The Revolution of Online Education

asteroids picture2Through a free online course from Rice University
Schroeder learned to program a game similar to Asteroids.
I successfully designed my spaceship to blast oncoming meteors out of the way, when I realized that my code was sick. I was taking “An Introduction to Python” online through Coursera (described below). The course was offered from Rice University and it consisted of about four 10- to 15-minute video lectures each week with two quizzes and a mini-project due every Saturday. The mini-project was especially challenging; the assignment was to program a game, and as the course progressed, the games became harder. The final exam was to program a version of Asteroids—complete with a moving spaceship that could fire at rocks and make them explode.

A surge of online courses is revolutionizing education. MIT was the first to post course content online, and now many universities, including Harvard and Stanford, are managing virtual classes in which there are assignments and even teaching assistants answering questions in discussion forums. These courses are not all “free,” but compared with the rising cost for a college credit, $40 for a certificate is minimal. Online education may not replace college degrees, but the freedom to take a class in any field is enticing for many and allows flexibility of exploration regardless of age or background. Furthermore, this revolution is giving scientists the opportunity to do what is becoming increasingly more important: to inform non-scientists about what scientists study. People can learn what drug development entails, or what genetics and protein biochemistry are all about. It’s the most democratic form of education.

As a graduate student, I learned that computer programming is a powerful tool for scientists but I knew nothing about it. That’s when I decided to take the online course. The discussion forum was an amazing demonstration of how powerful online courses have become. The students taking the class were extremely helpful (I have no idea how people found the time to post such thoughtful answers to people’s questions), and the class had teaching assistants who helped students through their troubles. It felt like I was back in college going to office hours. One time I even sent my code to the course’s “code clinic” for my “sick” code, and I received a reply from the professor himself offering advice. Keep in mind this was a class with tens of thousands of students enrolled.

I’m not sure every course is as well designed as this course was, nor am I sure how much weight my certificate for completing the class actually holds. I certainly don’t plan on applying for a job at a software company, declaring myself a professional programmer, but the class was enjoyable and has given me a strong foundation for learning more programming. Though my experience with online courses is n = 1, I feel extremely positive about the potential of online education. One huge advantage is that these courses are extremely convenient—especially for graduate students and postdocs who work in lab all day. Even though my graduate school offers me computer-programming courses, I was able to take this course when there were no introductory classes available at UCSF during that particular semester. Plus I could leisurely watch lectures in my own time, usually in bed in the evening after a long day in lab. It was just like going to class when it suited me best.

So what course options are out there? Two forms of free online education exist: 1) Full-fledged courses, generally with a certificate of some kind in the end and 2) Stand-alone lectures or course material with no certificates of completion or deadlines. I’ve broken the list of what’s out there into these two categories.

***WARNING: Browsing through all of the options is addicting. You’ll probably get so excited about all the courses offered that you may get carried away and want to sign up for everything. I certainly had to restrain myself so I could finish this article! I’d also like to thank Sarah Goodwin (the iBioSeminars Director) for informing me about all of the options listed below.

Full-Fledged Courses:

1. Coursera: I’m partial to Coursera since I took a class on it and still check the course catalog regularly. The course listing is expansive, and the number of universities offering courses on it is ever-growing. You’ll probably find classes offered from your alma mater. If you want to earn a certificate then you have to pay $40 for the “signature track,” which requires you to type a pledge that you didn’t cheat and to take a picture after each submission of an assignment.

2. edX: This joint venture was started by MIT and Harvard, and now it also includes courses from other top universities like UC Berkeley and the University of Texas system. It offers tons of humanities and science courses. You can just audit courses or complete the assignments and earn a “certificate of mastery” at the end.

3. Udacity: Udacity was born at Stanford and has become quite popular. The course catalog so far only includes the following categories: business, computer science, design, mathematics, and science. It seems to be a great resource for budding scientists who may want to learn how to build a startup or brush up on their knowledge of statistics. You can also earn a certificate at the end of the course.

4. Khan Academy: The Khan Academy is not quite a “full-fledged” course because there are no assignments to turn in. However, it does include practice problems and it monitors your progress in a field in what they refer to as a “knowledge map.” It’s great for learning math. The sole lecturer is Sal Khan, who lectures on mostly math and science but a few humanities courses are thrown in as well. You never see him, but you see him draw on his virtual notepad.

Stand-Alone Lectures:

1. iBioSeminars: iBioSeminars was created by Ron Vale, whose goal was to have scientists talk about the area of their research and their own personal research and make this available for everyone in the world. There are also short talks from scientists who offer insight into the “human side” of science and give advice to young scientists. And there are teaching tools—review notes and practice problems—available. Also check out iBioMagazine.

2. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks: The first TED conference was in 1984, but now more than 700 talks are available online. The talks are informative about a range of topics and ideas, most of which you’ve probably never heard or thought of.

3. iTunesU: Many universities post their recorded lectures on iTunes. Lectures on any subject can be found here.

4. MIT Open Courseware: MIT shares its course materials online, including video lectures and the assignments given to MIT undergraduates. More than 2,000 of MIT’s courses are available.

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