Tonawanda News

September 30, 2012

DELUCA: The freedom to learn

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I got an email the other day from my oldest son. 

I always enjoy getting emails from my sons but this one was particularly interesting to me. 

“This is one of the coolest things I think I have ever seen,” he wrote. “It made me think of you for some reason.”

I was honored that he thought of me. There is nothing more soulfully satisfying than to have someone you love really understand what sets your imagination into overdrive. 

The link was for a website offering free college classes from some of the top schools in the world, including several of the Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Princeton.

It’s a site called Coursera.org and I think it is the most remarkable opportunity for anyone who has ever wanted to go back to take college classes but doesn’t have the cash. There are two other such programs online, where anyone from around the world can enroll for free in college classes from major universities. These offerings are a revelation for me.

I am actually one of those people who wants to go back to school — just to learn new things. Even though I have a college degree, I’d love to take a class at Harvard or Yale. Having the chance to learn from some of the top teachers in the world would be amazing. And now I can. From Princeton to John Hopkins to the University of New Dehli, anyone can sign up and take legitimate classes in a wide range of topics from world music to statistics to the fundamentals of computer programming.

The concept began this year, right around springtime, when a couple of students from Stanford decided they wanted to make the best educations in the world available to anyone who wished to learn. About this same time, two other similar programs were launched, one called Udacity and the other called edX from MIT and Harvard.

They’re called “Massive Online Open Courses,” or MOOCs for short, and the reason for the name is that if you enroll, you may have hundreds of thousands of classmates from all over the world.

From what I read online, including student reviews, the classes are not easy, but they’re designed to be engaging and there are quizzes repeatedly to make sure everyone is keeping up. 

Nobody knows if there’s money to be made here. Some schools may be offering a certificate of completion for each class for a fee, and some are cautious to say that you won’t be able to get a full degree for free online. But when I emailed a representative from Coursera she told me this: “The aim of Coursera is to bring education to the world, regardless of factors such as socioeconomic status or geographic location. By providing free access to world-class professors, we’re creating opportunities for people who may never have had access to higher education to learn alongside students at some of the top institutions in the world.”

The Coursera platform is also being used by universities to enhance learning on campus.

But, the bottom line is this concept is world changing. People everywhere can choose to learn. And all the top schools are signing on.

Students won’t be able to get a degree that way. But, imagine how proud you’d be, or I’d be, if we were able to complete a tough class given by a Harvard professor.

And think about how good that completed class is going to look on your resume. 

My sons are both saddled with thousands in college debt. And I think every dollar was well spent. As my mom always said, education is never wasted.

But college education is getting more prohibitive each year. Like health care, the cost of an advanced degree keeps rising. But in one fell swoop the Internet has leveled the playing field. 

So, my son made my day when he sent me that email. He’s has signed up for a class at Princeton. I’m going to wait until the classes take a more creative bent. I’m thinking playwriting or poetry — areas I’ve really yet to really explore academically. 

But what I find most thrilling is the idea of hundreds of thousands of people discovering just what they are capable of, all across the world. Yes, I know, some of our best schools have trained dictators and strong men who go back to their countries and create war and suffering. 

But we all know those are the potential imperfections in what could be an extraordinary weaving of brain power across the planet. The smarter people get, they sooner they discover reason, and compassion, understanding and hope. 

And everyone knows these are the only traits that will make the world a better place.

Contact Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext 2263.