Free & open learning for the future through Online Education

A partial list of science courses available through MIT’s OpenCourseware. The near entirety of MIT’s campus classes is available in downloadable format on their webpage.

Throughout the history of the United States and the world, access to education has been limited, traditionally, to those with the money, time, and credentials to enter. This has always been unfair, but for the longest time it was the best anyone was able to do. However, our generation will be the first to see a world in which anyone with the drive to learn and a bit of time to devote can brush up on university-level subjects. The field of online education is finally reaching its maturity, and the implications of a better educated populace is far-reaching.

The United States has, since the 70’s, suffered from a college graduation rate that has been advancing slower than most would like, and today 34% of 25-29 year olds have a bachelor’s degree. Nelson Mandela said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Thanks to online education, our world is about to change.

Online education is a branch in the field of “distance learning” or “distance education”, in which educators provide courses to students without being in the same location as them. Distance education is a practice as old as education itself. In 1728 citizens of Boston could pay for courses sent to them by mail. In 1922 Penn State offered courses over the radio. In 1965, the University of Wisconsin began offering courses over the telephone. By 1992, one could get a Ph.D. on the internet though the Electronic University Network using AOL. Since the birth of the internet, online education has become the premier vehicle for distance learning. Before the internet and computers, this took so long it was hardly feasible compared to traditional campus life. Nowadays, online education is often more efficient than traditional education.

New technology is often met with a level of resistance. Online education has challenged ideas about the importance of physical campuses. Through the years, people have insinuated that online education doesn’t truly work and people who graduate with degrees online cannot be considered as educated as a traditional campus student, and it is true that the on-hand professor is something online education can never truly have. However, most empirical data, such as a meta-analysis done by the Department of Education shows that most online students leave their courses as knowledgeable as campus students.

In 2001 the Michigan Institute of Technology launched the Open CourseWare program. One of the early forms of online education, MIT’s goal was simple and demonstrated the institutions value of spreading knowledge. Dr. K.P. Yue stated that the goal was “to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.” Today, curious, knowledge-hungry people can jump onto MIT’s database of course materials and effectively download a college course. Despite this massive step in advancing knowledge to those who were not long ago denied it, it should be noted that while you can learn an awful lot from MIT’s database, credits and degrees are only won with cold, hard cash.

Sadly more than once, online learning programs have misled people in such a way that people have been hurt financially. In 2004, Donald Trump bet his money on the online education field and launched Trump University. It was noted by the state of New York that Trump University was not actually a university, but really a series of seminars in which salesmen advised “students” to purchase a more expensive Trump University course. Trump is now embroiled in a series of legal cases. Students point to how Trump University misled them about the nature of the course. Because of the nature of the online education platform, it was easy for students to become misled about the actual content of Trump’s “courses”.

We live in a future in which people can earn a real degree in their free time through an accredited online college course, and this is such a valuable step in accessibility to extend education to working adults that it can be thought as nothing less than a net positive. In 2014, 98% of universities offer some sort of online education, demonstrating an incredible consensus among the education community as to its importance. It is the mark of a truly great society that extends education to all.

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