Top U.S. Colleges to Offer Free Classes Online

April 18th, 2012

Since MIT did it with Open Courseware years ago, I suspected that the point of the “free education” offerings was to create a pool of relatively skilled workers in some of the poorest countries in the world. You know, places with open sewers where people sleep on dirt floors… and where lots of these people have Internet access! (The way things are headed, this might refer to parts of the U.S. soon.)

Now that there’s talk about these other schools offering certificates, and, “connecting employers with students,” I think my suspicions are being confirmed.

So, companies will still be hiring people from slums and paying next to nothing for the labor, but, maybe a person who got a certificate in the free computer science curriculum from the College of Knowledge will be selected for a job over someone who doesn’t have a certificate.

In ten or twenty years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the majority of paid work in companies, that is, work that isn’t done by machines, being done by these “certificate” holders. They’ll live in ever expanding slums, autonomously policed by RoboCops and drones. They’ll have fast Internet and there will be Superbowl commercials about how great all of it is.

I suppose that positive wildcard outcomes are possible from this. Some people will figure out how to start their own businesses with the knowledge they gain from the free online classes. Most, though, will just feel lucky to be able to show up for any paid work at all.

I have no idea what’s going to happen to people who are still attending classes on campus and buying those $200 textbooks. Sure, there will be a few slots somewhere up in the skyscrapers for engineers and managers, but the machine will always, and I mean, ALWAYS, be gunning for them. For most, it’s going to be like the house flippers who couldn’t find a greater fool that one last time as the Ponzi scheme came down. There are millions of people out there with $20K, $50K, $100K or more sunk into worthless degrees… How is that situation going to unwind?

Get busy, boys and girls. Your new career in a building with a suicide net awaits. If you’re lucky.

I don’t offer a lot of advice on here, but I’ll tell you what I’m going to tell my sons. It’s what my dad told me and it has held pretty true:

“If you’re working for someone else, chances are, you’re fucked.”

That said, free products and services usually exist to monetize, in some way, the people who use them. In this case, the goal of the free courses is to create a larger pool of qualified workers to fill a dwindling number of positions, driving labor costs down.

So, if you want to take free courses, go for it. But if you’re thinking that it’s going to give you an edge in the market, remember that the thronging, jobless hordes have the same idea.

I’m not saying to not do it, but through it all, try to think about how you can use what you’re learning to avoid having to show up somewhere to make someone else (or a bunch of stockholders) rich.

Via: Reuters:

Five prestigious U.S. universities will create free online courses for students worldwide through a new, interactive education platform dubbed Coursera, the founders announced Wednesday.

The two founders, both professors of computer science at Stanford University, also announced that they had received $16 million in financing from two Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

Coursera will offer more than three dozen college courses in the coming year through its website at, on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to neurology, from calculus to contemporary American poetry. The classes are designed and taught by professors at Stanford, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

Coursera joins a raft of ambitious online projects aimed at making higher education more accessible and affordable. Many of these ventures, however, simply post entire lectures on the web, with no interactive component. Others strive to create brand-new universities from scratch.

Founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng say Coursera will be different because professors from top schools will teach under their university’s name and will adapt their most popular courses for the web, embedding assignments and exams into video lectures, answering questions from students on online forums — even, perhaps, hosting office hours via videoconference.

Multiple-choice and short-answer tests will be computer scored. Coursera will soon unveil a system of peer grading to assess more complex work, such as essays or algorithms.

Students will not get college credit. But Coursera may offer “certificates of completion” or transcripts for a fee. The company may also seek to turn a profit by connecting employers with students who have shown aptitude in a particular field, a spokeswoman said.

One Response to “Top U.S. Colleges to Offer Free Classes Online”

  1. CitizenK Says:

    This story reminded me a bit of a recent post in Stuart Staniford’s blog “Early Warning” about the J curve growth of the global robot population, and its likely effect creating even more mass unemployment:

    I’d say the problem is technological automation in general, rather than robotization per se — A.I.s can also destroy jobs. If there are slums full of programmers, maybe its only the lucky ones who will have jobs — a lot of routine programming work might be done by computers.

    I personally see some of this unfolding. One of my friends co-founded a legal services website. Years ago, they used to outsource some of the more complicated legal piece work to small firms in places like South Dakota and Vermont. Now they outsource to India. (Indian law schools can teach Indian lawyers U.S. law, too.) And as computer technology advances, more and more legal work is being done by expert systems and AIs.

    Meanwhile, many recent U.S. law school grads, those from schools not in, say, the top 20%, simply cannot find well-paying legal jobs. Even those from competitive schools — like one of my brothers-in-law– have had trouble finding work.

    I have a younger brother in law school, but he was a cop for five years (before getting laid off because his city has trimmed 20% of its police force in the last 2 years — ring the criminal dinner bell!). So he will likely go into criminal prosecution, working in a District Attorney’s office. Last time I checked, they’re not off-shoring crime, so I think he’ll be OK in a legal career focused on criminal prosecution.

    But as for his peers… unless they make themselves especially competitive, it seems like their career prospects are bleak.

    And so it goes…

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