A couple of days ago the free Cryptography course (run by a Standford professor) over at Coursea went live. When I first heard about this course I signed up straight away.
There are a lot of universities (specifically in the USA, but that could just the ones I’ve read about) that are playing with free course models.
MIT was the first large one, with their Open Courseware project. This gave free access to whatever material was available to students online. Of course, as anyone who’s been through university knows, this can be a lot, or practically nothing.
More recently projects have sprung up offering entire subjects, lectures, homework tasks, exams and so on, all for free. I’m currently following a free course on Abstract Algebra from Harvard that follows this model. Basically the material from a course run a few years ago, including video lectures, is available online and you can go through it as you like.
This cryptography course goes even further, its an entire course designed to be taken online. The material for each week is cut up into smaller chunks that the usual 50 minute lectures, and all the homework assignments are interactive and available on the web site. This of course means that they don’t need humans to mark the homework of the thousands (at least) of people who have opted to take this free course.
Of course, you don’t actually get the same qualifications from any of these courses as anyone who shells out the big money to actually attend one of these prestigious universities, but in a lot of cases you’re getting almost the same level of education, and I’m sure that in many cases, where local universities don’t have the breadth of subjects, this may offer education to individuals who otherwise couldn’t have it, for no other reason than the country they live in.
Yet, I don’t see this taking anything away from university education, especially for the big institutions which are currently involved. The first, and least important, reason is that going to a job interview claiming that you watched some videos on the internet is not the same as having that degree in your hands.
The real reason is networking. For the people who go to expensive universities (and we’re focussing more on the USA again here), it isn’t the piece of paper that is going to be the biggest advantage that they get for the marks they needed to get in (and the money they paid to attend).
The biggest advantage is the people they meet, the people who will help them get jobs, funding, or whatever later in life.
And so far, I’ve yet to meet a single real person.