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2011 November 28

Free online education

I recently saw the post 12 Dozen Places To Educate Yourself Online For Free, and was wondering how many of the sites listed there I had heard of, and whether any of them were of any use in our current home-schooling adventure.  (By my count there are more than 144 sites listed, but I don’t mind their title underestimating what they provide.)

Of the 21 “Science and Health” sites, I had previously visited only 4 (MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy, Wolfram Demonstrations Project, and Scitable), none of which had ended up being useful to us, though I could see some value in each.  The other sites in this category look like more of the same (several other university open courseware sites, for example).

I have no interest in learning about “Business and Money” and have never visited any of the 12 sites listed under that category. Similarly for the 14 sites under “History and World Culture”, several of which seem more focused on genealogy and biography more than history, and history much more than culture.

I also have no reason to visit the 10 “Law” sites, which seem to be mainly from law schools (perhaps as advertisements from the schools), though I do occasionally look up things in the local ordinances ( and state laws (  In both cases, I would prefer a more transparent posting of the laws, so that I could use a better search engine to find things—the database search engines provided are terrible.

The “Computer Science and Engineering” has 13 listings, but does not include Stanford Engineering Everywhere, nor does it include some of the most important learning tools (Scratch, Alice, Python online tutorial, Project Euler, …), leading me to suspect that the author of the list really did not know much about what online self-teaching resources were available, and just had dumped the results of some Google searching.  The 9 math resources showed a similar lack of depth.

The 8 “English and Communications” resources looked a bit better, though National Novel Writing Month is not really an online educational tool. I am particularly interested in finding writing resources for my son that will get him past his writer’s block and through high-school English, but the list here did not seem to be very useful for that rather specific problem. For one area of this field that I know something about (technical writing), the advice at Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students  seemed rather thin and not particularly helpful for the sorts of problems I see in student writing.  None of the resources here looked particularly useful for our needs, though I kept hoping that I’d find some gem I’d previously missed.

Of the 6 “Foreign and Sign Languages” sites, I have heard good things about two, BBC Languages and Livemocha, but I’ve not used any of the sites, and we prefer to have our son take language classes at the community college, where he can get face-to-face interaction with others as well as detailed instruction in grammar and vocabulary.  It may be possible to emulate that experience by combining different web-based sites, but it would be much harder to maintain engagement than with a regularly scheduled class. In fact, that is a major problem with most of the on-line learning resources: it requires considerable dedication to stick with the learning and do the necessary practice in the absence of teachers, classmates, and regularly scheduled homework deadlines.

The 19 “Multiple Subjects and Miscellaneous” are indeed quite varied.  I’ve heard of  iTunes U (though not used them, since we find video lectures a particularly boring and slow way to learn), Brigham Young Independent Study (we’d investigated their non-free online high school classes and decided that none of them were suitable for our needs), and TED (again, we find video lectures—even TED talks—extremely boring).

The 20 “Free Books and Reading Recommendations” look useful, though I’ve only ever used Project Gutenberg and Scribd (and Scribd only because some teacher-bloggers put handouts and other documents they are discussing on the web via Scribd). There are several sites claiming tens of thousands of books to download for free, but I’m wondering whether they all have the same core of books with copyright expired, and that the union of the different sites is not much larger than the largest single site.  It would have been useful for the list creator to have merged the free-book sites into a single comparative entry, suggesting which order to try sites in to find a free book fastest, or giving some other hints about how to prioritize a search.  Right now, I suspect that Google books (which was not listed) provides a more comprehensive list of free books than any of the sites listed, though the free audio books through Books Should Be Free may be an otherwise difficult-to-find resource.

The 9 entries under “Educational Mainstream Broadcast Media” provide access to educational content associated with TV shows.  There are a few good things there, but you probably need to know precisely what you are looking for, so access through a search engine seems more useful than through the home pages of the content providers.

The 8 entries under “Online Archives” look interesting—I did not even suspect the existence of some of them. The only one I’ve used is U.S. Census Bureau, which has a lot useful information—unfortunately, it can be very difficult to find the information on their web site.

Of the 4 “Directories of Open Education”, the only one I’ve used is Google Scholar, which has slowly become a decent way to search the scholarly literature (the indexing used to be terrible, but now it seems to be only a little worse than much more expensive dedicated indexing).  I’ve tried using OpenCourseWare Consortium, but the organization and indexing seems to be poor, and it takes a lot of clicks to get information about specific courses.  Finding courses that meet particular criteria is nearly impossible (say, for example, that I was looking for a course that taught Java to someone who already knew Python—how many hundreds of “course details” links would I have to click to find out whether there was such a course or not?).

