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Friday, 13 September 2013

Free University Courses

I came across the Coursera site after reading that a couple of Australian universities had signed up to offer free courses via their platform. So far DS1 has enrolled in a couple of excellent computer program classes ('Introduction to Systematic Program Design 1', and 'Learn to Program: The Fundamentals') which are excellent, and I enrolled in 'Algorithms, Part 1' which was also very good - but I but dropped out after the first week as I didn't have enough time to do the exercises and assignments for another course while also doing my PhD studies and working full-time ;(

I've enrolled in 'High Performance Scientific Computing' which may be of use for my PhD work (and doesn't start until next year), and DS1 has enrolled in another couple of courses that start soon ('Internet History, Technology and Security' and 'Learn to Program: Crafting Quality Code' and 'Computer Science 101'). The courses are all free (unless you choose to pay a nominal fee for the 'Signature Track' option, which involves extra identity confirmation steps during the assignments and exams [such a using your webcam and typing characteristics to confirm the identity of the person submitting the course work] which gets you an official verified certificate upon completion of the course) and are offered via online video tutorials (about 1-2 hours worth each week), reading materials and exercises. The courses are generally run over 4-12 weeks, although some are also offered in 'self study' mode where you can access the videos etc. at your own pace and submit work for automatic grading, but you don't get an official 'Statement of Accomplishment' that is available upon completion of most of these online courses. Each course requires around 4-12 hours of 'homework' each week, although the amount of time required can easily blow out if you are totally unfamiliar with the subject area and need to carefully work through all the exercises and do additional background reading.

There are literally hundreds of quality courses available in a wide range of subject areas, and the courses have been produced by some top-notch universities around the world. From what I've seen so far, the content and assignments are just as good as you'd get through attending some university courses, although some fields of study are better suited to the on-line delivery method (eg. you can learn computer programming perfectly well through an online course, but studying analytical chemistry would be less satisfactory, due to the lack of practical experience using expensive lab equipment). While such online courses can't provide direct interaction with fellow students and university lecturers (although the online forums provide a good substitute), there are an excellent alternative given the cost (free) and easy accessibility.

Some of the courses are aimed at first year university level, and I've found that these are suitable for a gifted high school student. The introductory computer programming classes are an example, especially those that are entry-level and developed for arts of 'soft' science students (and therefore don't expect much more than an interest in the topic and a background of high school algebra).

These courses are a great example of the educational opportunities provided by the internet, and the quality of content is almost indistinguishable from some of the 'distance education' I did for my Master of Astronomy or Graduate Diplomas in Industrial Mathematics and Computing. Unfortunately, while they are great learning tools, employers (and universities when you apply for admission) are unlikely to regard them as comparable to 'real' university courses - even if you pay the $100 or so for the 'Signature Track' option. Which is a pity considering the quality of these courses and the high cost of university enrolment, even as a distance education student. However, they are still worth doing for personal/professional development purposes, and *may* be helpful to list on your CV in some circumstances (eg. a high school student applying for work experience of college entry).
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