Downloaders upskill with online learning

JENNETH ORANTIA
Last updated 13:01 19/11/2012
Salman Khan
PROFESSOR X-FACTOR: Salman Khan, the creator of Khan Academy software.

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Ever wondered what it would be like to have a little more education under your belt?

Thanks to the internet, the days of sticking to what you know for lack of a better option are numbered.

From the comfort of your home, you can now study machine learning at Stanford University, exercise physiology at the University of Melbourne, and medical neuroscience at Duke University on your computer in your free time and for free - even if you never graduated from high school.

Or, if you want to add a few letters to the end of your name to improve your job prospects, you can pay to do an accredited course online rather than on campus.

The internet is a goldmine for online learning. If you have a computer, time and motivation, everything from learning how to apply make-up like Lady Gaga to getting a master's in business administration can be accomplished from the privacy of your own home.

Recent Evocca College graduate Dominique Scott says she was drawn to online learning for its flexibility. Having just had a baby, studying on campus wasn't feasible.

"I've wanted to become a project manager for a long time," Scott says. "Online study allowed me to work at my own pace and gave me the flexibility to study whenever I had a spare moment."

For public relations consultant Laura Byrne, online learning enabled her to specialise in nutrition communications through a university in Boston without setting foot on American soil.

"It was the perfect program for me, but I live in Australia," Byrne says. "Taking it online was a no-brainer."

Shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to do an online course isn't strictly necessary. If you're simply learning for the love for it, many prestigious universities around the world now offer free MOOCs (massive open online courses) through services such as Coursera, Khan Academy and iTunes U.

Coursera is one of the leading MOOC providers. Founded by two Stanford University computer scientists and backed by millions of dollars in venture capital, it has 204 courses available from 35 schools, and more than 1.8 million students from 196 countries enrolled at present.

If you're after a qualification that employers will recognise, however, you'll still need to attain a certificate or degree from an Australian or reputable international educational institution.

"From a qualification perspective, I would say [MOOCs] aren't worth anything," says the career coach at Career Education Australia, Scott Tetley. "But that's not to say that the learning hasn't been valuable. These courses can improve your confidence by increasing your skill set or knowledge base and assist in personal career advancement."

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The online courses offered by Australian educational institutions aren't cheap. In most cases, they cost roughly the same as the equivalent on-campus courses, even though students don't have the same level of access to teachers and fellow students.

The chief executive of Open Universities Australia, Paul Wappett, says the quality of discussion in an online course can equal, if not exceed, that of an on-campus course. "What the internet does, through the use of forums, discussion boards, chat boards, wikis and the like, is allow people that wouldn't otherwise speak up in class to contribute to the discussion," Wappett says. "The level of discourse that's happening in a face-to-face environment is limited to a small number of people anyway."

Having done both on-campus and online study, Diane Hardie, a Deakin University graduate, agrees. "With on-campus, there's always that one student that puts up their hand and monopolises the whole subject," she says.

"Whereas in online, you've got it all on a platter. You can join in to the forum groups that are there, and you can chat online or send an email directly to your tutor."

But online learning isn't for everyone. With no scheduled classes, the pressure of outside commitments, and often no separate study area, it requires a high level of discipline to keep up.

"There's no doubt that when you're in your own living room without a cohort of people around you, you need to be very self-motivated," Wappett says. "You need to read the materials, do the assignments and work, and also engage with the fellow students and the lecturer. The temptations to not study are ever present."

FREE ONLINE EDUCATION OPTIONS

iTunes U If you have an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad, downloading the iTunes U app from the App Store gives you access to more than 500,000 free lectures, videos, books and other educational resources from hundreds of learning institutions around the world.

Khan Academy Available through a web browser and the dedicated iPad app, Khan Academy bills itself as a "global classroom". It combines video lectures with practice exercises and a custom profile that tracks your achievements and learning progress.

Coursera The courses available through Coursera operate more like the traditional online learning programs, with a set start date and duration, new video lectures and slides posted every week, and assignments to be completed by certain deadlines.

edX is similar to Coursera, only with fewer courses and an emphasis on maths, science and computer programming subjects.

- Sun-Herald

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