National Edition

With so many free and cheap online courses now available, anyone can go back to school

Published: Saturday, Aug. 30 2014 12:55 p.m. MDT

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, make it possible for many people to go to school who previously thought they didn't have the time or money to.

Ableimages, Getty Images

For Charlotte Masson, learning is a way of life, but once she had finished her master’s degree, going back to school for a third time wasn’t an option.

“If I could be a professional student, I would be,” Masson, a 34-year-old guidance counselor at Westwood High School in Palestine, Texas, said. “But I’m at a place where I’ve spent more money on my education than I can handle. I guess it’s time to surrender to adulthood. I’ll probably go back later, though.”

Masson calls school an addiction, saying that she spends most of her time reading or thinking about philosophy, scientific research and literature. Her current drug of choice: free online courses.

More commonly known as MOOCs or massive open online courses, free online courses took root in 2008 amid the Great Recession as a means to provide education to those who couldn’t afford it. The appeal of MOOCs is that many of them are provided by top universities like Stanford and MIT, and taught by some of the best professors in the English-speaking world.

“Initially we saw a huge demand for classes geared to those who needed job security or those who needed something to set them apart in the job market after being laid off,” said Simon Nelson, a member of Stanford’s online education board. “But the main problem was that no one could afford the degrees and training they desperately needed.”

When MIT implemented over 100 free online courses, it considered the traditional purpose of education.

“Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost our vision of education,” said Tom Bronson, MIT online programs committee member. “Universities were created to establish an educated society. There is strength and stability that comes with a citizenship that can think outside the box. We’re looking to create and sustain an educated society.”

Not all universities are excited about free MOOCs, some claiming they are a disruptive innovation with potential to erode higher education. Harvard business school, for example, continues to resist offering free courses online.

Harvard’s concern is that the free and open classes undermine both the prestige of the university and the very foundation of higher education. The thinking goes that if a university feeds too many resources into providing free education, it’ll both decay the efficacy of the program and its strength found in its selectivity.

Second-tier universities are under pressure to add MOOCs as a means of staying afloat in the new education market. Many are afraid that online courses will take jobs away from professors and sterilize university effectiveness.

The leisurely learner

Free online education spans from major universities’ programs to independent education videos uploaded to YouTube. It can be tailored to meet the needs of a career change and the wants of those learning for leisure.

“I’ve felt that I’ve learned as much from people on YouTube as I have from the best professors at the best universities,” Masson said. “They aren’t kidding when they say we live in the information age. If you have access to the Internet, you have access to everything you could possibly be interested in.

“Watching lectures and educational YouTube videos is what I do when I have a day to myself,” Masson said. “I grab some tea, my laptop and settle in.”

For those who have finished school but don’t want to move on from the world of ideas and discoveries that was their college experience, there are seemingly endless resources.

YouTube, the resource for everything from cat videos to how to build your own house tutorials, is ripe with educational channels.

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