7 Major Players In Free Online Education

Hottest Free Online Courses

Will the rise of massive open online courses change the face of education?

By Jennifer Berry

Imagine a world where free, college-level education was available to almost everyone. Believe it or not, you're living in that world right now.

Online education has been around for decades, but in the past couple of years, interest has spiked for massive open online courses, otherwise known as MOOCs, according to Brian Whitmer, co-founder of Instructure, an education technology company that created the Canvas Network, a  platform for open online courses.

"Since 2012, MOOCs have caught the attention of the educational world due to their potential to disrupt how education is delivered and open up access to anyone with an Internet connection," Whitmer explains. According to "Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States," a report by the Babson Survey Research Group released in January 2014, the percent of higher education institutions that currently have a MOOC increased from 2.6 percent to 5.0 percent over the past year.

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If this seems too good to be true, you should know that, like many endeavors, students will largely get out of these classes what they put into them. Also, there are a number of organizations that currently offer MOOCs, each with its own personality, history, and course offerings. So we spoke to education technology experts about the providers at the forefront of MOOC development.

Read on to learn more about seven of the most popular MOOCs and some of the great free classes they offer.

Coursera

If you've heard of MOOCs, chances are you've heard of Coursera. This education company was created by Stanford professors involved with one of the earliest massive open online classes. How did it all begin?

"Stanford University opened up some of their more popular computer science courses to the general public, expecting a few hundred students to enroll. Instead, over 100,000 students took part in each course," says Jonathan Haber, a writer and researcher who has worked in the field of educational technology.  

According to Haber, this huge enrollment demonstrated pent-up demand for high-quality, free college-level classes. In response, "professors involved with this original Stanford project created two start-up companies - Udacity and Coursera - and began delivering MOOCs on different subjects to the world," says Haber.

"Coursera is probably the best overall MOOC provider," explains Hamish Brocklebank, co-CEO of Flooved.com, an online education platform that seeks to provide free education to a global audience. "They have a huge corpus of content, lots of users, and lots of money."

They also have an impressive 9.5 million students enrolled, up from 4 million last year, according to Brocklebank.

In February of 2013, Coursera announced that the American Council on Education had evaluated and recommended college credit for five courses on Coursera. That means you could theoretically take these five courses for free and earn college credit.

In order to earn college credit, students need to sign up for an eligible course in the "signature track," which links coursework in Coursera to a student's identity. Then students need to take an online proctored credit exam. Upon successfully completing a course, students may request a transcript from ACE, which they can then present to their college or university for consideration for college credit.

Standout Free Classes:

The five courses approved for a college credit recommendation include:

  • "Pre-Calculus" from the University of California, Irvine offers a solid foundation in algebra and trigonometry.
  • "Introduction to Genetics and Evolution" from Duke University gives a basic overview of some principles behind fundamental areas of biology.
  • "Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach" from Duke University teaches students how to think about electrically active tissue in terms of individual mechanisms.
  • "Calculus: Single Variable" from the University of Pennsylvania covers the core ideas of single-variable calculus with emphases on conceptual understanding and applications.
  • "Algebra" from the University of California, Irvine emphasizes understanding the properties of linear, polynomial, rational, and radical functions.

edX

Another MOOC provider with a great reputation, edX currently offers 85 courses that range from "International Human Rights" to "Fundamentals of Neuroscience."

"edX is very popular as well," Brocklebank says. "It's a not-for-profit school that offers mostly video-based courses."

According to Haber, edX has the second largest number of participants (after Coursera) of the three major MOOC providers, delivering completely packaged MOOC courses from schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley.

Standout Free Classes:
  • "Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy and the Press: An Introduction" is based on one of the most popular and dynamic courses taught at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
  • "Classical Mechanics" is taught by the renowned Professor Walter Lewin who was proclaimed "a Web star" by The New York Times.
  • "Learning From Data" is an introductory course in machine learning (ML) - one of the hottest fields of study today.

Udacity

Udacity is the other MOOC provider that was founded by Stanford professors involved with that first open computer science course.

Brocklebank, who has himself personally enrolled in two Udacity courses, believes that "Udacity has the best and most interactive courses." The only drawback? "They have a limited number of courses available."

Currently, Udacity has 28 courses available on its website. But while they might not have the breadth of course offerings of some other MOOC providers, their mission statement speaks to a commitment to interactive learning.

According to their website, Udacity believes that "education should be less passive listening (no long lectures) and more active doing. Education should empower students to succeed not just in school but in life."

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Standout Free Classes:
  • "The Design Of Everyday Things" is a series of courses intended to be enjoyable and informative for designers and non-designers alike.
  • "How To Build A Startup" is a course designed to help students evolve their startup business models and improve their chances of success.
  • "HTML5 Game Development" helps students understand how to develop an HTML5 game.

Udemy

Udemy is slightly different from the MOOC providers we've already discussed.

For one thing, Udemy offers some classes for free but charges for others. Additionally, the courses offered aren't always academic in nature. For example, Udemy offers courses on cake decorating, reading body language, and even juggling.

"Udemy is hard to peg," says Haber. "It offers access to thousands of online courses, although some would not consider these MOOCs, since they often lack many course components such as a syllabus."

One more thing makes Udemy stand out from other MOOC providers. "Anyone can publish their own course and charge whatever they like for it or give it away," Haber says. Because of this, you'll see a wide variety of knowledge delivered with various levels of quality.

Standout Free Classes:
  • "Astronomy: State of the Art" is an astronomy for beginners course taught by instructors from Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona.
  • "Build. Measure. Learn. Lean Startup SXSW 2012" teaches lean startup methodology from startup founders and experts.
  • "Photoshop Training: Tutorials" features more than 90 free video lessons, showing you tips, tricks, and techniques in Photoshop and other design programs.

