The Growth of Distance Learning

Prestigious universities across America and Europe have now opened their doors to everyone who is interested in classes offered through their distance learning programs. Harvard, Princeton and Edinburgh are among those elite colleges offering this education. All their courses are offered free online.

This is a fabulous opportunity for students to attend online classes at top universities. Typically, the cost of an undergraduate program at Harvard, for example, is about $60,000 per year. These online courses are free. Not only are these classes open to people in the United States, any person anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can register and join in.

What’s the catch? There is none. The lessons are from some of the best universities in the world, and they are free.

These distance learning opportunities run under a program titled Massive Open Online Courses, abbreviated as MOOC. This effort was launched about one year ago. It’s purpose is to offer selected courses free to anyone in the world.

For example, Edinburgh University announced last month that it’s offering a course on the search for extraterrestrial life. This is one of a series of courses that Edinburgh will offer beginning in late 2012.

The instructor will be astrophysicist Charles Cockell. It will be offered under the Coursera scheme, which is backed by Stanford and Princeton. The Coursera project is designed to encourage universities to offer high caliber courses to students across the globe.

Edinburgh released a statement saying that this course highlights the university’s strengths. In this case, the extraterrestrial course reflects the university’s outstanding science and engineering schools where the university is a world leader. The extraterrestrial class acts as a niche to fit into that scientific paradigm.

The course is designed to answer this question: Is there life on other planetary bodies? Professor Cockell is the Director for the UK Centre for Astrobiology. He’s also the author of numerous articles and books, including “Response of Organisms to the Martian Environment.”

Edinburgh will offer other courses titled “Artificial Intelligence Planning” and “Equine Nutrition.” Both fall under the MOOC program.

MOOC is an experiment that universities are testing in order to reinvent the higher education model. The goal is to offer people access to higher education from top-of-the-line schools. Students who register for MOOC courses are expected to follow a set regimen.

First, students work through a set of assignments. They will fill these assignments by studying interactive material and videos online. Students are encouraged to develop a pace that’s suitable for themselves. Students will evaluate each other’s work. Those who graduate are awarded a certificate but no credit.

These MOOC courses give universities important research material that can be used to evaluate and improve online study platforms. New ideas can be explored to expand this regimen.

MOOC, along with edX and Coursera, offers students a kind of giant educational supermarket where people hungry for knowledge can go shopping for free. edX offers courses from Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. The Coursera listing includes Toronto, Lausanne, Edinburgh, Princeton, Stanford and other universities.

In a nutshell, the world’s top universities have opened their doors to the world with new distance learning programs. This scheme will answer this question: Will they come?

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