The Philosophy Behind Open Course Classes

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During the summer, I needed something to do. It wasn’t me to just sit around and watch TV shows all day and feel satisfied. While others were vacationing in Europe and touring the Eiffel tower, I was stuck at home surrounded by cornfields. It was then that I decided to increase my productivity self-esteem by signing up for a free online course. Free you might wonder? Though college tuition has risen to more than 100,000$ per year, universities are offering college level courses online.

For the past few years, universities have been sponsoring open course classes for free education. Thus it was possible to listen to lectures from professors of Harvard, MIT or Yale at no cost. The concept of open course classes stepped up its level when the website Coursera was developed by Stanford professors in 2012. Coursera was responsible for organizing a congregate of the university’s classes and depending on  the sponsor, the classes are either driven at the student’s own pace or set by the professor teaching the class. Initially focused on computer science, the classes have expanded its repertoire to subjects such as nutrition or philosophy. Instead of face to face interaction, video lectures divided in digestible lengths discuss the material at hand. These classes were meant for the average person that led a busy schedule.

The thought process that drives these courses to success is the student’s will to learn. Instead of worrying about grades, students that enroll in the open course classes are expected to learn for themselves. This philosophy also makes it difficult for students to finish the class. After each lesson, the assignments are meant to challenge the students. It’s not to say this system is perfected already. Most that enroll will not follow through on all the assignments because of lack of motivation to listen to all the lectures and do all the calculations.  It’s different from attending to class on a campus because nobody is forcing you do to all this work.  Also because the class is free, it’s easier to step away because of how little investment was put in initially. However, those that do complete the course receive a certification. Though it’s not sure if these certifications have the same merit as college credits. Completion rates are low for all the classes but that’s simply a result from the number of students that initially sign up. Coursera is estimated to have 7.1 million users around the world.  There is still controversy whether these low completion rates are an indicator of failure. Another problem still plaguing these online classes is cheating. Unlike taking a test in a classroom setting, students can simply post the answers to assignments with no repercussion.

Open course classes are nothing new yet they are only rising in popularity now. Sites such as Udacity and edX are similar learning platforms such as Coursera. The concept is similar to Khan Academy which also offers videos to learn more about certain subjects however it is more in depth. While the classes are free to the public, a lot of money is tied up to these websites. The key element to Coursera’s success was the partnerships that it developed with other universities and institutions. Over 22 million dollars have been invested in by universities thus there is a lot at risk for the success of the website. Though the classes are free, students can earn a more official certification by paying 100$ to go on a signature track, the website’s only method of making money.

I decided to register for a two month class about finance on Coursera, one of their more popular courses. Because it was online and free, I imagined it would be easy and I was soon proven wrong. The Coursea class was taught by a University of Michigan professor who made the subject of finance relatable to the average person. That wasn’t to say it was easy. Even after watching all the video lectures, I was confused on many of the assignment problems. Luckily the discussion forums helped me immensely where others that are also confused come to help each other out. Some of the classes had 80,000 students for one session. What makes up for face to face interaction with the teacher is student driven discussion. I also tried taking another class about statistics from a newer website called Udacity but it lacked the depth of that offered in Coursera. The statistics class repeated concepts constantly and had the learning level of a 7th grade class. That is not to say all the classes on Udacity are bad. Many of the classes there are geared towards computer science and the statistics course was one of the simpler ones. Before committing to any of these classes it’s important to be sure these classes are worth the time.

For my class I still have two months to go.  Although tedious at times, it’s a great way to learn about things that are ordinarily ignored in high school. These classes are able to capture a larger audience around the world as shown when the lectures are translated to a multitude of other languages. Education is associated with opportunity and the opportunity to advance is paving its way every day. Though these classes do not necessarily have the same value as a degree, it allows those around the world to discover their love of learning.


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