I’ve seen several quotes that say something like this: “Everything I learned in college can now be found online for free.”
Is that true or false? Well, it depends, of course, on what you did in college—but I hope it’s false.
Let’s start with some examples that seem to support this idea. I will use the area of physics, since I’m a physics professor. Is it possible to learn introductory physics (equivalent to the first year of university-level, calculus-based physics) for free online? I think the answer is yes.
There are two excellent places to start if you are seeking your own understanding of physics. What about Wikipedia? The physics page has lots of good stuff and more specific topics are pretty accurate. Here is the page on the work-energy principle, and it seems fine. The main problem with using Wikipedia as an educational resource, of course, is that there is no logical overview or layout of the important topics. If you know what you want, then you can get it—but what if you don’t know where to start?
Another site that I find useful is HyperPhysics. Like Wikipedia, you can find just about any physics topic—but this site has all of the stuff arranged in a more sensible manner. Still, it might not be the best if you want to start off on your own. The same is true for the very many excellent videos on YouTube. In fact, I have posted my own fair share of physics videos online.
Finally, there are even online courses you can enroll in for free. Take a look at the stuff offered by MIT—it’s got everything you need to get started with physics. Or you could take a look at some of the online curriculum that I have created (of course my version includes numerical calculations).
So then it’s true? You can learn everything online for free? Well, I think you can get all of the physics content online for free—but you won’t get the same thing as you get from going to college.
I can explain what I am talking about with an analogy. Suppose you have some chocolate chips—like this:
Looks tasty, right? Those chocolate chips are just like the courses you take in college. You can also find chocolate chips (the exact same amount) in a chocolate chip cookie:
The cookie is the on-campus experience. College is not just about the chocolate chips. It’s about all of that stuff that holds the chips together. College is more than a collection of classes. It’s the experience of living away from home. It’s the cookie dough of relationships with other humans and even faculty. College can be about clubs and other student groups. It’s about studying with your peers. College is the whole cookie.
You can’t get this whole cookie online; you only get the chips.
Honestly, this is why I’m not a big fan of online courses that are offered at universities. It’s not just that you can’t get the content online—it’s that online courses don’t add to the rest of the big-chocolate-chip-cookie theory of education. And while just about everyone will agree that it’s pretty darn hard to learn physics, it’s especially difficult to do it online.
But wait! While we are talking about learning stuff, I have one more point to make. Don’t think that you should acquire all of the skills and knowledge you need for your whole career during your time at school. You will always be learning new things, and there will always be new stuff to learn (no one learned about smartphones in the ’80s). In fact, a college degree is not about job training. It’s not. Really, it’s not about that.
Then what is the whole chocolate chip cookie about? It’s about exploring who you are and learning things that might not directly relate to a particular field. College is about taking classes that might not have anything to do with work. Art history is a great class—even if you aren’t going to work in a museum. Algebra should be taken by all students—even though you probably won’t need it (most humans get by just fine without a solid math background). So really, the whole cookie is about becoming more mature as a human. It’s about leveling up in the human race—and that is something that is difficult to do online (but surely not impossible).
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