Free learning: Yes to Romanian, no to physics

Josh Dean of Popular Science tried out free, no-credit online courses to see if he could actually educate himself.  The answer: Yes to Romanian and Kitchen Chemistry (why cooking works), no to physics and biology.

His Free Online School Rules:

1. You get what you pay for. “Free” means no asking questions in the middle of class, which can be a dealbreaker with a subject as potentially confusing as physics.
2. That said, it might help if you actually buy the textbook.
3. Free online learning is not going to teach you anything substantial overnight, or in a week (unless you are Rain Man, in which case you’re just memorizing anyway). Plan to do a whole course.
4. There are few things better than hot bread made with your own two hands, especially when you understand the science of why it’s so delicious.
5. We are at the beginning of this experiment, not the end.

Dean tells the tale of two recent college grads who’ve designed a no-cost study abroad program using MIT’s OpenCourseWare.  Ann Nguyen and Alison Cole will work on environmental engineering projects in India, while “using the syllabi from MIT OCW’s courses in ground hydrology, soil behavior and aquatic chemistry to construct a program that will study arid-land restoration.”  They’ll run up no grad-school debt, but they’ll also acquire no academic credits.  Will future employers be impressed? That remains to be seen.

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  1. Reminds me of all the free school/community u courses that grew up during the 70s. I took pottery and aerobics.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    Fang Jr and I did the Open Yale course on Game Theory, which includes lectures, problem sets and exams. We loved it. The key for mathy kinds of courses like game theory and physics is to learn, the student must *do the problems*. Math, my high school calculus teacher used to say, is not a spectator sport.

    Dean didn’t do the reading for the course, and it sounds like he didn’t do the problems either. He wanted to “absorb” physics, but that is not going to happen. To learn physics, one must do physics problems.

    A couple of years ago, I started the Open Yale physics class, but got too busy. I should drop back into that class– I found it excellent, and I highly recommend it. Then again, I bought the $200 text.

    Online classes require more discipline than brick-and-mortar classes.

  3. What kind of guy sets out to take a physics course knowing he has no math? The part that killed him, multiplying vectors, is low-end stuff compared to where a MIT-level physics class is going to go. He was in over his head before he started.

    I think that he should have started with something less ambitious – perhaps an algebra II refresher course – instead of physics.

    I like to listen to lectures from iTunes U (I’m listening to a really good series on Hannibal these days), but I’m not fooling myself that this is the same as taking the class.

    It’s interesting how well Wikipedia and other internet resources fill in the gaps, too. When the prof referred to maps showing the battle lines from the First Punic War (which I couldn’t see), Wikipedia came through with a set that seems more complete than what the prof was using in class:

    There has never been an easier time to educate yourself on just about any topic. You’re just wrong, however, if you think casual online learning is the same as attending the class, taking notes, reading the sources and passing the tests.


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