You can get a university level education for free!

textbooksCredit:, SupertrooperA recent development in distance learning, a massive open online course (MOOC) is a typically free course offered via the web.  Most don’t offer credit, but some may provide a certificate of completion to students satisfying minimum requirements.  A certificate won’t help you with college credit or apply to license requirements, but in some situations it can help strengthen a request for a promotion or even a first job.  The knowledge you gain from completing a course can be applied towards anything, of course.

writing handCredit: the university providers of the courses learn through trial and error, the quality of the students’ experience is expected to improve over time. Most courses now include virtual office hours, TA assistance via email and interactive websites for group participation in discussions.  Grading is generally done at a peer level with varying levels of feedback.  As the the number of courses, and the variety of students expands, no doubt that interactions will improve even further.

I was interested in learning a few things about a few things so I investigated how one actually signs up for a MOOC.  It took me a little searching, but it turns out it’s relatively easy, once you realize you need to go through a central provider.  There are a lot of different courses, and all of them, at least right now, are free. Currently there are three main providers, and each partners with a different set of universities. Investigate all the providers, see what they have to offer, and think about how you'd like to approach furthering your education.  Each provider has good and bad points, and which is which depends entirely on your point of view.

Coursera, one of the largest, currently partners with 62 universities, offering over 300 courses.  The courses are offered on the schedule of each individual university with corresponding start and stop dates.  You receive emails from the instructors or TAs, and there are strict deadlines for homework and exams.  This option is most like a college course with the concomittant time management, coursework and tests (dependent upon the instructor).[1]  

How scientists see the worldCredit:

Udacity is a more focused site, offering courses centered around math, statistics and computer science. Courses are offered in short videos and most can be taken any time, once the course has been offered.  Set up as more of a ‘teach yourself’ system, it’s up to you to go to discussion boards to solicit feedback.  This option is best for learners with self discipline, or some external requirement to learn the material.[2]

EdX is a new platform recently launched by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.  Although offering courses by some stellar universities, EdX is a recent venture and currently has only a small selection available.[3]

Even though each provider has a slightly different set-up, the approach you take is the same for each.  You need to sign up through the provider, Coursera, Udacity, or EdX, and then sign up for the MOOC that you want.  An individual university may also want you to sign up through their site as well.  Depending on what you’ve chosen you can either start immediately, or you’ll be notified when the class is about to begin.  Since each course is designed by the individual instructor, there are no set rules that apply to all of them.  Basically, once you’re enrolled you put as much effort into each class as you want.  Those wanting a certificate will do all the required work, while a person only interested in learning a bit might choose to follow just a portion of the class. There are no restrictions on the number of times you can sign up for a course, so if life gets in the way, just take it again.

You can register for all three providers if you choose, and there’s no limit to how many courses you can sign up for.  Keep in mind that these are university level courses and many of them require a lot of time to learn the material and achieve a certificate.  Just because they’re free doesn’t mean they’re easy. Take advantage of the video aspect of the course, and repeat sections that you didn't get the first time.  Pay attention to the prerequisites and be prepared to work hard.

The discussion boards are a fascinating place with participants from all over the world.  Small groups form made up of same-language speakers, regional groups, and perhaps those in retirement or over 70.  Some students seem to take pride in their ability to offer assistants and will respond patiently to questions, even when you don't quite get it and have to keep asking.  The diversity of students is really something to ponder when you consider both how large and how small our world really is.

Ok, you say, that all looks great, but I'm not ready for that kind of committment, I really just want to brush up on a few things.  While you could sign up for a class and just view two of the lectures, if that were all you wanted, there is a better option.  Let me tell you about my favorite place to learn about ingle concepts - the Khan Academy.  Hundreds of vidoes, all around ten minutes, cover almost every topic you can think of, from calculus and physics to art history and finance.  Arranged so that like topics follow each other (you can build on your knowledge) and well tagged so you can pursue like concepts, these videos are easy to follow and cover one concept at a time.  If you're prepping for a test, helping the kiddo with homework, or just wondering what the stock market crash was all about, this is the place for you.

So whether you are hoping for an official piece of paper, or just trying to feel smarter than a fifth grader, the internet has something for you.  I'm not so thrilled with tests and homeowrk anymore, but those ten minute videos - love those.