Free College Courses: Too Good to be True?

A new company is offering free online courses from top universities. But what, if any, are the benefits?

I recently heard a story on NPR about an innovative new company engaging in what some may call an exercise in hubris, but which the founders of Coursera call an experiment in mass education. Coursera touts itself as "a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free" and envisions a world in which "top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions."

Naturally, when something seems too good to be true, I tend to err on the side of reason. But I've done a little digging and it seems that Coursera is not only legitimate, but clever and potentially game-changing. Courses are currently offered by Princeton, Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. Subjects include health care, medicine, and biology; society, networks, and information; humanities and social sciences; computer science, mathematics and statistics; and economics, finanance, and business.

The courses are taught by real professors and allow anyone, anywhere, to learn at their own pace, ask questions and contribute ideas, and engage with and learn from other students. Classes generally consist of a lecture video, homework, and an occasional exam. A Yelp-style discussion forum allows students to ask questions and the answers are then ranked, with the best-ranked answers getting bumped to the top.

While it does seem that the creators of Coursera have made it logistically feasible (relatively, at least) to teach thousands of students at once, one has to question the purpose and benefit of these free online courses. They generally can't be applied to a degree program, completion of a class doesn't result in any kind of certification, and I would venture to guess that employers wouldn't give much extra consideration to a résumé padded with such classes. But at the same time, I don't think they're entirely arbitrary.

According to the website's terms, participation is restricted to individuals over 18 years of age, emancipated minors, or those who have legal parental or guardian consent, and all participants must be over the age of 13. This means that Coursera is open to high school students (who have their parents' permission), who I believe could possibly glean some knowledge and experience from these courses.

Your college-bound students might consider taking one or a few of these classes to get a sense of the rigor of college-level work and to explore various subjects as they hone in on the majors they're going to pursue. Taking a course over the summer might help keep them challenged and academically engaged during the dog days. International students could use the site to test the waters of an American education. And anyone might enjoy and benefit from topical classes like UPenn's "Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act" and Michigan's "Social Network Analysis," if for no other reason than to become more well-informed members of society.

I'm still skeptical about Coursera, and I think many people will rightfully be wondering, "What's the point?" But I do think it's representative of an increasingly Web-based world in which we are becoming more interconnected while, ironically, seeing less of one another within the confines of brick and mortar. True, there's no such thing as a free lunch, or a free education, but I do admire Coursera's goal of making quality education accessible to the masses. And let's consider another adage: sometimes the best things in life are free. Time will tell.

At the very least, perhaps it may serve to pique your students' intellectual curiosity and interest in collegiate pursuits, an outcome that would indeed be priceless.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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