How Much Can You Really Learn With a Free Online Education?

The world’s most prestigious universities have begun posting entire curricula on the Web—for free. Is there such a thing as a free higher-education lunch? I enrolled to find out

I was not screwing around. When I took the first physics class of my life, at age 35, it was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and my professor was Walter Lewin, one of that institution’s most respected instructors. Lewin is a man so comfortable with his vectors that he diagrams them in front of a classroom audience while wearing Teva sandals.

OK, I wasn’t really “at” MIT. And “took” the class may be a stretch. I was watching the video of one of Lewin’s lectures from the comfort of my backyard in Brooklyn, and I too was wearing sandals (but not Tevas; I have standards).

Lewin is the breakout star of MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) program, what the school calls a “Web publication” of virtually every class taught in its hallowed halls. For his dynamic teaching and frequent stunts (building a human pendulum, firing golf balls at glass panels), he’s been downloaded by physics enthusiasts around the globe and profiled on the front page of the New York Times as the first luminary of online open learning. The professor’s fans are examples of a new type of student participating in a new kind of education, one built around the vast library of free online courseware offered by many of the world’s temples of higher learning, as well as museums, nonprofit organizations and other knowledgeable benevolents.

Why would someone who’s not paying $38,000 or getting a single credit subject themselves to the rigors of an MIT course? For one thing, OCW offers elite teaching on demand. College students at lesser schools can use a teacher like Lewin to stretch themselves (32 percent of MIT’s OCW users are enrolled at another college). A high-school physics teacher might tune in to brush up on the laws of thermodynamics — or become a better teacher by studying different methods of instruction. An engineer can beef up by taking tests from the advanced-level classes to identify stuff he ought to know but doesn’t and then dive into course notes to learn them.

And then there’s the just plain curious, a category that would include me. I wondered: What’s an MIT course like, anyway? Could I, more than a decade out of school, hang with those young brainiacs? To find out, I dusted off my three-ring binder and re-enrolled in school part-time from the comfort of my couch, drawing not just from MIT but from the many free sources online. Mimicking a typical course load, I would take a science course and a language course, attempt to cram in a computer-programming course, and watch as many miscellaneous lectures as I could stand. I wanted to see if I, in a month, operating as an adult balancing a semi-regular schedule and lots of other obligations, could actually learn something.

MIT for Free

The idea behind MIT’s OpenCourseWare program was born in 2000 on the recommendation of a faculty committee convened to answer two questions: How is the Internet going to change education? And what is MIT going to do about it?

Steve Carson, a spokesman for OCW, which is now a full entity within MIT with a $3.6-million budget, told me that the group was expected to recommend a for-profit distance-learning program. Once they started thinking hard about such a model, however, it didn’t make sense.

The problem is that MIT is, by its very nature, an exclusive institution, which accepts a mere 12 percent of its applicants and charges a small fortune for the privilege of attending. To put a scaled-back version of that online, available to a much larger audience, and still award credit would potentially devalue the existing university. Instead, they decided to do the opposite: put everything out there for free, but with no offer of credit or a degree. It would cost a lot of money, sure, but it would be great for the school’s image, and it would be a tremendous resource for actual MIT students — as Carson puts it, a “souped-up Wikipedia” for the MIT community to use. In the meantime, it would give the whole world the opportunity to sample an MIT education. Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of Japanese and linguistics at MIT, was one of the key members of that committee. He speaks of the program with uncut idealism. “Why are we doing this?” he says. “We’re doing this because of the belief that knowledge, when you share it, expands.”

Mathematics on the Refrigerator

Boy does it. OCW went live as a pilot program in 2002 with 50 courses. Five years later, MIT celebrated the publishing of its 1,800th course, and today more than 250 schools around the world have similar programs — many participating through the OCW Consortium, set up by MIT to help other schools follow its example. MIT estimates that 56 million people have accessed its courses alone, either directly from OCW or from its six translation sites. The 200-plus members of the OCW Consortium saw 15.7 million visits in the first quarter of this year alone. Apple created iTunes U to distribute classes in audio and video. YouTube has a channel called YouTube EDU.

And there’s much more beyond MIT — sites like Academic Earth (a clearinghouse for lectures from scholars and intellectuals), Google Code University, and thousands of free or for-profit sites teaching everything from Swedish to how to build and service solar cells. It’s a rich, burbling, overwhelming world. You could easily tumble down this rabbit hole and emerge weeks later, bearded, bleary-eyed and the most annoying party guest of all time. Or you could find that you’re not as smart as you thought you were.