2010 September 27

On-line learning not a big win

The University of California administrators have been pushing full-speed ahead for on-line learning, in the hopes of eliminating those pesky faculty and buildings.  Meanwhile MIT has been doing a courageous experiment in putting materials for most of their courses on-line at MIT Open Courseware.  Stanford has been doing a smaller-scale experiment with Stanford Engineering Everywhere.  I’ve blogged about both of these projects before (here and here), because I think that they may be valuable to gifted high school students.

But are they working?  Does anyone really want on-line education from a top-rank university enough to pay for it?  Are people snapping up the freely available material from MIT and Stanford?  The Computing Education blog points out that statistics are available from MIT at  They get a lot of traffic (7 million page hits a month, 41% from USA and Canada), but visits average only 7 page views (or 9 pages and 9 minutes, depending which set of statistics you look at—they have new stats every month).  Fewer than 4% of the MIT faculty participating report any drop in in-person attendance in their classes (so the on-line content is not replacing people’s desire to go to classes in real life).  Quite a bit of the use is by educators, who then use the content in their own face-to-face classes.

Given that a typical course is 30-to-35 hours, and the average connection is only 9 minutes, there aren’t really such a huge number of courses being delivered (about 6000–7000 courses a year, probably about 1000 complete ones and lots more short visits and partially completed courses).  If that is all you can get for a completely free system, how much demand is there going to be for an expensive UC system?

It has been pointed out that only a few of the MIT Open Courseware classes actually have any useful content in them: most are just PowerPoint slides or cryptic lecture notes.  I wonder what the statistics are on people actually viewing full video of lectures.  I know that I don’t have the patience to sit through an hour-long video of a lecture, even though I have no trouble going to live lectures that long several times a week.

2010 August 14

Open Study

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:49
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I recently posted on the free online engineering courses at Stanford, which provides, in addition to online lectures and assignments, a community of other people taking the same courses.  Mark Guzdial recently posted about Open Study, which creates a similar community for MIT OpenCourseWare.

I can clearly see the advantage of having people to talk to when trying to work through a course, but I’m curious about the business model.  For Stanford, the online community is connected with the courses, both of which serve primarily as advertising for the university.  In a similar way the MIT OpenCourseWare serves as advertising for MIT.

But what is the Open Study business model?  They’re a spin-off from Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta, with startup funding from the Georgia Research Alliance, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, but there is no indication on their About Us page or their blog about how they plan to continue paying people after the funding runs out.  Students will pay for others to do their work for them (witness all the term-papers-for-sale sites), but I don’t believe that this is the intended end-point for Open Study. Are they planning to sell advertising (the usual mechanism for “free” sites)?  Are they planning to keep getting research funding forever (not bloody likely)?  Are they planning on shutting things down as soon as the funding runs out (the usual fate of university spinoffs)?  Are they planning to start charging for the service (if so, why would any one pay for it)?  Are they planning to charge universities for supporting their classes (the model that MentorNet uses)?

2010 August 10

Stanford Engineering Everywhere

Filed under: Robotics — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:37
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Lots of people have heard of MIT Opencourseware, because MIT has not been shy about advertising their 2000 courses.  Of course, most of these “open courseware” courses consist of little more than a syllabus and a few online notes, about the same as every other university puts online.  They have about 38 courses with full video lectures for the course, and another 57 courses with “selected” videos online.

Less well know are the free Stanford Engineering Everywhere courses, which has 12 full courses online. Not only do they offer video, reading lists and assignments, but you can communicate with fellow students taking the same courses. These courses look like an excellent way for gifted high school students to get material that their high schools lack the resources (or enough students) to teach.  I’ll probably try to talk my son into watching the Intro to Computer Science and Intro to Robotics courses.  Of course, a real robotics course will need hands-on building and programming a robot, and we’re a bit limited in doing that at home (we can do Lego robots, of course, and program microcontrollers like the Arduino, but we lack the machine-shop tools and expertise to build anything more ambitious).

The MIT and Stanford free courses look as good as what the UC Regents want to do with the pilot online courses, so I don’t know how UC expects to make money competing with free courses.  I suspect that MIT and Stanford have found the true value of online courses: as advertisements to entice students to apply to the campus.  I suppose as long as Blum is a UC Regent, he’ll be trying to get UC to endorse online education, to bolster his large investment in for-profit online universities, but I don’t really see a viable university education coming from a mainly online model.

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