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More and more college content, sans credit, is becoming available on the Internet for those hungry to learn through "massive open online courses."
SAM OWENS | The Roanoke Times
Hayden Lee, a junior at Virginia Tech, has been taking advantage of free online education.
Sunday, June 2, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech professor Tom Sanchez wrapped up the largest class he’s ever taught Saturday when his 21,000 students turned in their final assignment.
No, he didn’t hold lectures in Cassell Coliseum where the Hokies hold basketball games — his class would have filled the arena twice. This one was all digital.
Sanchez, in coordination with Ohio State University professor Jennifer Evans-Cowley, completed Tech’s first online course through Coursera, a company that lets anyone take real college courses from some of the world’s most elite schools.
These so-called “massive open online courses” — or MOOCs — are free to the public but don’t come with any kind of academic credit. With just a few clicks, you can sign up to learn constitutional law from a professor at Yale University, cognitive sciences from Johns Hopkins University or web development from Steve Huffman, co-founder of the popular website Reddit.
“We didn’t dumb it down,” Sanchez, an urban affairs and planning professor, said of his class that taught students from more than 70 different countries about how technology can be used to solve city problems. “Ours was fairly intensive and I think it had the same level of rigor that a traditional class would have.”
Though Tech encourages professors to experiment with MOOCs, Associate Vice President for Learning Technologies Anne Moore said the school has not formally partnered with a company like Coursera, Udacity or edX. But she said they are having “active discussions” among themselves and with MOOC providers about the best way to serve their students with the platform.
Hayden Lee, a 21-year-old Virginia Tech student from Australia, has taken several MOOCs. He said he pays about $20,000 a year in tuition for Tech, but his most valuable education has come from these free classes he takes in his spare time. In fact, if he didn’t have to be in school to keep his United States visa, Lee said he wouldn’t be in school at all.
“If I was in Australia, I would 100 percent drop out, 100 percent,” he said. “If you’re trying to compete on just lectures, I would say the MOOCs definitely are better. The MOOCs are more valuable and I care about them a lot more than my classes at Tech.”
Lee said he was part of the first group of students to get a taste of MOOCs when he was studying mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York in spring of 2012. He had an idea for a “video discovery” website he wanted to launch, but didn’t know where to begin to actually put the thing together.
“I didn’t know how to code; I was studying mechanical engineering,” Lee said. “It was halfway through the semester and it’s not really an option to take classes from random different subjects. That’s why it was awesome I could take the online class that day.”
He started with Computer Science 101, which was one of the first courses offered by Udacity, a MOOC company born out of an experimental online class by two Stanford professors. Without any other type of formal training, he was able to self-teach his way through the launch of his first company: Livester.
The website has since gone offline, and Lee forced an embarrassed laugh as he asked The Roanoke Times not to link to the old site — just in case.
“It was rudimentary,” he said. “I would get all my engineering homework done early, then just spend an hour or two hours every night doing MOOCs and working on my website.”
Lee was soon joined by millions of students when word started spreading that you could take courses from top-tier schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, UC Berkeley, McGill University and Stanford University. An Udacity spokesperson said they now have 1.4 million students enrolled in 25 different courses.
Sanchez said most of his MOOC students are between 20 and 30 years old and are already enrolled in college or work full time. So he broke his lectures down into flexible, 10- to 15-minute videos. The students would be assigned around 10 videos each week but could work through them at their own pace.
Graded assignments were submitted online. When you turn one in, you get three from your classmates to grade. Students would give each other feedback based on a specific rubric. Students can post on the class discussion forum if they have a question for the teacher. By the time the course ended, Sanchez said the conversation contained more than 200,000 comments.
“We’ve had some of the students make comparisons to other MOOCs that they’ve taken and even some traditional classes, and they said they have gotten as much or more out of [this MOOC],” Sanchez said. “But I think that all comes back to the level of motivation on the student’s part. You’re going to get as much out of it as you put into it. So from that standpoint, it’s pretty similar to the traditional classroom.”
For Lee, the courses provided a chance to test drive a subject he thought could change his life. After several MOOCs and a summer of working on programming projects with his dad, Lee decided it was time to make a major change. He transferred to Tech, where he would start college over, this time as a computer science student.
Even now that he’s enrolled in a formal degree program, Lee still makes time to teach himself on the side. He launched Pivotal Testing, his second startup that has also gone defunct, and is now the president of Tech’s Entrepreneur Club.
Lee said he’s eyeballing the Georgia Tech MOOCs. The school announced earlier this month it will offer the first Online Master of Science degree made available fully through the MOOC format. Anyone can take the classes for free on Udacity, but only those who are admitted to Georgia Tech and pay tuition receive credit. The school estimates the computer science program to cost less than $7,000, according to a news release.
Lee said he’ll probably save himself the $7,000 because he doesn’t need a “piece of paper.”
“I’m sure there’s a lot of things that will be really good to know that I’m going to learn over the next two years [in Virginia Tech’s computer science program] and I’m pretty excited for it,” he said. “But there’s 50 books right there that all have them in it. And I’m sure by the time I graduate there’s going to be 50 MOOCs.”
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