Reality Check

“In physics we explore the very small to the very large,” Lewin said. He stood in front of the class in pleated khaki cargo pants and a blousy blue oxford and spoke with the sort of vague, undefined European accent that would make him an excellent foil for James Bond. (He turns out to be Dutch.) Lewin dismissed the American system of measure as “extremely uncivilized” and said his class would be based on the metric system. Then he rolled the film “Powers of 10,” at which point my screen went black and a note indicated that copyright prevented the film from being included.

Day one, and I’d already stumbled on an important limitation of the OCW experience. MIT (or any school) doesn’t have the right to give away copyrighted materials such as films or textbooks used in class. In the case of the former, it’s often not much of an issue; I just went to YouTube and dialed up the slightly dated (and moderately psychedelic) 1977 film made by Ray and Charles Eames to depict the relative size of things in the universe. But when it comes to books, it’s a stumbling block.

I was operating under the misguided notion that I could survive this experiment using only what was completely free, so I chose not to click the amazon.com link to order the textbook. That turned out to be a major problem. It quickly became clear that I was not equipped with the same foundational basis in math or physics that the students in this first-semester freshman physics course were, and without the supplemental text, I had no additional tool for decoding Lewin’s scribbles. Obviously, I couldn’t ask a question, either.

I stuck with it, for a while. In a week, I watched three of Lewin’s 50-minute lectures and understood almost none of them. The stunts for which he’s become famous are undeniably entertaining — I think it’s fair to call this prop-wielding genius the Gallagher of science — but at the end of each hour I’d look down at my scrawls and realize they were useless to me. They looked like hieroglyphics.

I got that long-dormant lost-in-class feeling that triggers notebook doodles and clock watching, and I started to dread “going.” And so, in a departure lounge at Miami International Airport, around the time Lewin said, “We now come to a much more difficult part, and that is multiplication of vectors,” I decided to drop the class.

Thank God for Flash Cards

The guilt I felt over my failure to absorb higher math was soon offset by two things. First, I realized that unlike in college, there was no consequence or embarrassment to dropping the class. No walk of shame to the registrar’s office, and it’s not as if Lewin would miss me. Two, I was getting more bilingual by the day.

After hunting for the perfect online language course, I’d settled on a Romanian class from BYKI (Before You Know It), a for-profit site with a broad selection of free options, including a boiled-down version of its software that enables you to study vocabulary and basic grammar using a program of downloadable pop-up flash cards. The idea is to hook you and hope you’ll pay up to $70 for the full version, but what’s free is substantial; plenty, it seemed, to crash-prepare for a trip. I wasn’t actually going to Romania, I was simply curious about the tongue that I’d recently learned is the fifth Romance language. In fact, I happened to have a trip scheduled to a place where Romanian would do me no good at all: Ecuador.

On day five, lying on the musty sheets of a hotel bed in Quito, I learned to count from one to 10 in Romanian in less than half an hour using the program’s highly intuitive card system. It starts by having you read and repeat the words in English and Romanian and then has you type the translation both ways. It’s self-correcting, and when you miss a word, that word is given higher priority and appears more often until you’ve proven that you’ve learned it. It works. By the time I headed out for the night, I could transcribe a phone number in Romanian.

Romanian on Refrigerator

It turns out that this kind of itinerant self-schooling is pretty common. MIT says 61 percent of OCW users live outside the U.S. (the largest block is in East Asia, with 22 percent). Steve Carson shared case studies with me featuring students, educators and self-learners from Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Nigeria and St. Lucia.

Take the story of two Bostonians, Ann Nguyen and Alison Cole. Recent college grads (Nguyen from the University of Massachusetts — Amherst, Cole from Scotland’s Edinburgh Napier University), the two decamped this summer to India, where they plan to live cheaply for a few years while attempting a bold experiment. Nguyen and Cole saw in OCW’s freely available teachings the material for an “alternative grad school” of their own design. Theirs is the ultimate study-abroad program — self-imposed graduate-level distance learning conducted from a far-flung location that also happens to have plenty of opportunities for hands-on work related to the subject of study, environmental engineering. Cole told me that she’s not sure how well it will work but that the two want to answer a number of questions, foremost among them: Can a person conduct work with high academic integrity outside the auspices of an institution?

“I’m an academic at heart,” Cole says. “But the realization that continuing my education would only further my debt and reduce my ability to afford life and a family really bummed me out.” She and Nguyen are using the syllabi from MIT OCW’s courses in ground hydrology, soil behavior and aquatic chemistry to construct a program that will study arid-land restoration, a subject that has practical applications in India and will also be relevant out there in job-land when it comes time to move back. (How employers will feel about this self-governed education remains to be seen.)

