While there has overall been an enormous surge in the number of students who are pursuing degree programs and coursework online, in recent years there has been an increased focus, perhaps spurred on by the economic crisis, on providing high quality online courses free of charge. While these courses often can't be used toward a degree, they do provide students all over the world with the opportunity to learn, grow, and potentially even prepare themselves for the working world. Surprisingly, some of the schools getting in on the popularity of free online courses (and in some cases even pioneering the practice) are among the best schools in the U.S., if not the world. Here are just a handful of the great schools that are now offering, and encouraging others to offer, free online courses that anyone can use.
Harvard launched a much publicized collaborative program with MIT in 2012 called edX, offering online university-level courses in a wide range of fields for no charge. The non-profit project has attracted a lot of attention and in its first semester more than 100,000 students signed up for free online versions of its computer science and public health courses. Harvard Law has also gotten in on the free online course game, and just this year announced that it will be offering a free course on copyright law to 500 lucky students, complete with certificates of completion.
When you think of free online courses, the first name that comes to mind is probably MIT. MIT was one of the first to offer free online course content through its Open Courseware project, and in its collaboration with Harvard via edX will likely offer much more in-depth material in the form of MOOCs. Currently, MIT professors are offering four courses students can take through edX, covering topics like global poverty, chemistry, electronics, and computer science. edX was an outgrowth of MITx, a similar project that offered courses through just MIT. While similar, edX covers a much broader spectrum, allowing students to take courses from not only MIT and Harvard but also UC Berkeley, Georgetown, Wellesley, and the University of Texas.
MOOC was perhaps the biggest buzzword in online education in the past year, and innovators at this school are largely to thank for that. Stanford academics were behind two of the biggest names in MOOCs today: Coursera and Udacity. Coursera, now a collaborative effort between Stanford and more than 30 other top universities, offers courses in a wide range of topics. At present students cannot get college credit for the courses, but can get certification that they've completed them, which could help in looking for work. Coursera was founded by Stanford academics Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, who've been awed by the support it has received so far. Another big name coming from the school has been Udacity, an outgrowth of a free computer course offered at Stanford in 2011 by professor Sebastian Thrun. Launched in 2012, the MOOC provider has since helped thousands of students learn about tech-centered topics from AI to web development.
Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative has been in operation for over a decade, offering free course materials that any student or teacher can use. Currently, there are 17 free courses offered through OLI, but more are planned for the future. OLI resources aren't just used by individuals; many colleges have also been integrating the features offered by Carnegie Mellon into their own hybrid courses, capitalizing on data-driven programs that track and push students not to just memorize material but to truly learn it. The results look promising, with in-house and exterior studies showing that students using the OLI model perform better than those who take traditional courses.
The University of Pennsylvania is one of dozens of schools to offer courses through the MOOC platform Coursera. The school isn't just offering courses through Coursera, however; it has also pledged millions in investments into the company, which may just give it a firm foundation for success in the future. Administrators at the school said that the school felt compelled to take part in the online program because it was a chance to play a role in shaping the future of online educational technology. Currently, Penn is offering three different courses through Coursera, but there are numerous others planned, some of which may even count for course credit at certain schools around the globe.
Columbia is no stranger to free online education; it created its own online education portal in 2000 called Fathom, that, while earning some major collaborators (the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press to name a few), never took off, folding in 2003. Despite this previous failure, as well as other early initiatives that didn't pan out (Columbia Interactive is another now defunct experiment in online education), the school didn't hesitate to join Coursera when the chance arose and pledged to begin offering online courses through the site in early 2013. Currently, the school has three courses listed on the Coursera site, ranging in topic from financial engineering to natural language processing.
Johns Hopkins has been offering open courseware through its Bloomberg School of Public Health for nearly a decade, but in just the past year has taken a major leap, now offering not only course materials but also lectures and evaluation through Coursera. While the content still focuses on public health topics, students can get a much more in-depth introduction to the courses regularly offered at Johns Hopkins, a leap that may just help many aspiring healthcare professionals become much more knowledgeable about serious public health concerns.
Another big-name school getting in on Coursera is the University of Michigan. In February of 2012, the University of Michigan offered its first free online course through the site. Called "Model Thinking" and focused on political science and economics, the course reached an impressive 50,000 students. Since then, the school has expanded its online offerings, now giving students the chance to participate in seven different courses from a wide range of departments on campus. Students can still take the "Model Thinking" course as well as those on Internet history, finance, science fiction, and computer vision.
Along with Stanford, Michigan, and Penn, Princeton was one of the first big-name schools to sign on to work with Coursera. In September, the school delved into the world of free online education with three courses: "A History of the World Since 1300," "Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes," and "Computer Architecture." Since then, Princeton has added four more courses that will take place in the Spring semester, as well as two more that have yet to be announced. Some of the professors participating have said that Coursera has not only allowed them to reach more students but to improve the educational outcomes of students on campus, as the flipped classroom model allows for more time to discuss topics and meet with guest speakers in class.
It makes sense that a school dedicated to the study of technology would wholeheartedly embrace online education, and that's just what Caltech is doing. The school has partnered with Coursera to offer a number of different courses. Last year, Caltech's Henry Lester taught a course on drugs and the brain and this semester students can sign up to learn about cosmology and economics. Before signing on with Coursera, Caltech offered a free "Machine Learning" course through its own website. With loads of students enrolled, it was an incredible success, which may have been a big part of the school's willingness to get on board with Coursera and experiment further with online education.
These are only a handful of the top universities that are endorsing free online courses. Others include Oxford, Brown, Emory, University of Virginia, Duke, John Hopkins, Berkeley, Rice, and Wesleyan, and the list is likely to grow further over the next year as MOOCs and other online courses become increasingly popular.
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Cheating is perhaps as old as education, and while students were once limited to the information they could scribble on their hands, online students now have the entire Internet at their disposal. Still, cheating in online courses is only slightly higher than live classes, with 32.7% of online students admitting to cheating and 32.1% of students in live classes admitting the same. But it's been more difficult to catch online students in the act: 4.9% of students in live classes are caught cheating, while less than half of that, 2.1% of online students, get busted.
Schools aren't letting these statistics get them down, though. They're fighting back with new technology and different approaches that not only make cheating more difficult, but make it easier to sniff out dishonest students. There will, of course, always be ways for students to cheat, but if you're up against these new tricks, you're likely to get busted.