Canvas Network

Canvas Network is another MOOC provider that offers some courses for free and charges for others. While they do charge for many courses, they are undertaking some interesting experiments that might spark some students' interests.

"Many players in the MOOC space have done little experimentation and can be seen more as taking the existing lecture model of education and moving it online," explains Whitmer. "With Canvas Network, we are pushing boundaries in multiple directions, trying to see what sticks and what improves education."

This makes sense, considering the internet's recent impact on education. "The Internet is a relatively new medium for instruction," Whitmer says. "We should be looking for ways to leverage the power of that medium rather than decrying the fact that old approaches don't necessarily work well in the new medium."

One of the more interesting educational experiments Canvas Network is now undertaking is a cross-disciplinary course called "Society, Science, Survival: Lessons From AMC's 'The Walking Dead.'" This course involved a formal partnership with AMC to use the popular series as a case study to teach a range of topics, from understanding social structures to modeling the spread of disease.

Standout Free Classes:
  • "Gender Through Comic Books" looks at gender attitudes over time with comic books serving as the text.
  • "Exploring Engineering" is one of the first MOOCs targeted specifically at pre-college students and offered by Brown University to help high schoolers learn about opportunities in STEM fields.
  • "Sustainable Energy Innovation" offers students a $5,000 incentive to create a workable innovation for energy and sustainability.

iTunes U

Unlike the MOOCs mentioned above, iTunes U offers video lectures rather than interactive courses. Although it has a different format than other open online courses, iTunes U is still an important online education provider.

According to Whitmer, "iTunes U is really in a separate category, because students view pre-taped lectures on their own as opposed to taking a MOOC with potentially thousands of people from around the world at the same time."

In other words, iTunes U doesn't provide an online replica of a university class in the same way MOOCs offered by Coursera, Udacity, or edX might. You might watch lectures from iTunes U, but there won't be the same level of interaction that you'd get with a traditional class, like homework, peer discussions, or exams.

Because of that, some educational experts - like Brocklebank - feel that iTunes U is very limited.

However, iTunes U could be great for someone interested in absorbing knowledge without the pressure of homework or tests. And, according to Haber, even though "iTunes just provides audio and video lectures of existing college courses, this is a popular service."

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Standout Free Classes:
  • "Calculus One" by The Ohio State University is an introduction to calculus, suitable for someone who has never seen the subject before or for someone who wants to review and practice applying concepts.
  • "Exploring the Past" by National Geographic Live allows students to join scientists and historians in the search for clues on how people can adapt to a changing world.
  • "Personal Finance" explores how individual choices directly influence occupational goals and future earnings potential.

Saylor.org

Saylor.org presents another model of what online education can be, one based around curated courses. A "curated course" means the class might include lectures by a different professor or expert for each lesson. Instead of being anchored by one professor, this curated course model provides students with the opportunity to get a variety of experts' opinions on the class topic.

If you're wondering how this works - Saylor gathers excellent content for their courses by using a Creative Commons license. That license gives them permission from copyright holders to use their information, according to Shiv Gaglani, co-author of "Success with Science" and co-founder and CEO of Osmosis, a new app for medical students that sends practice questions and resources through text.

So what is the advantage of a curated course model? "[Saylor] can very quickly put courses together as they don't have to create the content," says Brocklebank. "The downside, though, is that at the moment it is not very social or interactive. Apart from a basic course discussion, there is no way to interact with other students." However, depending on the student, this might not be a problem.

Haber is currently taking a class from Saylor.org and has this to say: "While I've had trouble in the past with courses lacking a focal point, such as a single lecturer who anchors the course, it has been interesting to be taught week after week by experts in a particular subject." He adds that a curated course is valuable because the experts were selected by someone already familiar with the material and who has taught this subject previously.

Standout Free Classes:
  • "Corporate Communications" aims to help you understand how communication forms a part of your self-concept, solves problems, and builds your career.
  • "Introduction to Western Political Thought" intends to offer a critical perspective on our times by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various regimes and philosophical approaches.
  • "Business Law & Ethics" is an introduction to the laws and ethical standards that managers must abide by in the course of conducting business. Also, this course provides students the opportunity to earn actual college credit.

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6 Most Popular Degrees to Earn Online

Online education is becoming more and more common and encompasses many different types of programs, including MOOCs. But there are also educational institutions that grant degrees, from associate's to master's, with all the coursework conducted online. While these programs aren't free, they offer convenience and flexibility for working professionals or busy parents who want to earn a degree on their own time. 

With an increasing number of choices in online education, it may be helpful to know which online degree programs are the most popular. The report "Online College Students" by Learning House, an organization that helps colleges develop online programs, and Education Dynamics, a company that helps colleges enroll and retain students, discovered which online undergraduate degrees were trending in 2013.

#1 - Business Administration and Management

Business administration was ranked as the top online undergraduate degree program. Students who study this major learn how to orchestrate an organization's activities, notes the College Board, the organization which administers the SAT.

#2 - Accounting

Number-crunching is also a popular area of online study. As an accounting major, you could learn to organize and analyze an organization's financial information, according to the College Board.

#3 - Information Technology

In an information technology program, you'll learn how information and computing systems support research, communications, and business necessities, while developing strong technical and communication skills, says the College Board.

#4 - Criminal Justice

If you choose this online degree, you'll learn every aspect of crime, the law, and the justice system.

#5 - Finance

Another number-oriented degree makes the list. Finance majors learn how to make long-term financial decisions for organizations, from raising funds to controlling costs.

#6 - Psychology

This fascinating degree rounds out our list of top online programs. Psychology majors study human behavior and the learning process, notes the College Board.

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