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Online Courses: The Perpetual Student

Universities around the world are taking their courses online in ways that may disrupt our notions of how and what we learn, who learns what, what we pay for education and even the value of a specific college degree.
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It seems like only yesterday that my friend Teri was telling me that if she could do college all over again she would take different courses: literature, poetry and just a greater variety of subjects. Well, I've got some good news: turns out that you can now take an amazing variety of courses, many of them offered by universities that most of us couldn't get into today, such as Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, many of them free. What's the hitch? Just this: the courses are online.

I've been taking outside education for most of my life. Just as soon as I started first grade, I started going to Sunday school (which in my case was Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday school); during high school I took life drawing classes at the Art Students League (my only shot at seeing naked people); during college, I also attended summer school (it was how I convinced my parents to first let me drive to California); and after graduate school, I continued to take various creative writing classes.

There came a point, however, when with wife and daughter a priority, I stopped going to classes. Instead, I discovered The Teaching Company, which offers great courses from great professors in a variety of audio and video formats at reasonable prices (there are always sales). Over the years, I have enjoyed "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music," on cassette; "American Civil War" on CD; and "The Aeneid of Virgil" as a download. I can say that in 20-minute bursts (the limit of my attention span, not the lectures, which are generally in one-hour installments) a course makes driving around a parking lot looking for a space or being stuck in traffic almost painless.

My father, who footed the bill for my formal education, had an abiding fear that I would become "Der Ewige Student," the perpetual student, never launched into the real world -- jack of all trades, master of none. Today, however, it turns out that to remain competitive in the real world, one must continue to learn.

Whatever your profession, there are online courses to get up to speed on new developments and new technologies. So, for example, from, a source for the media-related industries, I recently took a short workshop in CMS (Content Management Strategy), or how to use WordPress, Drupal and other online platforms. I am considering taking another in Google Analytics or a social media boot camp, not so much to master the specifics but to gain better fluency and increase my comfort level in discussing online media strategies.

At the same time, universities around the world are taking their courses online in ways that may disrupt our notions of how and what we learn, who learns what, what we pay for education and even the value of a specific college degree. More than a year ago, when Sebastian Thrun of Stanford put one of its artificial intelligence courses online for free, 160,000 thousand students from almost 200 countries signed up. Not long thereafter, Coursera was founded by Stanford computer scientists Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, to offer courses from Stanford, Penn, Michigan and Princeton, and raised more than $20 million in financing. According to The New York Times, Harvard and MIT have formed a similar joint venture called EdX, Thrun has launched Udacity, and 2tor has partnered with divisions of USC, Georgetown and UNC to offer online courses. You can sign up for any of these to see what courses they offer. Apple, of course, has an app for that: iTunes U from which you can search and then watch and/or listen to a wide variety of course offerings.

What are some of the courses? In recent months, I watched Peter Galison, Harvard professor of the history of science (and my high school classmate), speak about Harvard's collection of scientific instruments dating back to Benjamin Franklin; Michael Sandel's Harvard Law School ethics class, "Justice"; Duke University's freshman introductory survey class on engineering, Engineering 10; and Stanford design school's 90-minute introductory offering on "how to think like a designer."

Maybe all you want to do is learn a new language or brush up on one studied long ago. Try the free apps for Babbel and busuu, which give you spoken vocabulary, phrases and whole conversations to study, repeat and practice.

If all this seems aimless, enter former Paramount president and UC Regent Sherry Lansing's new venture Empowered UCLA Extension (, an online, iPad-only learning venture targeted at 45- to 65-year-olds who want to get certificate-level skills to stay current at their job, be able to get a better job at their current company, or get an entirely new job in such areas as marketing and new media, patient advocacy, health services, financial services, IT and nonprofit management. Tuition is around $13,000 for a one-year program of two courses (if you sign up for the academic year beginning this September, the tuition is approximately $10,000), which includes an iPad loaded with your course materials. Included in the tuition is a career counselor assigned to guide you in your professional development and job search in details large and small, from resume to LinkedIn profile. Lansing has already recruited Hollywood stars such as James Franco, James Gandolfini, George Lopez and Sally Field to promote the site and/or to sponsor scholarships. To give Lansing further credit, this is a well-thought-out, well-designed site and program with an efficient sales force. Within an hour of signing up, I got a phone call; within a week I had spoken to a career counselor. From an organizational and enterprise standpoint, it was impressive.

No one really knows what the lasting impact of all this new online education will be: Will the online democratization of education disrupt and disintermediate the business of education (see what big words you pick up when you study), much like it did the music industry? If a university can charge $100 a course and get 100,000 students, will institutions still need to charge $30,000 to $50,000 a year in tuition? If you can take a Harvard course in your home or even watch it in a classroom in Santa Monica with a local professor and take exams there or at an official testing location, and earn credit at a tenth of the cost, will that lessen the value of a university degree or create a multi-tiered caste system with one type of education for the 1 percent (an Ivy League, on-campus four-year degree) and another for the 99 percent (online or at remote locations, degree or certificate), and will employers care about the distinction? I'll keep you posted on that.

For the young, education may well become another lifelong DIY project; for the majority of their elders, online education affords not only new possibilities but also the joy of discovery, which, as Marcel Proust noted in his study-worthy "In Search of Lost Time," is the true fountain of youth.

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