Free online university courses

Want to learn something new? Free courses from world-renowned institutions mean that anyone can now learn just about anything, from anywhere

Free online university courses

Source: Best Health magazine, November/December 2013; Image: Thinkstock

Poring over the list of hundreds of courses available on is, for me, akin to visiting a grocery store on an empty stomach. My mind rumbles. I want to devour everything. The fact that these online courses are free’‘Songwriting’ from the Berkelee College of Music, ‘Climate Change’ from The University of Melbourne, ‘Early Renaissance Architecture in Italy’ from Sapienza University of Rome‘makes me feel as though I’ve won a lifetime learning spree.

Which, in a way, I have.

Until now, I have managed to learn new things and continue my education by attending workshops and classes: some for fun, others to advance my career as a freelance writer. Last January, I actually went back to university’ 25 years after getting my performing arts degree’to slowly chip away at a communications and information technology degree. Between tuition and books, plus things like parking fees, I know only too well how expensive a love of learning can traditionally be.

While massive open online courses, or MOOCs as they are commonly called, don’t replace higher education, they are a fee-free alternative. They don’t change how we learn (online courses have been around for the past two decades, after all), but now that money is no longer a barrier, they do change who gets to learn.

Here’s how they work

Companies such as Coursera partner with universities (Ivy League schools among them) to offer free courses on topics spanning a range of disciplines including the arts, humanities, computer science, medicine, mathematics, music, law and more. Most are touted as being of the same high calibre as the ones offered on campus, and are taught by leading professors via videotaped lectures. Although the majority of MOOCs are not accredited’at least, not yet’many offer a certificate of accomplishment upon completion.

Last winter, I took a six-week business course offered by the University of Maryland and spent about five hours per week curled up with my laptop on the couch, sipping tea as I watched video-lectures and completed the various quizzes and assignments. When my marks came in, I was pleased to see that I had achieved a B+, not to mention self-conferred bonus points for my self-esteem.

On the other side of the world, Radhika Ghosal, a 16-year-old 11th grader who lives in New Delhi, had a similar experience. Interested in engineering, she completed a circuits and electronics course offered by edX (, another MOOC provider, to get a feel for what this area of study would be like.

‘I spent around 18 to 20 hours a week sitting with my laptop on the sofa,’ she told me in an email. ‘It was a very enriching experience.’

The rise of the MOOC has been a fast one. Dave Cormier, project lead for student relations at the University of Prince Edward Island, first coined the term in 2008 during an online discussion with another Canadian academic to describe an online course on educational theory offered by the University of Manitoba. Initially, there were 25 paying students taking the course, but when it was opened up to the general public free of charge, that number grew to 2,300. Not only was this the first-ever MOOC in the world, it unleashed a sort of MOOC frenzy in academic circles.

But the trend really took off just a year and a half ago. In the spring of 2012, two Stanford University professors launched Coursera with the goal of giving everyone access to world-class education that had so far been available only to a select few. By this fall, its numbers were staggering: Almost five million students from 221 countries were accessing more than 400 courses offered by more than 80 universities.

In 2012, which The New York Times dubbed ‘the year of the MOOC,’ edX, a MOOC service provider founded by Harvard and MIT, and with which the University of Toronto is partnered, entered the fray. It also boasts impressive numbers: Halfway through 2013, more than one million students representing every country in the world were enrolled in one or more of its 67 courses.

Today, the most popular MOOCs offered by any provider can have well over 100,000 participants. Students can share their experiences on discussion forums and in person at MOOC meet-ups held at cafés and bistros all around the globe. CourseTalk ( is a website that posts reviews of courses from students.

Moving forward, Coursera wants to expand its reach into every country by focusing on those with digital capabilities, a portion of the global population that is growing. Right now, it is working on a mobile initiative.

What’s their value?

