Online classes are becoming more popular than ever. Although correspondence classes have existed for years, developments in technology have helped make online colleges a popular choice for people from all walks of life. Unfortunately, most online universities are private colleges, which means they tend to be quite expensive. Although financial aid is available, the cost of online college is prohibitive for many students.
All of that is beginning to change with Udacity, the first free online university. Other sites are already following in Udacity’s footsteps, and it’s possible that education may become even more democratized as time goes on. Although free course materials have been available online for years from different colleges, Udacity offers more. After completing the program offered by Udacity, students receive a certification and are connected with employers who will accept this certification.
How Udacity Got Its Start
Udacity was founded by Sebastian Thrun, a professor of Stanford and inventor of Google’s self-driving car. After retiring from Stanford, Thrun decided to start Udacity as a way to continue teaching people from around the world. He uploaded all of his class materials onto the site, including lectures, assigned reading, quizzes and tests. In addition to his courses, other Stanford professors donated their work to Udacity as well.
Due to the origin of the program, Udacity courses are primarily technical in nature. They’re also project-based, with students able to see different projects through to completion by the end of the course. For example, one course allows students to build a search engine from scratch. These practical computer skills provide ample experience for students to enter various technical careers after completing the program.
Online courses like this have many benefits, but there are certainly a few drawbacks. Although the premade lecture material and computer-graded tests make it possible for thousands of people to take courses at their leisure, it does make it more difficult for students to get assistance if they need it. There is a forum on Udacity’s website where students can discuss their work and get help, but some people may not find the forum setting to be sufficient for assistance.
Other Universities Following Suit
After Udacity, several other universities have begun to offer similar programs with wider scopes. A large start-up, Coursera, combines materials from Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania. Unlike Udacity’s narrow focus, Coursera offers a wide variety of courses in various different subjects.
Both Udacity and Coursera are for-profit businesses funded by private investors. Though the courses are free, they get money from affiliating with prospective employers and recruiters. A new program, edX, is a non-profit founded by Harvard and MIT. Most interestingly, the universities are offering their software for free as an open-source program for any other university that wishes to follow suit.
Benefits of Online Colleges
In some ways, online education is an extremely economical idea. By delivering lectures over video or audio, a professor can teach a subject to thousands or even millions of people rather than being constrained by the limitations of a classroom. This also requires much less work than other types of online colleges that require more hands-on interaction from professors.
Online education has always been self-guided, but free colleges require even more self-control. Simply speaking, students will get out what they put in. Some very dedicated students are able to get amazing results from the free program.
Perhaps the best part about free online college classes is that they can be taken by anyone with an interest in the subject. Education has traditionally been limited for non-traditional students, low-income families and minorities. With no entrance requirements to work through, anyone can learn the skills offered by these programs.
What’s the Future of Free Online Education?
As technology improves, these programs may become even more sophisticated than they are currently. Although many universities are beginning to get on board with offering online classes, there are currently no free online degree programs. If you want to get actual college credit for your classes or earn a degree, you will need to enroll in a university. This is the primary drawback of these free programs as opposed to costlier online colleges.
Although students cannot get a degree program from these schools, they can learn a lot about subjects and gain practical knowledge about how to do certain things. For some careers, this type of practical understanding and certification may be sufficient. As this type of democratized learning gains in popularity, more employers may be willing to accept course work completed at a free online college.