Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Free, quality online education for a global revolution revolution

When I was learning up about evolution (starting in late 2007), I was reading books, particularly anything I could find of value in the local libraries.  By the time I’d exhausted most ready sources, and started spending my reading time on genetics (mid-2010), I’d found some very useful podcast sources.  They have the advantage that they’re easy to digest on the run, and they’re a great way to make your commute time – or even your time spent ironing or cleaning – productive.*  The downside is that you are not left with any ready reference material unless you make good quality notes.

By far, the most inspiring series of lectures was one I found on iTunes: from MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the widely-respected Eric Lander on Genomics.  He is very informative and – crucially – very enthusiastic.

These podcasts, like many others on iTunes and elsewhere online, were originally intended to be supplemental resources for those who were doing the courses.  The information frequently referenced other parts of the course such as handouts, textbooks and tutorials.  All the same, there’s clear learning value to be had from the lectures alone.

Then last year, Stanford University offered up an experiment: free online short courses in a selection of I.T. subjects, such as Introduction to Artificial Intelligence  and Introduction to Databases  Here, the offerings are more complete, and include video lectures, assignments, exams, and statements of accomplishment (no university credit gained, however: just the knowledge).  According to ZDNet, 35,000 people enrolled online – alongside a paltry 135 people taking it onsite.  A great success story.

They’re starting them up again, with enrolments now and commencement in February.  Offerings include Computer Science 101  and [engineering for] Software as a Service.

And now the ball’s back in MIT’s court.  They’ve just announced MITx: a range of online courses with a “virtual classroom experience”, online labs, and other interactivity such as student-to-student discussions and, no doubt, some proxy mechanism for interaction with tutors.
- complete with the somewhat more meaningful certificates of attainment.

The courses are scheduled to go live in autumn 2012 (ie the northern spring).

MIT is further offering its open learning software free, so that other educational institutions can use it to build widely available courseware.

Although it will take time for a comprehensive range of courses to be developed, this initial provision of free online learning is a momentous global development.  Education is key to escaping poverty and, with some caveats, never have the barriers to education been so low.  Although credentials are often important, the knowledge itself is very meaningful and can make all the difference in employment prospects.

* If I had more useful sources to turn to, I’d be mixing genetics and genomics into my listening time, which is currently spent mainly on history podcasts and soul music (you need the appropriate fillip for the moment).

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