The Ivory Tower Goes Global and Virtual

It is no news that higher education has moved beyond the classroom and into the virtual with the advent of elearning. Renowned American institutions, however, are taking it further by offering online courses, free of charge, to anyone who is interested. A recent New York Times article, An Open Mind, highlights how universities and entrepreneurs alike are broadcasting courses online for free to everyone from independent learners in Ghana, curious housewives in rural Maine to former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

A decade ago, M.I.T first allowed outsiders to (virtually) step inside its vaulted halls fraught with the latest information in science and technology via their OpenCourseWare Initiative. Since universities have begun offering online lectures, educational pundits have heralded the start of the “open educational resources” movement: a shift inside the universities that has them sharing lectures, podcasts and syllabi, reading lists and downloadable textbooks with non-matriculated students online.

“Everyone is in one way or another doing O.E.R. today,” says Roger C. Schonfeld, a research manager at Ithaka S+R—a nonprofit company that aids universities in the implementation of technology.  Besides M.I.T., universities like Yale and Carnegie Mellon (amongst others) have been working to open up their intellectual resources to the masses via the Internet.

While most online courses offer you all the academics, most free courses do not offer grades—not to mention academic credit or a degree. Unlike online colleges where students pay tuition to take classes towards an accredited degree, these open courses offer no such formal credit.

This, however, may change as education innovators look to maximize and spread the wealth of knowledge and opportunity on the web. Neeru Paharia, presently pursuing her doctorate at Harvard Business School, recently formed Peer 2 Peer University: a tuition-free, experiment that aims to bring online offerings together so students can showcase their independent learning initiatives. P2PU does not “offer” courses; rather, it “runs” them. As it stands, six courses exist that range from music theory to cyberpunk literature. P2PU has a Creative Commons license which allows for greater freedom than a traditional copyright.

The new startup has a few hundred people currently enrolled. Ms. Paharia says, “we live in a new society. People are mobile. We have the Internet. We don’t necessarily need to work within the confines of what defines a traditional education.” David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, advises P2PU. Despite his entrenchment in conventional academia, Wiley often remarks about the “disaggregation of higher education,” as in the breaking apart of university functions, traditions and historical operations.

Ms. Paharia’s sounds most radical when she discusses degrees. She admits that degrees “signal” to employers that an individual has passed a certain bar, has achieved a certain amount. Paharia, however, doesn’t believe a pretty piece of paper—signifying the completion of mandated courses—is necessary to prove one’s skills and worth. P2PU aspires to create alternative signals that still demonstrate to employer’s an individuals accrued skills. She suggests an online portfolio (cataloguing all online courses taken) or a written report assessing the individual’s skills, strengths and personality.

Ms. Paharia is not alone in championing new educational pathways. Shai Reshef, an online business man, has poured over $1 million of his own money into the University of the People. His enterprise pools open courses from various universities thereby placing an abundance of educational resources back into student hands. Students interact online to direct their collective learning. Together they question, analyze and even grade each other’s papers.

Unlike P2PU, University of the People focuses on business and computer science courses which emphasize employable skills. Reshef would eventually like to gain accreditation and offer degrees. The nonprofit raises funds through micro-philanthropy; $80 can sponsor an entire semester at UoPeople. Reshef comments that people tell him, ‘It’s you or nothing’ as in UoPeople is the alternative to no education at all. Considering this, Paharia, Reshef and others’ innovations could lead to an elearning revolution: one which allows indigent students, in remote parts of the world, access to some of the finest instruction by academic luminaries. That alone is a big deal.

For those who can afford accredited online colleges—but remain skeptical—free offerings provide a safe, gateway into what could be a future commitment to higher education and/or an online degree. Many current, degree-seeking elearners started out as free auditors. At the Open University in England, 6,000 enrolled elearners started out in a free course. So if an online degree has been on your mind—why not give it a try? Whatever your experience, you can only gain from it. And what’s better than learning from academic superstars without having to wake up for lecture? Not much at all.

eCollegeFinder.org helps you find degrees from accredited online colleges to start a new

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