Some Thoughts on Self-Directed Education and Massive Open Online Courses

If you’ve been following news in the world of higher education over the past several years, one of the biggest issues is the potential transformative nature of free online self-directed education. These are often referred to as MOOCs – massive open online courses.

There has been an explosion of really good online learning sites. Some of my favorites:
Coursera features complete online college-level courses, with all of the materials and quizzes
Khan Academy also provides full online courses on topics ranging from total introductions to advanced college topics
Duolingo does a fantastic job of teaching foreign language; I’ve used it to slowly teach myself conversational French
MIT’s OpenCourseware provides mountains of material for teaching yourself technology-related topics, as well as a selection of general topics, too

All of these sites are completely free. There are other online sites, such as Treehouse, that teach other subject (in Treehouse’s case, computer programming) for a small fee.

Together, these tools (and others like them) provide enough material to cover at least the general education requirements of many college degrees. I was able to find online material that covered at least a significant portion every single course of my computer science degree that I earned a decade ago. There are mountains of materials available for many other majors, too.

It’s all sitting out there, free to use. The real question is what does it mean?

Right now, it’s conventional wisdom that people should get a college education because of the large economic advantages a bachelor’s degree confers beyond a high school diploma. (A certification from a trade school offers significant advantages over a diploma as well.) If you continue your education past high school, you’re going to make some money.

However, with most of the educational material for many majors available out there, what exactly does college provide at this point?

I think there are two things that colleges still provide that are hard to duplicate online, at least for now.

One is interaction and experiences with like-minded people. College functions best as an environment where you interact with new people and have new experiences. Online courseware doesn’t provide that.

The other factor is the degree you receive at the end. That degree essentially certifies that you have had significant exposure to the materials in your major of choice. It’s considered a required line item on many resumes.

Right now, saying that you completed some number of courses at an online education site doesn’t quite have the same weight as a bachelor’s degree from a known university. The question really comes down to whether or not that will change. Will there be full online “degree programs” that end up with certifications that are held in similar esteem to a college degree? It’s really hard to tell whether that will happen, but we’re not quite there yet.

So, here’s my advice right now with regards to these free (and inexpensive) online learning tools.

First, they’re incredibly useful for lifelong learners and people who want to get ahead in their established careers. I think that’s where these tools shine. They work great for professionals who are already in their career paths who want to bolster their skills and knowledge.

In fact, I would suggest that people who are actively involved in these sites to include a small section on their resume listing their continuing coursework, along with a sentence describing what they’ve learned. If nothing else, it demonstrates that you’re a lifelong learner, something that’s valuable to a lot of employers. I certainly use them and if I ever find myself in a position where I’m issuing resumes in the future, I’ll be listing them on my own resume.

If you’re a professional and you can find a course that’s within the realm of your career path (either now or later), it’s a great use of your spare time to dig into some of these online tools.

At the same time, you shouldn’t expect that these will fully replace a college degree. They’ll help, of course, but right now, they don’t adequately replace key elements of college – the experiences, the network building, and the degree you earn at the end that represents your time and efforts.

Unless there is a radical shift in the next decade, I fully intend to still send my children to college or to a trade school after they finish high school. After that, though, I’ll strongly encourage them to be lifetime learners (I already am, actually), and these free (and low cost) online courses provide an incredible opportunity to not only continue your learning, but to add a little bit to your resume, too.

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