How to get a free Ivy League education online

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Didn’t get into MIT? Student loans wouldn’t cover Yale? Was Stanford too far to commute? It’s never too late to get an Ivy League education—or take advantage of college courses at any number of universities from just about anywhere. And what’s even better: It’s often free. Universities everywhere are opening their virtual campuses to anyone with an Internet connection and motivation.

Nor do you need to choose just one school. Most of the leading universities that offer online courses are teaming up on shared platforms. Through Coursera, for example, you might enroll in Machine Learning with Andrew Ng, the Stanford University professor who founded the consortium, then take a statistics course from a Princeton University professor and a poetry course from a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Enrollment is routinely in the tens of thousands, although university officials acknowledge the drop-out rate is also a bit higher than on campus. They figure that’s part of the learning curve of MOOCs or “massive open online courses,” the official name of this academic movement. Also, the course catalog is growing every day. Some are free online versions of courses in the university catalog (and usually supply the course number); others are new versions for online consumption. Here’s a plus: You typically don’t have to buy texts, because the readings are usually online as well.

Some sites operate their courses on an academic schedule and have specific start times; while it’s too late to enroll in some classes for the fall term, a few are beginning this month. Other sites and courses are self-paced, and you can start or complete anytime. Here are some of the players in this burgeoning virtual campus community:

OpenCourseWare Consortium: Early entry

MIT Open Courseware

One of the earliest sources of online higher education from established universities, this site launched in 1999 and still has some of those first courses in its archives. OpenCourseWare Consortium is the portal to self-paced classes from 62 universities around the world, offered in 25 languages.

It is free, open, and offers nearly 6000 selections; register online and start class whenever you’re ready. Notable contributors include Tufts University, University of Michigan, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has since shifted its energy to a new project.

edX: New bi-coastal partnership

MIT is partnering with Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley on this new platform, which was announced in May and offers seven science and technology courses this fall. EdX reports that 150,000 students ranging in age from 14 to 74 signed up for the first course, an MIT electronics class. The platform supports videos, online tests, and discussion forums.

edX courses

These first classes are free, although edX expects to charge at least a small fee in the future; in order to launch, the co-op got a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the universities themselves are supporting the project. In fact, more than a hundred universities have reportedly expressed interest in contributing; the University of Texas at Austin is next, and is adding courses in summer 2013.

Coursera launches to crowds

A venture-funded startup, Coursera was founded earlier this year by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller and now claims 1.3 million students taking nearly 200 courses from 33 well-known universities. Most of the institutions are in the United States—such as Brown University, California Institute of Technology, Berklee College of Music, Johns Hopkins University, and Stanford—but Coursera’s partners also include the University of Melbourne, University of Edinburgh, and University of London.

The selection is free, wide, and growing; besides courses on neural networks, genetics, and cryptography, you’ll also find economics, image and video processing, and the inviting “How Things Work” (taught by a University of Virginia professor). You just set up a login and dive in.

Update:As of last week (Oct.18th,2012), Coursera is no longer permitted to offer its courses to Minnesota residents as per state law.

Choose your school

Individual institutions also offer online courses on their sites. Yale University posted its first free online courses in 2007 as part of its Open Yale initiative, and the site retains a mix of older and newer courses. You might want to check the date of the first offering if you’re eyeing a current events course, but the selection is extensive—from literature to organic chemistry, game theory to study of epidemics in Western society since 1600.

Physics course listing at Open Yale

Some lectures are provided as downloadable or streamed videos, some classes have audio-only options, and lecture transcripts are available for some along with syllabi, reading assignments, and worksheets. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation was an early supporter; and though its courses are free, Open Yale welcomes donations.

Carnegie Mellon University's Open learning Initiative offers self-paced courses online; 15 free courses are listed for fall 2012, including biology, logic, French, and statistics. CMU charges for what it calls academic versions, which have instructors, quizzes, and credit.

Princeton, like others on iTunes channels and university sites, has posted streaming versions of lectures from special events or campus guests; some are a dozen years old. But it’s a chance to hear lectures by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the late illustrator Maurice Sendak, journalist Tom Brokaw, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, singer/author Patti Smith, and others.

Besides participating in Coursera, Stanford offers free courses on its own site. Launching this month is Class2Go, with a handful of science and technology courses. Also new is Venture Lab, where Assistant Professor Chuck Eesley’s Technology Entrepreneurship course drew 37,000 students upon its debut last spring. Both platforms support video lectures, discussion forums, exercises, quizzes, team projects, peer assessment, and use of social media elements.

Stanford Class2Go

Don’t want to do all this work for mere satisfaction? An alternative is emerging; EdX, Coursera, and others are experimenting with awarding “badges” or certificates upon successful completion of a course. They don’t apply toward a degree, but they may be useful as evidence of higher education and training. Taking a course for a certificate entitles online students to some assessment and instructor interaction (or at least automated feedback and virtual tutors) and will no doubt involve a fee.

Even when your class is free of charge, you’re contributing to the university that offers it because while you’re studying, they’re studying you. The educators who design and provide online offerings are watching how you access the course, how much time you spend reading the materials or watching the videos, and the effectiveness of any automated feedback such as online quizzes. It helps them figure out what works best with online students. As edX explains, “the institutions will use edX to research how students learn and how technology can transform learning–both on-campus and worldwide.”

So don’t worry about a Blue Book; just boot up. The Internet offers the resources for lifelong learning at the university of your youthful dreams. And who knows? You might be able to enroll again at your alma mater.

See also Get a free education online with podcasts and audio books.

This story, "How to get a free Ivy League education online" was originally published by TechHive.

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