Although Cole and Nguyen appear to be the first to attempt to use OCW as the basis for a full-blown graduate program, they’re hardly the only hardcore autodidacts. Consider “Deevani,” who e-mailed me one afternoon in response to a call for satisfied OCW students. Deevani turned out to be A. Ines Rooney, a 34-year-old music-industry executive who moonlights as a songwriter specializing in the Latin-inspired hip-hop known as reggaeton. Rooney is self-taught in 12 languages, including Urdu, Bengali and Mandarin, and spends whatever spare time she has after producing and recording records (and raising her children) to devour OCW language, culture, literature, economics and finance classes — some 80 of them so far, she estimates. “I think I have a Ph.D. right now,” she says, half-kidding. “I just don’t have the credit.”

Rooney is right. You’ll never earn a degree from your self-imposed studies. As Carson points out, no amalgam of text and video, no matter who builds it, will ever be a substitute for an actual MIT education. (Or an education from Carnegie Mellon, or Notre Dame, or anywhere else.) You can’t actually use the labs or interact with faculty, who are the real draw of a college.

Like any open-source program, however, free Internet education is evolving. “There are Yahoo groups that have formed around MIT content,” Carson says. “If [independent learners] don’t need certification but need content, they can go to OpenCourseWare and form a group.”

(Sort of) Living Up to My Potential

I could have used a support group. The second week of my experiment, a little shell-shocked by my failure in physics, I listened to three MIT biology lectures. It didn’t stick. Next I sought out something science-y that was both easier to handle and more practical. I opted for a seminar taught by the chemist Patricia Christie, a lecturer in MIT’s Experiment Study Group. “Cooking,” read the course description for Kitchen Chemistry, “may be the oldest and most widespread application of chemistry, and recipes may be the oldest practical result of chemical research.” It sounded perfect until I hit a snag: There were no video or audio lectures.

Dot Matrix Diploma

I wrote to Carson in a panic, and he broke the news to me. Only 79 of the OCW courses come with video lectures (another 22 come with audio). The program was intended as a print-based initiative; whether to add video was the professor’s call. In essence, mine would be a lab class without the labs. I bit into the curriculum anyway. The class on bread obliged me to investigate the science of yeast, thought to be the oldest industrial biological agent. My curiosity piqued, I spent an entire afternoon bouncing around the Web reading about baking science.

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.

Who has time to search the web when there’s so much learning to be done? So we’ve put together a list of our favorite 10 free online resources here. The first lesson is that, if you can think of the topic, chances are you can find a course on it at one of these sites.

Learn from the Best: Many of the nation’s top schools have opened up online annexes

1. MIT OpenCourseWare
Its list of 1,900 courses includes Weight Training and Playwriting. But the majority of “students” visit the oldest open courseware program for the subjects that made the Institute so renowned: physics, math and electronics.

2. University of Berkeley
It’s no surprise that the top-ranked public university offers a few dozen online audio and video lectures each semester. And live videos from special campus events, like the Dalai Lama talking about peace through compassion, could make you feel like you’re in the middle of college life.

3. Johns Hopkins School of Public Health OpenCourseWare
If you’re interested in a softer side of science, you can find written, video and audio lectures on public health topics ranging from sexual health to the fundamentals of human nutrition.

Extracurriculars: Round out your education

4. Google Code U
Becoming a master of your own domain, speaking C++, and hackproofing your data are all possible at Google Code U. And if you feel inspired to give back to the community that teaches you all that computer science, you’re in luck. The site accepts appropriate course content from its users.

5. Hewlett-Packard Learning Center
Brush up on basic computer skills like Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint, as well as life skills such as business etiquette, from the technology giant Hewlett-Packard. You can even opt to receive a degree to hang on the wall once you completed your course.

6. BYKI
“You know,” “generally speaking,” “in order to” learn a foreign language, you have to memorize the most common phrases and words. Or so goes the mantra of this online language resource that promises to have you speaking one of over 70 different languages “before you know it.”

7. Digital Photography School
The site offers tutorials and tips for digital photographers of all levels.

Cast the Net Wide: A trio of lecture aggregators

8. Academic Earth
Perusing video lectures from different universities on Academic Earth is so smooth and seamless that you will have plenty of brain cells left over for learning.

9. YouTube EDU
In the same familiar format used for scanning screenshots of fluffy kitty videos, YouTube aggregates video content from different learning centers.

10. iTunes U
Use your iPhone or iPod touch for a higher purpose than tweeting with iTunes U. The application brings a list of the most popular lectures from different universities and cultural institutions to your fingertips.