How to Get Your Degree Online for Free (or very nearly): Part II

education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)
By Christopher Lotito

This article is part of a multi-article series about the evolution and democratization of learning, online education, and the challenges and choices our children will face in their education over the next decade.  Pequannock News is proud to provide this personal account of experiences with online education providers (including Udacity, Coursera, edX, and others) for the value of parents, students, and the general public.

Going Back to School, Online or Offline

For the short side of forever, people have asked me: "Why not go back for a graduate degree?"  Frankly, I was too busy working multiple jobs paying off exorbitant student loans (something Congressman Paul Ryan claims to know a lot about).

Now, with a stack of half completed articles for Pequannock News piling up, I feel motivated to share the passion / diversion which has taken up so much of my time of late: continuing education.  Two years ago, I looked at grad schools, but the timing wasn't right.  Also, the grad schools weren't right!  Online courses frequently had questionable accreditation and no wonder as they were simply a list of required reading, a discussion board, and a few low-budget videos or audio recordings.  Online courses even as recently as 2010 (and many still offered today) provided a tiny fraction of the flexibility that online education was designed to provide, and little of the quality of a brick-and-mortar education.  (Online Courses are also now referred to as M.O.O.C.s or "Massive Open Online Course")

Note, I'm not against enrolling in grad school, possibly at one of our nearby universities at Montclair, William Paterson, or several others in the North Jersey region, but frankly I'm learning a lot through my work with Pequannock Township and I feel that I'm doing a lot of good and I want to remain committed to that work.  After all, there are civil war veterans left to discoverbike paths to advocate for, and children left to educate about Reaction Motors... my work isn't half done yet I think.  My education, supposedly resulting in a paper "ticket-to-ride" the 6-figure income train, needs to be compatible with my life goals and my passions, otherwise it all seems a little hollow.

Most recently, I've been reviewing my options for a return to school, starting with the brick-and-mortar.  I looked at Drew University's Historic Preservation Certificate Program, not as a career, but as a passion, a side-line, and an option to get back into classroom mode after a few years away.  The certificate program is highly recommended, but it was recently announced that it would stop being offered in the next year (2013) so I think I'll skip signing-up for a program I won't have an opportunity to complete.  I'm currently reviewing business management education at a few graduate schools and have also had some recommendations for municipal management education programs as well, given my history with the township's commissions.

Somewhere along the line, I ended up enrolled at Udacity, an online course provider, taking a challenging course in computer science which teaches how to program a search engine in the Python programming language.  I think Time magazine is to blame for this, publishing their "Education Issue" in October and reviewing Udacity, edX, and Coursera as options for online education.  Oh, did I mention I've signed up for all 3?  It doesn't cost a dime, there is no penalty for auditing or withdrawing from classes, and you get access to graduate level course materials from Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Yale, Harvard, 20 other universities, and courses developed by Google and other Fortune 500 tech companies.  All of which would be great if you could get college credit for it... which you now can.  Better still would be if these organizations offered a free business networking service which gets your resume in front of business leaders across several industries... they do AND those businesses pay for the privilege!  -- It's worth noting that hybrid courses and degrees with both online and in-person components are currently available from several universities at standard tuition rates, though they didn't make it into this article.

The rest of this series will examine, at some length, non-traditional options for higher education (with options for high school students as well).

Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District, Open Space, and Flood Control Advisory Commissions as well as the author of  "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region.  Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children.  Christopher Lotito Profile

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