Wow! This is the way to go! offers more than 100 free courses from universities such as Cal Tech, UC Berkeley, Rice, John Hopkins, U.of Illinois, and 11 others. The number of students is approaching a million. Bill Gates’ favorite online learning site, KhanAcademy, has hundreds more college courses, many on technical subjects, and they too are all free.

Is this a trend? Is it the future? We certainly hope so. Considering the cost of attending a major university these days, there has to be an alternative. Sending a student to four years at one of the biggies like Princeton, Harvard, U. of Chicago, etc., costs around a quarter of a million dollars. Have two kids? That’s half a million. Second tier schools cost only slightly less.

UC Berkeley has an online course called “Software Engineering for SaaS.” (That’s “software as a service.”) In short, courses can be incredibly specific and career-oriented. However, Coursera also has general courses, like Princeton’s “History of the World since 1300.” (That would be the beginning of the Renaissance.) Students watch video lectures and earn certificates signed by the professor. They also grade each other, after they have proven they can grade competently. (Enough with underpaid teaching assistants; everybody can be a teaching assistant.)

Joy signed up for aU.of Pennsylvania, class on health care policy and it was almost like being there. The video showed the class from the perspective of a student facing the teacher. When the professor told the class to get out their clickers and guess how many people in America are uninsured, Joy was one of the few who got it right, clicking on an onscreen multiple-choice slide instead of an actual physical device like the clickers handed out in class. (The U.S. has 15% uninsured. Most people think it’s much higher.)

Coursera and KhanAcademy aren’t the only players stepping forward.Carnegie Mellon University offers free “Open Learning Initiative” courses in the sciences, statistics, speech and languages. Find them at Carnegie Mellon, by the way, is one of the leading schools for cybernetics and robotics. Duke University offers “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.” We feel sure we’ve met those students. offers free courses from publishers like Adobe, Sun Microsystems, Stanford, MIT, Microsoft, Amazon, and others. “TED Talks” at are short lectures on a huge range of topics. Among this week’s “most emailed” is “Crimes of the Future,” which is actually about the degree to which modern criminal gangs have adopted technology to create their own instant networks.

Of course, when you learn online you miss the fun of being part of a college peer group. But maybe you can have both. These online courses are a wonderful way to sample the caliber of a school’s teachers and classes and pursue a degree later.

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