Clare Brett, an associate professor in curriculum, teaching and learning at the University of Toronto, has been researching distance learning for 25 years and developing online classes for 17. She appreciates the excitement MOOCs are generating but worries about their educational value. Many institutions offer a certificate or statement of accomplishment upon successful course completion, but how much is this recognition worth?

‘How do you assess the learning experience?’ she asks. ‘What is it worth on a resumé? MOOCs are not a solution if they hold no value.’

Brett is not alone in her concerns. The deluge of similar criticisms has sent providers scrambling to get courses accredited. Currently, Coursera has five courses that have been recommended for accreditation by the American Council on Education, and it is working on adding more. But it is up to each university to decide if it will offer credit for MOOC courses. (The University of Alberta currently offers one MOOC on dinosaur paleobiology that students can take to earn a credit.)

And any discussion of accreditation brings the issue of cost into play. How can a university give away a course to online participants but charge those in attendance? (Georgia Tech is offering the first accredited MOOC degree, a Master of Science in computer science. Though it won’t be free, the program will be less expensive than its on-campus counterpart: about $6,600 over six terms.) Yet another issue? A mere 10 percent of courses started are actually completed.

Dave Cormier, of coining-the-term-MOOC fame, is not overly concerned about the value of the certificate of accomplishment or the high attrition rates. ‘You have to de-institutionalize your thinking,’ he says. ‘MOOCs are about learning, not proving you’ve learned. And dropout rates are high because the beauty of MOOCs is that you can sign up for a course just to see what it’s like, and you can sample several if you wish. That’s what’s so great.’

Who can benefit most?

Leslie Ann Molnar, a Toronto-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist, believes the life-enhancing benefits of learning may override MOOCs’ potential pitfalls. ‘There is an increase in self-esteem doing any knowledge-based learning,’ she says. ‘MOOCs may provide a less stressful way of learning than actually physically attending a class, which may be especially valuable for women, who, in many cases, are already very busy caring for the home and kids, and perhaps working outside the home as well.’ She adds that MOOCs may be a way for those who might not feel comfortable going to a classroom ‘e.g., people with general anxiety or who experience anxiety in social situations‘to enhance the quality of their lives. As well, MOOCs can provide a way for people frustrated with their careers to check out other interests and possibilities.

Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, who obtained her master’s degree at the age of 18, says there are many cases of women using Coursera to expand their career options. She cites the case of Dawn Ellen Smith, an Illinois woman who worked in public relations but found great fulfillment in her volunteer work at a cancer-related non-profit. Seeking to parlay her skills into the healthcare field, she took an introductory course in pharmacology to gauge whether she could even wrap her head around the material presented. Shortly before successfully completing the course, she interviewed for a communications position at a hospital and spoke at length about the course as well as her plans to expand her knowledge base through taking other courses. She got the job.

As for me, having digested the career-based business course, I recently threw ‘The History of Rock’ into my virtual cart just for fun. I’m not a big music fan; in fact, just the opposite’sometimes I feel I’m the only person born in the ’60s who can barely identify various music genres, much less name the lead singer of such-and-such band. Only two weeks in, and already I’m champing at the bit for someone to bring up anything related to rock ‘n’ roll.

‘The mid-’50s were amazing,’ I’ll say nonchalantly. ‘That’s when the likes of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino crossed over from R & B. But you know, by the end of that decade, the genre was in trouble. Elvis had joined the army, we’d lost Buddy Holly in a plane crash, Little Richard had quit music to preach, Chuck Berry was arrested, and Jerry Lee Lewis was in the throes of a scandal after marrying his very young cousin.’

Once I have digested the rock stuff, I’m planning to take ‘Moralities of Everyday Life’ offered by Yale University.
The course description says we will explore topics such as how humans are capable of kindness and cruelty, and where our sense of right and wrong comes from. Imagine my future debates and pontifications!

To me, that’s the best thing about MOOCs: They enable you to engage in so many more conversations.

This article was originally titled "Easy, A?" in the November/December 2013 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!