A quiet revolution is going on in education. One that is making it possible for millions of people to continue their education at radically reduced cost. While this may seem off topic for Magic Travel Blog this is a trend which long term travellers really should be aware of. One of the downsides of life on the road has always been that formal education is difficult if not impossible. Increasingly however, educators are using the latest technology to come to you wherever you might be.
Personally, I always wished I was better at maths. I did ok at high school. Not terrible but not great either. At university I did a statistics unit as part of the first year of a commerce degree. After the first year I switched from commerce to computer science. As I already had a math unit under my belt it was deemed that I had met the computer science math requirement. I could choose to take additional math units but I didn't have to. I was keen to not add any additional time to my degree and I didn't have to do more, so I didn't. I graduated as one of the least mathematically inclined computer science majors you will ever meet.
Fast forward ten years and my lack of math skills was bugging me. I'm a computer programmer and we're usually pretty mathy people. Not being terribly knowledgeable about maths has never interfered with my ability to do my job. In the only job I've had that involved serious mathematics there was someone with a math degree whose job it was to deal with the hard stuff. Although I can do my job perfectly well I still felt like I was missing out on something. It bugged me that there was this whole area of human knowledge that I was ignorant of. Plus I felt like there is a whole universe of interesting science that was beyond my abilities to really comprehend.
By day I'm fortunate enough to be able to contribute to an open source course management system called Moodle. It's a fantastic tool. Anyone can download the Moodle software and set up a website where they can create and manage courses on whatever topics they want. It's used every day by millions of people at tens of thousands of institutions all over the world. Moodle is fantastic but it's a tool for teaching. I wanted to be a student. I needed something that provides not just tools but content and instruction.
Fortunately, there are some amazing FREE resources available for anyone and everyone.
Khan Academy is a great resource. Salman Khan has recorded thousands of videos on a variety of topics including mathematics, history, chemistry and economics. They also have a large and constantly growing collection of mathematics activities primarily focussed on the maths taught in primary and high school classrooms. Once you've logged in it will provide an ordered tree of topics for you to explore, keep track of what activities you have completed and provide regular review questions.
Coursera is run by a large and growing group of universities. They provide free university level courses on a huge range of topics. At the time of writing there are 116 courses available. There's everything from “A History of the World since 1300” provided by Princeton to “Introduction to Philosophy” provided by the University of Edinburgh to “Natural Language Processing” provided by Stanford.
Conceptually similar to Coursera, edX is run by MIT, Harvard and Berkeley and provides free online university level courses. At the time of writing they only have 7 courses available. They are mostly computing courses plus one electronics and one chemistry course. I'm sure they'll be adding more as quickly as possible.
These are all open to anyone and are all free. There's no cost and no entrance criteria. Go and have a look if you don't believe me. Have a look around and find something that interests you.
UPDATE: some other options include Udacity.com and education-portal.com
So what am I doing? I just recently completed the last of the mathematics activities available on Khan Academy. As I write this I have completed 100% of the activities and I'm even up to date with all of my review questions. It took me around 7 months of spare moments to work my way through from basic arithmetic and fractions to trigonometry, complex numbers and the beginnings of calculus. They're always adding more activities so I'll need to check in occasionally to maintain my 100% complete status. I've learned a lot and had fun doing it.
Next up I'm intending on taking “Calculus: Single Variable” through Coursera. Coursera and edX are both part of a grand experiment that sees well known educational institutions providing courses for free to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of students. I'm expecting the mechanics of the running of the course will be as interesting as the material that is covered. And after that… I don't know. Maybe I'll take an edX course so I can compare the two systems. I'll keep you posted.
Be aware that at this time Coursera and edX do not issue actual degrees or other credentials. While the world of education is changing rapidly, for the time being at least, gaining credentials still requires paying for classes. If you're not here to learn for learning's sake and need the piece of paper at the end of the tunnel don't lose hope. There are at least two fantastic organisations that enable you to study remotely and to gain a bona fide qualification. Although these are not free they are worth considering if you are unable to physically access a bricks and mortar university or do not wish to be tied to a single location.
The Open University
The Open University is also known as the Open University UK or simply “the OU”. The OU provides courses and ultimately qualifications at both under-graduate and post-graduate levels across a huge range of subjects. Founded in 1969 it currently has around 250,000 students. Most of the students are from the UK however they do accept enrolments from international students.
Open University Australia
Open University Australia is a similar idea to Open University UK. Open University Australia's courses are provided by a coalition of Australian universities. It has courses across the whole spectrum of subjects typically found at a large university. As with Open University UK they accept enrolments from both local and international students. To make life even easier for travellers Tanya previously prepared a list of Open University Australia undergraduate units that don't have an exam.
And there you have it. The Internet has led to the creation of a great range of educational options that are expanding every day. Some are free. Some are not. Whatever you choose, its no longer a case of having to decide between education and travel. It takes some self discipline, same as always, but it's never been easier to have it all.