Learning in the off-hours: Free electives courtesy of the internet

More than one student has taken a course online through an enrolling university. But not as many have heard of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offering shorter, free classes from a plethora of universities ranging from University of Michigan to Columbia University in New York.

Librarians, those housed in the halls of paper and ink books (but increasingly adoptive of digital technology) see a certain amount of value in online courses that the curious can take for fun.

“I think there is also some potential in MOOCs to remedy some of the inequities that exist in access to education since they are free and open,” said Amy Mars, a St. Kate’s librarian. “I personally find them a really great professional development tool and have used them to increase my knowledge in areas that would be useful to my job as a librarian.”

Mars also talks about the downsides to MOOCs, as a librarian who has taken some herself.

“Since most librarians are huge proponents of self-directed and lifelong learning, many of us support MOOCs as a way to learn a new skill or subject,” said Mars. “There has been some question as to the effectiveness of MOOCs since they often utilize a more passive form of learning, relying heavily on lectures rather than active or constructivist learning.”

Some sites such as Coursera attempt to reduce this problem, through courses taught and monitored by actual professors from their respective universities. These professors typically assign one or two projects or assignments to grade, as well as progress check quizzes after each unit.

Free online courses are offered through many venues. Coursera and Edx are two online course organizations that offer courses in real time from professors working at their respective universities. Those with an iTunes account can get the same experience by clicking on iTunes U, a link to free lectures and frequently updated courses, tucked away at the bottom of the iTunes Store homepage. There is also Khan Academy, meant as an educational system intended to be free forever, that partners with organizations such as NASA and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some higher education universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale have created their own open course systems available on the web.

St. Kate’s student Sarah Showalter ‘16 talks about how online courses can challenge a person’s ability to practice discipline, in addition to challenging and stretching the student’s academic abilities. Granted, Showalter has taken online courses from physical universities but speaks to the challenges of online courses overall.

“They were all challenging in their own ways,” said Showalter of her online courses thus far. “Online courses are all dependent on you, needing to remember due dates, discussions, papers, and everything else since you do not go to class and get a reminder from your professor.”

There are course offerings in a massive number of topics, ranging from Human Trafficking to Bioinformatic Methods. Some courses also allow the purchase of a certificate, verified by the university the course is affiliated with, saying that the course was satisfactorily completed. Courses from internationally located universities are also available for those who are fluent in a second or foreign language.

Massive Open Online Courses are open to anyone with regular access to the internet and who has an email address or Facebook account.

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