Back to school for Zoomers

Does the arrival of fall have you yearning to learn something new? More adults are heading back to class to enjoy the many benefits of life-long learning: keeping the brain sharp, learning new skills, updating qualifications and pursuing new passions. The experience and education that mature learners bring to the table often gives them an edge.

If commitments such as career and family make it a struggle to go back to school, you’ll love the growing trend of online courses which give today’s students greater flexibility and a wider variety of options. Forget traditional correspondence courses: videos, interactive exercises, chat software and discussion forums provide some of the experience of a classroom in an enjoyable format suited to learners of all ages. There’s even a term for some of the latest offerings: MOOCs (short for “massive open online courses).

Online courses are available all over the world — some for credit and others for free. If you’re an independent learner with some tech-savvy, chances are you’ll find something that’s a good fit.

The first step in looking for an online class is to define your goals. Consider:

– Are you looking for a fun way to pass the time, hoping to zero in on a specific interest or upgrade your skills at work?

– Are you looking to complete a course for credit, or do you want to skip doing assignments and focus on learning? Do you want to dive into a degree or certificate program?

– Do you want to work at your own pace or have a specific schedule? How many hours a week can you dedicate to learning?

Once you know, it’s time to get online and start looking.

Where to start

While you won’t get credit towards a degree or diploma, many universities are offering free MOOCs through services like:

EdX. Founded by Harvard University and the Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), edX aims to bring free online courses to anyone in the world with an internet connection. The service is still in its early stages, but is offering seven online courses in fall 2012 which mainly focus on computers and technology.

Coursera. With courses from 16 top universities such as Stanford University and the University of Toronto, Coursera’s free courses are a little more structured than other organizations. Courses have a specific start date and range six to eight weeks in length. There are comprehension tests too, and many offer a certificate of completion when you’re through. Currently the site has over 1.1 million students and 120 courses, including computer science, biology, medicine, business and finance.

Udacity. Rather than partnering with colleges and universities, Udacity works directly with professors to offer free online courses focusing on computer science and related fields. You don’t need to be an expert — some current offerings include introductory level courses in physics and statistics to more advanced courses in software debugging and programming languages. For a fee, you can certify your skills online or at a testing centre. Another perk: Udacity has a free job placement program (in the U.S.).

Khan Academy. Don’t want to commit to a course? Named for its founder Salman Khan, this website is a large library of videos and exercises on a variety of topics in math, science and the humanities. It’s a good place to start if you aren’t ready to dive into university-level content (or you want a quick refresher before helping your kids with their homework.) You go through activities at your own pace, the system keeps track of your progress and achievements.

Udemy. From games and hobbies to science and technology, udemy lets instructors create and offer courses on a variety of topics. Some courses are free while others have fees ranging from $17 to $149 — and a 30-day, no questions asked refund policy. The length and activities vary according to the instructor, and there are no deadlines or expiring dates. The courses aren’t offered by colleges or universities, so it pays to check up on the credentials of the instructor and read the course reviews.

BBC Learning offers a wide variety of content including 22-step and 10-step courses in languages such as French, Spanish, German, Italian and Greek designed for travellers, gardening and gardening design classes in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society and a variety of topics including computers, design, media and fitness. You work through the content at your own pace — no tuition or deadlines required.

MIT’s Open Courseware is an ongoing project that makes the university’s course materials available to everyone — including detailed lecture notes. You don’t have access to instructors, receive credit or get answers to sample assignments. It’s more of a publishing house than interactive environment, but a good free source of content for self-directed learners.

Prefer tidbits of knowledge instead? Academic Earth has online video lectures from experts from leading universities. View the lectures one at a time, or go to the “playlists” to listen to topics based around a central theme, like Social Entrepreneurship 101, Understanding the Financial Crisis, Love or Learning from Failure. TedX and ideaCity also have a growing number of their talks online.

If you’d like to take the lecture on the rood, you can download podcasts from iTunes U (part of the iTunes store). There’s an extensive list of topics ranging from more “scholarly pursuits” like science and philosophy to general interest, like music, comic books and fashion. Podcasts are free, and you can listen to them anywhere by downloading them to your iPod. The offerings have also expanded to include apps with presentations and videos too.

Courses for credit

If you’re ready to take the plunge and take a community college or university level course, you’re in the right country. For an all-out degree program, Athabasca University is the leader in distance education. The university offers a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees in addition to certificates and post-degree diplomas. Expect to pay full university tuition fees, but discounts are offered for seniors.

But that’s not all — many colleges and universities across Canada have expanded their online offerings. Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials and the Canadian Virtual University provide databases of distance courses offered across Canada at the university level, Ontario Learn lists online classes at colleges throughout Ontario and Edinfo lists information for Western Canada. You can also look at continuing education offerings at your local schools — look for the distance or continuing education section of their website.

For a broad range of choice there’s ed2go. Ed2go links to both university-level courses (some offered on a non-credit basis) and classes to take for pleasure. Courses offered include digital photography, nutrition and fitness, and all sorts of writing.

Before you try it

Before diving in, there are a few things you’ll want to consider:

– Who are the instructors? What are their qualifications?

– What is the quality of the teaching like? What standards does the course provider have?

– Is the course work-at-your-own-pace or are there specific dates and deadlines? If the latter, how many hours a week will you be expected to put in?

– Will your knowledge be tested? Many courses have tests, assignments and exercises that offer you feedback on your learning.

– How much does the course cost — and what happens if you’re not satisfied? In some cases, the course itself is free but there may be a cost for a final test or certificate.

– Will you receive credit for your work? Aside from college and university credit courses, you might receive a certificate for your work — or an informal acknowledgement like a virtual “badge” or award.

If you’re taking the course to upgrade your skills for work, consider how your present or future employer will judge your new skills. Do you need a certificate as proof, or to have completed a project?

Online learning can take some getting used to, but it’s a great way to keep learning throughout your life. Start with a free course or lecture to see how you like it before you pay up.

Decided to give it a try? Check out our tips for online learning success.

Additional sourse: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Updated by Elizabeth Rogers August 2012 with new resources and tips

Photo © Sharon Meredith

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