Take College Classes for Free

Take College Classes for Free

An online learning program is bringing together top educators from prestigious universities to teach courses, most of them free of charge, expanding higher-learning opportunities at a price that can’t be beat.

Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.

Udemy, a marketplace for online learning, last week announced professors from venerable institutions like Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Vassar, Duke, Northwest, the University of Virginia and others will participate in The Faculty Project, which provides the ability to receive college-level learning on a variety of subjects at no cost to people all over the world.

The project is creating courses now and upload them throughout the spring semester of 2012.

“There’s a need for a large body of free online courseware on the most important academic subjects in the world,” said Udemy co-founder and President Gagan Biyani.

All the instructors have won teaching awards at their institutions and their interactive courses will be available to students on an on-demand basis. The courses will include curated videos, presentations, articles, and other materials in addition to a discussion board so students and professors can post comments and questions to the online class.

The recruited academics, often the best experts in their fields, will assemble series of 10-30 minute video lectures for the Udemy platform.

“We couldn’t be more proud of the educators that have agreed to participate in this truly unique endeavor,” said Tim Parks, director of The Faculty Project, of the educators who are participating without pay. “Their knowledge, teaching skills, and passion for their respective subjects are truly exceptional.”

A sampling of the subjects initially on The Faculty Project includes “Introduction to Operations Management” by Gad Allon, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University; “Ancient Greek Religion,” by Robert Garland, Colgate University; and “Building Information Modeling for Sustainable Design” by Stanford University’s Glenn Katz.

“I am looking forward to taking the next step in open digital learning, bringing together the best possibilities of the classroom with the best possibilities of digital resources, and making the latest results available to the greatest number,” said Pamela Crossley, professor of history at Dartmouth College. “The new platform should be a frontier on the integration of text, interactive software, and the insights of individual instructors.”

Udemy’s platform allows anyone to teach, learn and share knowledge, an idea that aims to democratize learning, just as blogging democratized the publishing industry. Privately-owned Udemy is based in San Francisco and is funded by Lightbank, MHS Capital, 500 Startups and other investors responsible for funding projects like YouTube, LinkedIn, Zynga, Twitter and Yelp.

Udemy isn’t the only organization with its eye on opening-up learning opportunities in the digital age. Last month, MIT announced it would begin to expand its free online library of MIT course lectures into a platform for teaching full courses. Many universities put course material online, but MIT hinted it would be looking beyond its own community and may possibly let other schools use the platform.

The trend is also trickling down to younger students as well. Last month, Zach Sims, co-founder of Codecademy, an interactive, online programming education system, secured commitments from more than 20 Silicon Valley tech companies to help with a federal teen jobs program by offering students online coding lessons and agreeing to host meet-ups where the students can learn in person.

The tech industry is taking notice, stepping up to fill the demand with tools to link educators and students, with major implications for learning.

Earlier this month, Apple launched iBooks Author, a free app which allows authors to create digital textbooks, complete with videos and presentations and distribute them through iBooks. The support of tech-titan Apple underscores the interest and viability of digital learning tools in education, and the company’s initiative is setting the stage for projects similar to Udemy’s.

Most often people think about digital tools in helping students learn, but Udemy’s Faculty Project, along with dozens of similar ones popping up around the nation, illustrate the power of these tools to teach — transforming the classroom’s reach and dynamics with high-quality material at a very affordable price.

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