Cheap (or free!) college courses for just about everyone on just about anything

Aging is an inexorable process, but what can often make a person feel truly old is inflexibility of the mind. After so many years we can get set in our ways, so comfortable in what we know that we often forget how much we don’t know. Curiosity, then, can be what prevents us from feeling truly old.

Finding ways to stay curious as we age, however, can be a challenge. Left to our own devices, we often seek information that fits our preconceived notions. This tendency is called confirmation bias: when we almost accidentally search for or interpret information in a way that confirms or supports our prior beliefs. Therefore, to stay intellectually flexible it is important to seek knowledge from expert sources that takes us beyond our preconceived notions.

Under that logic, the fountain of youth does exist — and the secret lies in MOOCs, or massive online open courses. These classes are offered from institutions of higher learning like Harvard, Columbia, and Yale … for free. Anyone can enroll and benefit from the collective wisdom of top collegiate professors, purely for the sake of learning. If you want to earn a certification, you can do that too — for a lot less than if you tried to enroll the traditional way. We spoke with Professor Trudi E. Jacobson, distinguished librarian emeritus at the University of Albany, to learn more about MOOCs and how to get the most out of these programs.

What are MOOCs?

Massive open online courses are exactly what they sound like: college courses offered via the internet aimed at unlimited participation and open access. When MOOCs first started to become popular around 2012, Jacobson and her colleagues wanted to explore how MOOCs could allow students to build their own interactive learning experiences. Unfortunately, they found that this open format of learning was difficult for the typical college student to embrace. “[Students] are used to being told what they need to do,” she says. 

Since then, MOOCs have evolved to become more like the massive lecture courses we’re familiar with from our college days. They consist of a combination of traditional course materials such as filmed lectures, readings, and posted problem sets, blended with interactive opportunities like user forums and social media tools. 

This format of higher education has been criticized by some for setting unrealistic time-commitment expectations for the typical student, and for the assumption that the student can self-regulate and set their own goals. But while those issues may be problematic for your typical 20-year-old seeking a degree, retirees or even empty nesters still working have more free time — and often the self-motivation — to learn simply for learning’s sake. 

The MOOCs that Jacobson has taught have been taken by people from all age groups all over the world. But she particularly encourages people from a more mature demographic to take advantage of them: “I think for those who are older, who are coming to this with their own motivation — doing it because they want to do it — it probably works better than [for] those who are doing it because they have to,” she says.

Take, for example, the course Jacobson offered through Coursera called Metaliteracy: Empowering Yourself in a Connected World. Being metaliterate means being able to evaluate information for bias, reliability, and credibility and then understanding how to apply that information in context. Jacobson says that when students take the course, they are often surprised to find that metaliteracy can change your whole point of view. “This is a way of thinking — both about the assessment of the information they’re using and consuming, but also their responsibilities as creators of information,” she says. In the past, you needed to write a book or be some kind of credentialed expert to disseminate information or knowledge. Thanks to the internet, all you need is access and the ability to hit “share.” So Jacobson’s course discusses the responsibility we all share when we participate in social media to assess the truth of what we are seeing as well as what we pass along.

Jacobson is also excited about the unique way that MOOCs can help people expand their horizons beyond what is included in the lectures and readings. “Depending on the platform and how it is structured, [MOOCs] can be very interesting if there are discussions going on with people all over the world because it gives you a new perspective and a chance to share your knowledge,” she says.

How to get started

MOOCs are available through a variety of online platforms. The most well known are probably Coursera and edX, which collaborate with leading universities and companies to provide free courses, professional certificates, and even degrees. 

Before you enroll, however, consider what you want to get out of the experience. Are you looking for a more passive role, where you can simply absorb the information at your own pace? Or are you looking to be a more engaged learner, which requires interaction between yourself and other students and professors around the world? Jacobson, as you can probably guess, enthusiastically encourages people to opt for the latter. “If there is the opportunity to engage with others and do peer review or assessments, think about doing it,” she says. “We see a lot of people who go through MOOCs doing the minimum, but those who go that extra step say how enriching it was to do that.” Either way, before you select a course read through the syllabus and make sure it offers the experience you prefer. The structure of the classes can vary quite a bit from platform to platform and are dependent upon the area of study, so shop around. 

While perusing your options, keep your end goal in mind. Partially taking a course is totally fine, for instance. “There might only be a few modules that you want to learn from; you might not need everything the MOOC offers, but don’t feel guilty for not doing the whole thing,” she says. “It is all self-directed; you know what it is you want to get out of the course. Don’t let [the specter of failure] deter you.”

Ultimately, there’s nothing to lose by enrolling in a MOOC. In the end you won’t be saddled with hefty student loans, and no one is going to hound you about your grades. You could seek certifications that might further your career, or merely broaden your horizons in the pursuit of eternal youth. “Give it a try. You may not decide to do it all the way through,” Jacobson says, “but you might be very surprised at how fulfilling it is.”

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