Necessity, according to the old adage, is the mother of invention. I’ve spent countless hours at this keyboard, railing against broken business models—the “record” industry, cable & satellite programming packages, and even certain branches of the publishing world. These are all industries that have struggled to adapt in the digital age, have failed to acclimate to a climate of new technologies.
It’s where microeconomics meets Darwinism. It’s survival of the fittest as households and companies begin migrating to new, digital platforms. It’s also common sense. Imagine a bank that didn’t offer online account access, or a radio station that didn’t provide digital streaming to as many devices as possible. They would, deservedly, be left behind.
But what about education? That is, what about our rubric for post-secondary education? Some say it’s no longer practical. Anyone who has attended college courses in the past five years knows that online components have become the norm. From online forums and discussion groups to quizzes and tests, most courses require internet access. And some courses are taught entirely online.
The term “game changer” is probably overused, but a new development may be just that. Nearly twenty of America’s most prestigious universities have begun offering online courses to the public at large—for free. At this point, it’s very much in the experimental phase, and no one can accurately predict where this will lead. But the very notion has caused some of the world’s greatest imaginations to run wild.
There are a couple of online platforms right now that are offering these courses. The first is called Coursera. Its partner schools include Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Georgia Tech, and more. Coursera currently offers 124 courses, spanning 17 disciplines, from 16 top-notch universities. You can learn at your own pace, watching lectures taught by world-class professors, and participate in interactive exercises to reinforce what you’ve learned.
The other platform is edX. It currently has only three partner universities, but they’re three of the best—Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. There are seven courses available this fall, with plans to grow the curriculum exponentially in coming semesters.There are a few distinctions between these free courses and their paid counterparts that are worth noting. First of all, you don’t have to pay the $50,000 that it would ordinarily cost to attend one of these incredibly prestigious schools. There’s no admissions process; the courses are open to everyone with an internet connection, regardless of age, location or socioeconomic status. But you also won’t receive college credit for the courses. Instead, most courses offer a certificate of completion, to show that you’ve completed the coursework and grasp the information. (However, some students who are enrolled at actual brick-and-mortar universities have been given credit for the Coursera classes they take, often as individual research units.)
So, like, “Big deal,” right? Actually, it could be. Sebastian Thrun is a research professor at Stanford who offers free computer science courses online. “It’s pretty obvious that degrees will go away,” he recently told a reporter from the website TheWeek.com. “The idea of a degree is that you spend a fixed time right after high school to educate yourself for the rest of your career. But careers change so much over a lifetime now that this model isn’t valid anymore.”
And he’s right. This new model, should it take off, incentivizes continued education. Employers would be smart to value individuals who take the initiative to utilize these online options—regardless of whether or not a degree is attached to them. If you’re looking for a self-motivated, ambitious employee, capable of thinking outside the box, these certificates of completion speak volumes.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 09/20/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2011. All rights reserved.