Friday, February 8, 2013

The Quest for Knowledge: OpenCourseWare to the Rescue!

Back in 2002, MIT launched their OpenCourseWare movement (OCW).

They weren't the first.  The idea of free online courses for the public actually began with the University of Tubingen in Germany in 1999.  Lectures were published online in order to give free educational access to anyone that wanted it.

The idea quickly caught the interest of other higher education facilities across the world, and


Suddenly, schools like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Stanford, and even Oxford were publishing free courses.

And they're all there, just for us!

Why in the world am I going on about open courseware when I'm supposed to be learning how to be a more eco friendly citizen of the world?  Well, the answer is in that question.  One word: learning.

To me, when we stop learning, we stop truly living.  And I have a lot to learn - all of us do.

I've decided to go back to the beginning, in a manner of speaking.  I have a degree in Geology, but it's not enough.  I've decided to start with Introductory Biology, and work through courses as though I was actually getting a degree in the biological sciences.  That means doing the chemistry, math, physics, humanities, etc., as well.

I won't actually receive a degree, of course... nor even a certification.  

That's not what these courses are designed for.  They're designed to teach, pure and simple.  The sharing of information.

If a person does choose to go on to gain a degree after taking courses such as these, however, they will be well prepared, so even without the pretty piece of paper that says you know what you're talking about, there's a benefit beyond the pure enjoyment of learning.  Think of it as introductory college, or something.

Yeah, that sounds dumb.  Pretend I never said that 'introductory college' thing.  We'll call it something different.

UberKnowledgeVille.                  Brainfill Central. 

The Great Repository of Erudition!!!

What?  Ok, ok... I'll stop.  You do have to give me a few points for that last one, though...

Really, when it comes to courses that can be taken, the sky is the limit.  They're easy to find, as well.

  • The OpenCourseWare Consortium is my favorite.  OCW has a catalog that's currently in the beta phase, which lists hundreds of courses in various fields.  These courses are at all levels: Undergraduate freshman courses, as well as graduate level lectures.  In fact, I think I may have even seen a basic Algebra course or two, for those that need a little extra help.
  • edX is another one that caught my eye.  The course load isn't nearly as large, but it has an easy to follow set-up.  I also noticed that edX will link to supplemental reading sources, when available.  A definite plus!
  • Academic Earth had one eye catching aspect that I discovered within the first few seconds of loading the page - test prep videos.  Excellent for those of us that want to prepare for the GMAT or the GRE.  And for everyone else?  I nice load of courses.  Again, not as large or fulfilling as the OCW's listings, but not bad, either.    
All three of these websites are great resources, but these are only a few of the goldmines I've found on the web.  

Indeed, I ended up going to the universities themselves to find courses.  In the end, I elected to go through a full list of courses from MIT, using their undergraduate requirements for graduation as a guide.  I can draw on additional universities for anything they don't offer online that I feel I need to learn.  Do I really know what in the heck I'm doing as I design my own, personal degree plan (minus the degree)?

Heck, no.

But that's part of the fun of it.  I don't have to know.  I can simply do what feels right, and so can you.  That's the beauty of online courses. 

The more I write, the more I realize that I don't really know much of anything.  I mean, I can identify plants in the field.  I can read through studies and stagger through the results using terminology attained through my first degree in (non-biological) science.  I'm able to study tracks in the snow and figure out which animal was there, as well as what the animal was doing at the time.  I have a basic, practical knowledge.

Unfortunately, the more you learn, the more you realize that you don't actually know enough.  

You want more.  You become a ravenous beast with a great and unquenchable thirst for the truth.  It can become absolutely consuming.  You discover that much of your knowledge isn't really your own - you're relying on experts that may or may not be trustworthy.  You really have no way of knowing.

Until you have the knowledge and skills necessary to form your own opinion, you're really just regurgitating what somebody else said, then molding it into something that makes sense to you.  The only release is to go with your instincts and acquire every bit of knowledge that you can.

And really, that's a good thing.  The quest for knowledge should never end.

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