Let’s all go back to school!

The big education news of the day is that Harvard and MIT are teaming up to offer free online courses.

I am a huge consumer of free online courses downloaded from iTunes University.  I have downloaded courses from Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and other places and listened to them on my endless commute.  Some of these now come with reading lists, sample exams, and other materials, none of which I bother with. I’ve taken enough tests. Berkeley in particular provides a treasure trove of courses every semester, like John Searle teaching Philosophy of Mind and Brad DeLong teaching Intro to Economics.

I am not the target audience for edX (the Harvard/MIT venture), or Udacity, or Coursera (the Michigan/Penn/Stanford/Princeton venture).  They apparently want people to sign up, take online exams, write papers that are peer-graded or something, and get a grade, which will lead to some kind of certificate.  This is fine.  A certificate from MITx will never be the same as a degree from MIT, but it will probably be worth more than a degree from Greendale Community College.  As the Times article says:

“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

Likewise, if you wanted to learn about the Civil War, why would you sign up for some local community college overview if you could listen to David Blight’s Open Yale course, which was one of the best educational experiences of my life?

For my own selfish purposes, I hope that you’ll be able to download and audit all these new courses, and that they won’t all be on practical subjects like circuit design and computer programming.  And if that doesn’t happen, I hope Berkeley keeps doing what it’s doing.