoid driving 600 miles a week, it wasn't an option. Something about needing to be hands on. Anyhow, fell asleep while driving, could have wrecked my car, could have died, blah, blah, blah, dropped out.

Despite the saying, the third time wasn't much of a charm either. By applying to grad school, I'd finally have a chance to take an online course. Actually, it was the only type of course I could take seeing as the program went to being completely digital. Turns out, I hated online classes. My two semesters in the program can be summed up thusly: "If I wanted to hang out in chat rooms with jerks and blowhards, I could easily do that for free." So yes, I dropped out of that one too.

That's a cheap shot, I know. I'm sure for some the online learning environment is perfect. But to me, the educational experience offered did not match the price being extracted from my bank account. Perhaps it's due to the fact that I work for a library. I'm use to having access to the information I want, mostly free of charge. I can get the required text books through Link+. I can find the required articles on our databases. The thing that makes college worth the money is the knowledge gleaned through the lectures of professors and discussions with classmates. And in the classes I took, there weren't a whole lot of lectures and far too many off topic discussion.

So considering my general crankiness towards the concept of online education, reading an article about MOOCs yesterday should have made me uneasy. Instead, I found the idea rather brilliant.

A MOOC is short for "massive open online course." The concept isn't entirely new (similar to an interactive version of the Great Courses series), but the philosophy is. Most education revolves around scarcity. There is one professor who holds the knowledge. There are but a few privileged students with the financial means and geographic location who have access to that knowledge. In a physical setting, this makes sense. Many online courses offered by colleges try to maintain these physical restrictions to some degree. A MOOC, on the other hand, recognizes the digital world as being fundamentally different and that online education should be conducted under a different model.

The only barrier to someone interested in taking a MOOC is the necessity of a computer and internet connection. (It's duly noted that for many people this is still a huge barrier.) Outside of that, class enrollment is unlimited (some courses have a thousand participants), the courses are entirely free, and all the materials needed are supplied by the professor in the way of online resources. To folks who feel that information should be free, this is quite exciting. Especially considering all the uproar about higher education, student debt, and increasing tuition lately.

Not all the courses are created equal of course. Some of the ones I was browsing on Udemy looked a little... homespun. But also mixed in there and on sites like Coursera are Stanford and UC Berkeley courses being conducted as MOOCs. At the price of free, that's a pretty good deal. Most of the classes offered skew towards the techie side of things, but seeing that an anatomy course is in the works, the focus might get wider in the future.

Here's the downside though, unless you are interested in education for education's sake, this isn't going to do you a lick of good on your resume. These courses aren't recognized as "real" college despite the fact that they are offering "real" education. Much like a library, they can be seen as a part of the "people's university." A place where information is for the taking in the goal of individual improvement. And I believe that's what employers refer to as being "self-motivated." So maybe it will work on a resume if you spin it right.
posted by jw