Jesse Brown: How to get a university education without paying tuition—or changing out of your PJs

Jesse Brown: How to get a university education without paying tuition—or changing out of your PJs

The proliferation of online courses means anyone can get a world-class education for free. It’s all about upending the fusty old lecture hall model, and it’s about time

I’m studying sociology at Prince­ton in my spare time. I’m also taking game theory at Stanford, computer programming at the University of Toronto and equine nutrition at the University of Edinburgh. I attend class in my underwear, watch cartoons during lectures and cheat on tests with help from some of my hundreds of thousands of classmates. The classes I’m enrolled in are called MOOCs—Massive Open Online Courses, available for free to knowledge-hungry students of life like myself through the educational website Coursera.

MOOCs are a global phenomenon with Canadian roots. The term was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier, a web communications manager at the University of P.E.I., to describe an Internet-based course designed by professor George Siemens of Athabasca University in Alberta and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council. Twenty-five University of Manitoba students signed up for a course on connectivist theory and were joined by 2,300 virtual students from the general public, who participated free of charge via the web.

The MOOC concept stalled until 2011, when Stanford offered three open online courses and received a staggering 350,000 registrants from 190 countries. A couple of the Stanford profs involved with the experiment were encouraged enough to drop everything and launch Coursera, a self-described “social entrepreneurship company.” And there have been other launches, notably Udacity and EdX, a joint venture of MIT and Harvard. In a matter of months, MOOCs attracted millions of students from around the world and millions of dollars in venture capital. Coursera alone has enrolled 2.6 million students and secured $16 million in investment. But according to evangelists, MOOCs are not about money—they’re about revolutionizing post-secondary education.

Last July, U of  T signed up as a Coursera partner. Students can’t earn course credits for taking the classes, nor do they pay any fees. And no money changes hands between Coursera and U of T—at least not yet. If profits emerge in the future—through nominal tuition fees or by selling their database—Coursera says the money will be shared with partner universities.

My computer programming class, one of seven MOOCs offered by U of  T, attracted more than 100,000 registrants. Yes, I’m participating for the purpose of writing this article, but I’m also hoping to learn something about programming. Without reading the honour code—which I assume says something about promising not to cheat—I click a button swearing to uphold it, and class begins.

I half-expect a bunch of videotaped lectures. I’m half-right. While the course is taught via a series of short videos—starring my teachers, senior computer science lecturers Jennifer Campbell and Paul Gries—the videos weren’t created by pointing a Handycam at a lectern. They were designed specifically for the web, and the production values are pretty good. When the teachers code, I watch them code. Difficult concepts are rendered simple through live-drawn illustrations. When the class gets ahead of me, I pause the video, or play it again from the start. When I grasp the point of the lesson, I hit 1.5X to speed things up. I rarely grasp it.

My homework consists of multiple-choice and short-answer exercises, coding assignments and a three-hour final exam. All work is auto-graded, but other MOOCs also use peer assessment to evaluate assignments. I visit the course’s discussion forums to hang out with my fellow students.

So how did I do? Not great. I dropped out. Programming fundamentals started off fun, kind of like a TED talk, but then it turned into actual work, so I gave up. I also dropped out of sociology, game theory and equine nutrition. I’m not alone.

Of all those students who enrolled in the coding class, only 9,000 completed it to earn a “statement of accomplishment.” I learn this upon visiting Jennifer Campbell in her office at U of T’s Bahen Centre for Information Technology on St. George. I’m a little star-struck by the nice-looking teacher I’ve been spending so much time with at home, and I resist the urge to blurt out, “Hey, I know you from the Internet!”

Campbell is disheartened by her MOOC’s completion rate. When she taught the same course in a real classroom last fall, 85 per cent of students saw it through. Of course, those students needed to pass. I didn’t, though I still got something out of it.

I ask Campbell what the experience was like for her. “Fun,” she says. “But I missed the face time with students.” Participating in online discussions with thousands is no replacement for the one-on-one chats she has with students during her office hours.

And yet the advantages of MOOCs are undeniable. They drive the cost of a world-class education down to nothing. They make knowledge accessible to all. They let you pace your learning—and emerging companies are developing technology that will enable MOOCs to learn how you learn in order to adapt to different styles. Open captioning allows anyone to translate a MOOC, so you can take courses taught in different languages. All of this explains why they’re popular, but there is a legitimacy problem. To become a viable alternative, MOOCs will have to grant course credits, which would improve the dismal completion rates and allow committed students to distinguish themselves from dabblers.

The obstacles to this are many. MOOCs need a reliable identity verification system to prevent cheating. They need richer assessment of oral and written work that goes beyond machine-graded multiple choice and peer assessment. Most of all, they need to offer meaningful interaction and discussion with scholars.

A couple of daring schools (Georgia State and San Jose State) are planning to provide these services in the months ahead, charging and sharing tuition fees with MOOC sites and providing bona fide, transferable credits to students.

It’s a horrifying idea to education traditionalists, the reduction of our institutions of higher learning to mere support systems for “classroom in a box” websites. But perhaps it’s time to shed romantic notions of ivory tower symposiums. Toronto’s undergrad students are crammed into vast auditoriums by the hundreds—Psych 101 at U of T maxes out at 1,500 students per lecture. The days when U of T luminaries like Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan taught intimate classes of 19-year-olds are well behind us.

It won’t be long before our universities shift their big introductory courses online. Tuition needn’t change, and few students will complain—most will prefer it. But that’s just the opinion of one equine nutrition dropout.