A Free University Education

By Max Li | Published: January 11, 2012

The traditional higher education model involves paying inordinate amounts of money to universities in order to receive knowledge (and a shiny piece of paper at the end to boot). However, many well-known universities (such as MIT and Stanford) are putting some of their course material online for free. That’s right, you can get a world-class education from the comfort of your own home while wearing your pajamas (though I suppose you can wear your pajamas just about anywhere, so that isn’t too much of a benefit).

MIT OpenCourseWare has released materials for over 2000 of their courses. Sounds unbelievable? It kind of is. The majority of the courses have minimal materials (e.g. a select few lecture notes). However, for many of their core mathematics, science and engineering courses, there are full video lectures, assignments and tests (sometimes even with solutions!). This is a great self-study resource for the first year or two of a traditional technical degree.

This past Fall, Stanford offered 3 computer science courses online (Databases, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning). (In case you’re wondering, I signed up for the Databases course but I let my real life education get in the way of taking the course.) This semester, they are offering many more (10 computer science courses and 6 other courses covering entrepreneurship, medicine, civil engineering, electrical engineering and complex systems). (Incidentally, I’ve signed up for the vast majority of them, fully expecting to drop many of them but hopefully complete some of them.)

I think that in many (if not most) ways that Stanford has topped MIT. Not only have they provided extensive course material, but they also give a relatively interactive system to learn and test yourself. This more directed and interactive approach is much better for most people (feedback is always good).

With these two resources, you can essentially get a degree in computer science for free from quite possibly the two most reputed computer science schools. Of course there are a few caveats.

You don’t get a shiny piece of paper at the end. This is largely why the universities can do this; there has to be a difference between completing (a likely somewhat watered-down) course online from Stanford and a real, in-person class. But perhaps you don’t care; perhaps you just want to take the courses for the sake of learning.

The interaction is limited. One of the benefits of paying tons of money to a university is that you can get help much more easily. You can raise your hand during class to ask a question. You can go to office hours. They can’t promise this level of support because the student to staff ratio is enormous since the course is free.

Not only is the interaction with course personnel limited, but interaction with other students is also limited. University is not solely about academics. Meeting and conversing with your peers is a very valuable experience. Not only does it help you intellectually, but it also helps you become well-rounded. An online discussion forum is at best a meager substitute for such a crucial aspect of a true university education.

Despite these downsides (which I don’t really see ever going away), I think that the two resources provided by MIT and Stanford are great and can only get better with time. (It’s also worth noting that many other well-known universities have opened up their course material, such as Berkeley and Yale, though with more of a broad range of subject matter.) If you want to get a free computer science education, this is the closest thing.

I can’t wait to start learning.