What’s a Free College Class Really Worth?


When people ask if my Degree of Freedom project actually involved taking dozens of free college courses, my answer usually hinges on what they mean by a “college course.”

If you think of a college course as a unit of currency, for instance, one of 30 or so educational “payments” made towards a diploma from an established college or university, then I suppose none of the 30+ courses I completed last year would qualify.

But that’s because I didn’t make the effort to jump through the hoops necessary to turn some of my free college-level learning experience into formal credit, hoops which would likely involve the credit-by-exam or credit recommendation services I’ve written about before (a subject I’ll return to in more detail over the next few weeks). And, as this student demonstrated, someone enrolled in an institution open to giving credit for outside educational experiences has options today that allow him or her to earn a four-year degree while paying for fewer than eight semesters.

The thing is, while I hear a lot of complaints about the high cost of higher education (which last year included disappointment that programs like massive open online courses – MOOCs – weren’t immediately credit bearing) it turns out that even when colleges and MOOC providers made it easy for students to substitute a free (or nearly free) MOOC for a more expensive residential class, students showed no interest in such offers.

This indicates that the whole debate over formal credit for MOOCs (and other free learning alternatives) might be getting in the way of understanding other sorts of educational value that can be derived from tapping into these new educational resources.

Think, for instance, of Battushig Myanganbayar – the Boy Genius of Ulan Bator in Mongolia – who anchored his successful application to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the perfect score he earned (at age 15) on a highly challenging MIT MOOC on Circuits and Electronics.  And while every college applicant might not have such a remarkable a story to tell, I know of at least one other student who dropped the fact that he took a MOOC taught by the President of a university on his successful application to that school.

Even if such tactical uses for free learning can’t guarantee a slot at a particular college, voluntarily taking free college-level courses before going to college certainly demonstrates a level of wherewithal not shown by many high-schoolers.  And given that many schools produce these free courses to let students (and their parents) get a taste of what a college has to offer, participating in such courses is likely to provide at least as much information as a campus tour regarding what students might be in for as they decide which schools they want to apply to or attend.

Having just mentioned parents, I’ve also heard stories of adults (who make up the majority of most MOOC class enrollments, by the way) who have taken courses in order to keep up with what their kids are studying (giving everyone something to talk about during school vacations or laundry visits).  And for students interested in getting the most out of their years enrolled in a traditional college or university, MOOCs and other free learning experiences provide the means for students to study subjects “on the side” (or after graduation) that might not fit into a course schedule over-stuffed with major or pre-graduate school requirements.

Speaking of “after graduation,” what about those of us who already have a degree from a traditional college or university who want a second bite at the undergraduate apple?  I happen to have had had a terrific time when I attended college back in the 1980s and have no regrets that I majored in a field (chemistry) that I didn’t end up working in directly.  In fact, when my interest turned to another discipline (philosophy) later in life, my original college experience (which, among other things, taught me how to learn), combined with new, free, high-quality online learning resources (such as MOOCs) meant that my second undergraduate “degree” cost me nothing but time and commitment.

And what kind of time and commitment is required to succeed in these free learning environments?  Tune in next Monday to find out.

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