Two Superb, Free Online University Courses

Free online university courses have really hit their stride this quarter. Courses from Michigan, MIT, Stanford, University of California at Berkley are available now. Free course material has been available from a variety of sources. Near and dear to this blog  and web developer are the w3schools set of tutorials on all key coding in web development – HTML, CSS, DOM, JavaScript, XML etc. And the ability to try live snippets of code,  change it  and rerun the new code make a favorite place to learn new material like HTML5 and jQuery or to try new things out in CSS or JavaScript.

However, the ability to take courses on university subjects that I had not been able to fit into my undergrad and grad school days is an opportunity not to be missed. So the Cable-TV has been cut for three months, projects deferred and time set aside to try out some courses. And to my delight the universities have done a wonderful job setting up the courses.  For example, every course offered has a great introductory syllabus. This includes  suggested text and copious supporting reading material [mst of it free]. The courses offer a clear course outline with the teacher[s] providing a brief video summary of the curricula. Then each lecture has been divided into 4-5 segments of 10-20 minutes. There is a quiz section during each sub- lecture to make sure you are tracking the material. At the end of each lecture there is a graded quiz on the material. Course takers can take the quiz multiple times but the quiz must be completed by a cutoff-date. Most of the courses provide a certificate for those who pass the quizzes and 1-3 exams. But students may merely audit the courses – which is what I am doing since a)my prerequisite math skills have atrophied and b)the breadth of very interesting courses is so wide, my strategy is to get the big view this term and then plunge  in depth on selected courses next term.

The Two Outstanding Courses

Now let me repeat – there are no costs to course takers other than the connect time costs your Internet provider may charge you. And these can often be circumvented by going to the Library or Starbucks and connecting for free there.

Model Thinking by University of Michigan Professor Scott Page
– I cant emphasize the importance , relevance and sheer enjoyment of this course. It looks at Modeling, which of course is used extensively in engineering and production planning, but from a social modeling point of view. Now right at the outset, Scott  underlines the fact that MODELS ARE NOT PERFECT; but rather they help provide clearer  insights as to what is happening in various social as well as practical or even engineering situations. What makes the course so rewarding is that Scott shows a broad range of models and  always examines one or all of the questions of a)how well they do in a)explaining past and current events ,  b)how  good are they at predicting future trends, and c)how they might be refined or extended to be more robust in their explanatory powers. This is a must attend or at least audit course.

Design and Analysis of Algorithms by Stanford University Professor Tim Roughgarden
– this course reflects my own background and interest in computing. It is deliberately specialized look into the design and analysis of algorithms for massive data mainpulations which has become the number one problem in business computing. It does not emphasize any particular database technology [SQL versus indexed structure-based algorithms are only referred to in passing] nor does it highlight any particular programming language. Rather the crux of the course is how to analyze any proposed algorithm or solution to a computing problem. The approach is well suited to massive data analysis but also provides practical insights into broader computing performance measurements. Add to this Tim’s clear, careful and mathematically rigorous analysis of algorithm designs – and you have the makings of a great series of IT-relevant lectures.

There are other great courses – check out Coursera [more live and video online]and MIT [much broader selection of courses but less online/video  resources].

The Implications of Free College Courses

First, this is a wonderful way for aspiring students of all ages to a)test their mettle against the material offered at some of the US’s top universities, b)get a real world gauge of the effort required to handle university level courses, and c)help a students  decide what areas are of  particular interest for a career. But more important is the implications for graduate education.  Many professors at the Universities involved  like the courses and the chance to reach a broader audience. But the implications for university education are enormous. Tuition and living costs per semeter at universities are reaching $10-50,000 per year [student indebtedness is a rising social problem]. Yet the material, quizzes, papers and exams required of the students to get a “credit” [usually a certificate of performance in the course] are equal to what students on campus have to do. Nudge, nudge; wink, wink – see what I mean? These courses mark a tipping point in college and university education going forward. Or equivalently – Phoenix University watch out.


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