- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Is Free University the Future?

Too busy to watch the whole thing? Read the transcript here [1] (PDF).

Above is an interview I recorded with Jonathan Haber. Jonathan independently came up with his own goal to learn a degree in one year [2] (he only found out about the MIT Challenge [3] after he started blogging about his quest).

The two main differences is that Jonathan is studying philosophy, rather than computer science, and that he’s using mostly [4] MOOCs [5], as opposed to MIT’s OCW [6] which I used.

The Evolution of Education

Jonathan’s project shows just how fast education technology is changing. When I was preparing for the MIT Challenge, I knew of only one open course that offered anything close to objective assessment. Instead, I was forced to self-grade and post the results online, hoping I wasn’t too far from the mark. In the two years since, there are now hundreds of MOOCs, many of which will give you a grade and certificate from an institution like Harvard or MIT.

Critics of the online education revolution point out its many flaws. But those criticisms are aimed at a moving target. Seeing how much more sophisticated these platforms have become, even in the last two years, is reason to hope that the changes to higher ed won’t be reserved for an intellectually-motivated minority.

A Tale of Two Courses

One of the first classes I completed as part of the MIT Challenge was 8.02 [7], MIT’s introductory class to electromagnetism. I covered the material over eight days and wrote then wrote the final exam. Despite being an intro class, it was probably one of the harder ones I took during the entire year.

Fast-forward to 2013, and I see that the same class is now being offered as a MOOC, 8.02x [8]. The improvement in learning experience was dramatic: mid-lecture quizzes to test your understanding, graded assignments, forums, teacher assistance and even interactive simulations to build intuition.

I took the class again over a four month period. Although four months is snail-paced compared to my first attempt, I thought the improved learning experience made up for the inflexibility of the schedule. In the end, I’d say the two classes were comparable, although the MOOC version was a tad easier because the exams were open-book and lacked strict time constraints.

Future Obstacles to Overcome

One obstacle MOOCs will have to overcome if they will eventually compete with higher ed is that the rigor of courses varies unexpectedly. My self-study attack at 8.02 may have differed considerably from an MIT student, but at least the exams were the same. The MOOC version, 8.02x, was comparable, but I couldn’t say the same for many MOOC versions of popular university classes.

It would be nice to see a distinction between courses which attempt to emulate the rigor of a university course, and those intended to give access to a wider audience. My MIT Challenge was too informal to be able to reasonably assert its equivalency to a degree, but I hope that in the future that’s not a sacrifice autodidacts will have to make.

The Degree of Freedom

Jonathan is attempting to complete his philosophy education for free [2]. With the pace that education technology has improved over the last few years, I’m hopeful that his story will become a common one very soon.