An Educational Gift From the Internet

  • Kadar, Andrew, MD
| Oct 08, 2013

For continuing education or just to satisfy your curiosity, you can now easily access free university-level courses on the Internet. These classes, called Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, are provided directly by universities and through several companies that act as consolidators. The first few MOOCs came online in 2008, but blossomed to a large number and variety of courses by 2012.

Anyone can register and watch lectures that are similar or identical to what professors deliver in their live classrooms. Discussion forums enable students to ask questions, enhancing the interactive experience that would otherwise be missing in an all-online learning environment. If these become too numerous to be answered by the instructors, crowd-sourcing technology can enable students to vote on which ones they want addressed. This is an example of the innovative solutions inspired by the rapid expansion of this novel form of mass education.

How massive are these classes? One in sociology taught by a Princeton professor enrolled 40,000 students. Another on artificial intelligence from Stanford signed up 160,000. The three largest consolidators are Coursera, currently offering 187 courses, Udacity, listing 18 courses, and edX, with 8 classes. You can find lectures in a variety of subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology, in finance and history, and many that relate to medicine.

For example, Coursera just started (October 7) a six-week, six-session program entitled “Understanding and Improving the US Healthcare System,” by a professor from the University of Michigan.

For those interested in reporting their research with more clarity and style, a Stanford professor is teaching an eight-session, eight-week class called “Writing in the Sciences” beginning Tuesday, September 24. The course description states that the first four weeks will cover general principles of effective writing and will be followed by an additional four weeks geared to reporting scientific research. If you missed the start, you can enter the online classroom at a later date and catch up by watching videos of lectures previously delivered.

Both US and foreign universities contribute to the MOOC curriculum. On Coursera alone, you can access classes taught by professors from various branches of the University of California as well as from places as far away as the University of Geneva, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Melbourne. Check out your alma mater – it’s probably teaching free classes online too.

Students likewise come from all over the world. For people with limited funds and in remote locations, an Internet access can provide admission to the lectures of professors in the finest universities. The contributions of these students to discussion forums can then broaden the perspective of all the other participants, including those of the professors. Millions have already enrolled these online courses. However, only a tiny fraction of registrants complete the work expected of students taking university courses for credit.

The universities typically don’t give credit toward a degree for taking these courses, but many professors provide a certificate of completion for students who satisfy a set of required tasks and want such documentation. Some universities are considering setting up online programs leading to certificates, but this is still in the planning stages at most places and will likely involve fees. San Jose State has already started a pilot program of low-cost, introductory online classes for credit, in subjects like elementary statistics, introduction to programming and general psychology. Some commercial companies also use MOOCs to help train their workforce, seeing them as a low-cost alternative to in-house instruction.

For most anesthesiologists, the appeal of MOOCs is likely to be the easy availability of lectures for pleasure, knowledge and perhaps even career advancement. Getting on the Internet and exploring all these classes is like being a kid in a candy store in which you can sample all the sweets for free, and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home.

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