Home > math education, open source tools > Free online classes: the next thing

Free online classes: the next thing

June 28, 2012

I love the idea of learning stuff online, especially if it’s free.

So there’s this place called Code Academy. They teach you how to code, online, for free. They crowdsource both the content and the students. So far they focus on stuff to build websites, so javascript, html, and css.

I just found out about Udacity (hat tip Jacques Richer), which also seems pretty cool. They offer various classes online, also free unless you want an official certificate saying you finished the class. And they have 11 courses so far, including this one on basic statistics with Professor Thrun.

Then there’s Coursera, which is starting to have quite a few different options for free online classes. The thing I’d like to bitch about with this is that Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning class, which I took when it came out last year, is not being offered currently, which makes me confused. Why does it need scheduling if it’s already been made?

I also just discovered openculture, which lists lots of free online courses. When you search for “statistics,” it returns the Udacity course I already mentioned as well as a Berkeley stats course on YouTube, among others.

I know this stuff is the future, so I’m hoping there continues to be lots of competition from various small start-ups. We are bound to profit from such competition as a culture. What I’m worried about is that the model goes from “free” to “fee” if it gets crowded by large players who, say, pay their instructors a lot for the content.

Which is not to say the instructors shouldn’t get paid at all, but I hope the revenue can continue to come from advertising or through job matching.

  1. June 28, 2012 at 8:14 am


    (Honest question, what do you sell to someone who won’t pay money for a class? Canned soup?)


  2. June 28, 2012 at 8:54 am

    As a college instructor, I see first hand the difficulty students have learning material when there is an instructor in the class speaking to that student and answering her questions, when there are recitation instructors quizzing that student regularly, when there is a free drop-in tutoring center with tutors to help 10 hours each day, where there is an entire community structured to help that student learn. Does anybody honestly believe that students who struggle under those circumstances are likely to “learn” material through a web browser?


    • July 18, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      I agree. And those who can learn under those circumstances would probably learn just as well by simply reading the course textbook.


  3. Itsik
    June 28, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Scheduling is important. Without assignment deadlines, assignments don’t get done, and without that students don’t really learn (of course, these are statements about the typical person, not about everybody).

    Also, you are forgetting EDx by your alma mater http://www.edxonline.org/ .

    The free content model is supported by fee for certificates of completion. These cost just a small fraction of the 1st-world student’s time spent on learning: 2-3 orders of magnitude less than the market price of an academic credit point face-to-face by the same instructors, but viable for the providers of platforms and content with 2-3 orders of magnitude more students.

    Not sure about your concern regarding highly paid content creators. As in music and journalism, you may have the (downsized) analogs of stadium-filling stars and NYTimes reporters, but also under or unpaid aspiring independents, who post their content on YouTube or the Huff.


  4. June 28, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Here is one about Python, targeted at beginners: http://cscircles.cemc.uwaterloo.ca/


  5. JSE
    June 28, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Presumably, if it stays free, the product is the student — Udacity will sell a list of students with the highest test scores to companies willing to pay the price (e.g. hedge funds) so that those companies have first access to the strongest students. (Of course, an argument could be made that a system like this is already in place at Harvard, Stanford, etc. except that those universities don’t get paid for it. Or maybe they do, just not formally.)


    • JSE
      June 28, 2012 at 11:24 am

      Actually, I don’t know why I said this — I don’t really have any idea what their ultimate business model is.


    • July 18, 2012 at 4:35 pm

      It’s hard to prevent cheating when the tests are taken remotely. So I would not put much value on those test scores.


  6. June 28, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I’m looking forward to Bryan Caplan’s next book “The Case Against Education..” where I think he’s going to argue that sitting in university classes is a big waste of time for most people. If I can pay 5.99/month to have access to most practical things that I need to become more employable.. why not do this? Caplan argues that education is mostly all about signalling, showing that you are smart, hardworking and willing to conform. Maybe this is less

    This discussion comes up frequently among instructors… what’s going to happen as this becomes more prevalent? As capitalism goes, if one can deliver a slighlty less valuable product (video lectures) at an enormously less cost (hundreds of Ph.D salaries) it will eventually happen. If this means we have less teaching load but get to keep our jobs, great…. but the way capitalism goes there become less of us in the name of efficiency. In the end only the elite will get contact with professors.

    On the other hand, many students don’t go to class, most don’t ask questions, and often can’t understand their teacher who speaks poor english and was hired for their research excellence. Many of these students would do just as well, if not better, watching Adrian Banner give video lectures.

    Why get into $80K debt if you’re just gonna sit there anyways?


  7. June 28, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    The value added by a university or secondary school has never been about the information/content transmitted to the student. That has always been freely available in libraries. We pay institutions to create an environment that enriches intellectual exchange and enhances social/professional networks. Most students hope to use these networks and exchanges to determine want to do with their lives – not just how to do a job.

    On-line courses/programs will be monetized to the extent they can provide the environment that students are seeking. It’s being done successfully at AoPS and a few other places but the massive on-line college courses haven’t yet built the environment that most students desire. It’s unlikely that free on-line courses relying solely on ad revenue will threaten traditional education.

    Some might be able to sell credentials but those who buy them won’t get the true benefits of education – a better sense of who you are and a network of contacts who know how you can contribute and can help make your dreams a reality. That’s where the money is in education.


  8. KW
    June 28, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    These classes are great, but they service the “academic 1%” that have the time, money, luxury, skills, background, support, motivation etc. to use them. What’s most exciting to me are places which are synthesizing some of these new tools to build whole curricula and courses of study. Also rather interesting is when computers are used in remedial education where basically everybody else has given up on the students.


  9. June 29, 2012 at 9:03 am

    I did Andrew’s ML class this semester on coursera and found it to be really good. I don’t think it was aimed at the academic 1%, but more like the top 10%. While I agree that one needs a little bit of motivation and background to get the most out of the course, I feel the barrier is not as high as one would imagine.

    If you recall, I had asked you about resources for learning about data analysis. I started of with Gelman’s book, but as you said, it is incomprehensible. It is more complicated that shakespeare’s works translated in German. On the other hand Daphne Koller’s course on coursera is much much better and a gentler introduction.

    To summarize, I would think of these classes a gentle introduction to topics that one might wish to learn. Of course if you desire to develop expertise in an area, your best bet is still to do a class or read a good book or two.


  10. ScentOfViolets
    June 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I imagine that the online system works great for a certain set of skill and for a certain set of people. But that’s only true if online education is actually offering everything it’s claiming. Take Code Academy, for example; the last time I checked the javascript classes seem to stop at around lesson eleven or twelve, i.e., somewhere in chapter one in a traditional class.


  11. citizenreno
    July 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    not interactive, but iTunes U has lots of recorded college courses.


  1. June 28, 2012 at 1:10 pm
  2. June 29, 2012 at 1:18 pm
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