Yeast cells coming to life are biochemistry in action. I tested the process by making a yeast air balloon, just like the students in the real class. I mixed yeast, sugar and water in a bottle and watched as the carbon dioxide given off inflated a balloon affixed to the neck. It was amateur science, sure, but it was science. And in the end I got something useful: some challah that my girlfriend, an aficionado of toast, declared the best bread she'd had all year. I began to look forward to each kitchen chemistry "class," and by the last week of my experiment I had made my pancakes fluffier, attempted my first stew and my first pie, understood for the first time how baking soda works, and learned what an emulsion is. I even made a soft, lemony cheese. In the kitchen, at least, I was an improved person thanks to self-directed study.
Romanian was also proving a success. By the final week of my month-long experiment, I could meet and greet people in a Bucharest of my imagination, bargain a cabbie from 10 lei to 5 (though if he argued, I'd be stuck), and identify 16 different animals, including an eagle (the word, oddly enough, is vultur).
My foray into computer science, on the other hand, was only moderately better than the physics debacle. I started with the grand ambition of building an iPhone app, but the online Stanford University course I was considering required you to possess "C language and programming experience at the level of 106B or X." I had no idea what these things meant, so I changed my mind. After spending two weeks of my "term" shopping for a new course (hey, no registration deadline here), I settled on trying to learn an old, elementary programming language called Logo. As one Logo site declared: So simple a child can do it!
Or me. A message board led me to a Logo class built by a generous British man. I downloaded the simple software and in minutes had mastered the first tutorial, which involved learning to direct a small turtle around the screen using simple commands. I could make squares, triangles and combinations of the two. I could also use Logo to complete equations both simple (addition) and more complex (trigonometric functions). A few tutorials later, I was making the program speak. It wasn't long, though, before terms like "data types and values" and "flow control" crept into the syllabus and I felt myself falling behind, wishing I could raise my hand and ask someone to explain it to me. By the second or third lesson I was getting the dreads, and for days after I avoided it entirely, procrastinating by any means necessary, including Romanian.
My failure to keep up with even basic science courses told me something I already knew, which is that I'm a writer, not a scientist or programmer. And that leads me to the first of a few Free Online School Rules I'd learned by the end of my experiment:
1. You get what you pay for. "Free" means no asking questions in the middle of class, which can be a dealbreaker with a subject as potentially confusing as physics.
2. That said, it might help if you actually buy the textbook.
3. Free online learning is not going to teach you anything substantial overnight, or in a week (unless you are Rain Man, in which case you're just memorizing anyway). Plan to do a whole course.
4. There are few things better than hot bread made with your own two hands, especially when you understand the science of why it's so delicious.
5. We are at the beginning of this experiment, not the end.
"You know where we're heading with this," says Shigeru Miyagawa, who believes that OCW has enriched current students and faculty, enhanced MIT's reputation as an institution at the forefront of innovation, and provided an invaluable opportunity to show off its smarts to those prospective geniuses that top schools fight for. "You can already see it. You" -- here he means an institution -- "can't afford not to do OCW. I foresee that in five years, all major institutions will be opening courses to let the world see what they do. It's a no-brainer, right?"
On the next page, our guide to the best places to learn on the web.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.