Saturday, September 19, 2009

College by Computer

I’m in Paris at the moment. You might wonder why I’m blogging while on holiday, but holidays are not the same for Husband and me as for most other folks. We spend our ‘real’ lives talking and thinking and explaining, so when we go away, we want to do none of those things. So here we are, in the most visited tourist spot in the world (Honest!), and we are doing nothing.

Actually, that’s not true. In the 24 hours we have been here, we did visit a supermarket to buy copious amounts of cheese and wine, and we have watched more pointless TV than either of us has seen in the last month combined. And now Husband is sleeping while I listen to my iPod and read trashy gossip rags.

On our way here we bought a stack of magazines from the airport, and, once I had finished OK, Hello, and InStyle, I was forced to move on to Husband’s reading material, which included decidedly more highbrow fodder. I reluctantly flipped open Popular Science and was slightly horrified to find that there was stuff in there that was... you know… interesting.

Despite my holiday resolution to be an intellectual slacker, I was drawn to one article in particular about online education (It’s in the September 2008 issue, pages 54-59, should you be so inclined to read it yourself). I was interested for two reasons: first, there was nothing else to read, and second, I myself have been an online instructor for various universities for the past four years, so I had a frame of reference.

The article was explaining how the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has made a unique move by creating a free online catalogue of almost all of their course lectures whereby the non-MIT worthy (they only accept 12% of applicants, so don’t feel bad) can view real lectures by real geniuses for their own personal edification.

This got me thinking about the educational opportunities available to expatriates in Norway (and anywhere else really). Last week I had a new expat couple in my office asking about master’s programs in English. The trouble is, outside of Oslo, there are not that many. I felt bad sending them away with only a few options that I gathered seemed less than interesting to them.

So what’s a knowledge hungry expat to do?

Go to school from your laptop, that’s what.

I personally have taken a few classes from American universities to brush up on a lackluster skill set, and I can highly recommend it. But there’s a cost for most courses as for-profit schools have until very recently dominated the market. After reading the Popular Science article, I decided to do some digging for some free options. You won’t get credit, but you also won’t have to write a check.

If you’re looking to learn for learning’s sake (or you’re just bored and need some academic stimulation without the hassle of exams), check out some of the sites below. I’ve listed them from most general to most specialized. The first three are especially good as you can access lectures in every subject under the sun from every university, Ivy League to local community college.

YouTube EDU
iTunes U.
Academic Earth
Big Think
MIT Open Course Ware
Google Code University


  1. Your trip to Paris sounds like bliss - magazines, iPod, TV and wine. What else would you need? I have done an online PG Dip in Journalism based in London while living in Norway as there were no local options in English. Online courses certainly do offer opportunities to expats who might otherwise get frustrated at not being able to further careers through study. Now must go look into those Ivy League course ;-)

  2. I did in fact know that Paris is the most visited, I even know what is the second most visited--London...but do you know the third? (as measured by hotel beds....)Too bad you'll be gone for the next pub quiz night or you would know, too...

    But also, on topic, per our earlier discussions, do you think that these courses (and I confess I haven't clicked through to them all), especially those from the Ivy League ones cheapen at all the degrees of people who worked to get into the real classes?

    (and yes, I know that it's a giant and multilayered question...)

    For example, while I guess you could argue that part of the value is the classroom stimulation from fellow students and interaction from teachers, etc....(which is also a comment on online teaching I suppose....) I still think that while it may be philanthropic, etc... to give away the knowledge for free, it may not be a big service to the students who pay for it....

    Anyway, I am convoluted, but still...

  3. NorwayNomad, that's awesome you were able to continue your studies while abroad! It wasn't that easy to do even a decade ago, so we've come a long way, baby!

    ECD, I think the (short) answer is this: knowledge is free as it has no price. An Ivy Leage degree, however, does have one. I think access to the lectures offers others the chance to expand their horizons, be exposed to new ideas, and possibly recognize talents and interests they never knew they had.

    However, the prestige that is attached to a summative award from an Ivy League is still limited to the select few based on admissions standards (and likely tuition rates as well). So while I think that there is no harm and actually great benefit in allowing others to be exposed to the teachings, there are no degrees being offered, so the pool of Ivy League graduates is not being distilled and thus the value of the degree preserved.

    As for the online teaching environment, while you do not have the benefit of face-to-face communication, in some ways it forces students out of their shells more as there is no hiding in a lecture theater - each student must contribute to the discussion on an individual basis. I would go so far as to say the interaction between students is actually greater in an online environment. As for interaction from the teacher, all I can offer is my own experience. I know the writing style and skills and names and knowledge level of every student I teach online (and we're talking about 100 students this term alone) as I spend hours each day reading their work and getting to 'know' them online. I can't say I know the face-to-face students I teach on the same level as we are engaged in a more generic interaction in the live classroom.