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Aug 5, 2004
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By Christina Couch

What are free YouTube classes worth?

As cash-strapped college students struggle to finance their tuition, many are wondering if they might find a better alternative in Ivy League courses that have recently become available online, anytime, and completely free.

Thanks to educational video-sharing sites such as Academic Earth, YouTube EDU and Scitable, anyone can watch university lectures for the cost of an internet connection. But how do these classes stack up to the real thing?

"Pretty well," says Erik Lykken, a molecular biology major at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who supplements his in-class learning with Scitable's online multi-media natural science library. "Classroom-type learning is almost totally replicable online and in some ways it's much easier and [up-to-date]. It's certainly valuable to be able to interact with professors in a research context, but I think you can get the vast majority of knowledge from free resources."

Officially launched on March 24, 2009, Academic Earth provides full coursework (exams included) for 60 university classes worldwide and features more than 2,400 lectures in subjects ranging from ancient Greek history to atomic theory. The popular video sharing site YouTube launched a similar education channel on March 26. Scitable, a free online multimedia natural science library launched this past January and MIT's OpenCourseWare program has provided free video lectures and teaching materials since 2002.

Now that a broad new spectrum of the classroom experience -- including lectures from the country's most highly acclaimed professors, texts updated hourly and testing materials -- is available for free, it's possible that a no-cost education from the country's leading educators could outperform an in-person education at a local institution with a less prestigious faculty.

"Historically only a select few people have been able to listen to the teachings of professors from Harvard and Yale and MIT, but this allows us to open it up to anyone in the world," says Academic Earth CEO Richard Ludlow. "We think this will affect the college community, but we're not sure to what capacity yet."

Compare and contrast
Obadiah Greenberg, spokesperson for YouTube EDU, adds that the technology was designed as a supplement to in-class education. Whether it has the potential to replace live professors remains to be seen.

"How this kind of thing will evolve is still very up in the air," Greenberg notes. "Could [YouTube EDU] give someone a jump on what to expect in a class at a given university? Sure. Can it replace that class? I don't know. I don't think so."

The primary problem, says Cecilia d'Oliveira, executive director of MIT OpenCourseWare, is that self-propelled learning, no matter how good the materials are, still lacks several key educational components including critical evaluation, academic support, accreditation and hands-on activities such as lab experiences, clinic work and research projects that employers and grad school admissions counselors expect to see on a college transcript.

"OpenCourseWare can take you about halfway," d'Oliveira says. "If you're in a lecture class taking notes, these videos are just as good as that, but we don't provide the kind of learning support you'd find in a classroom: people to tutor you or answer questions or grade your homework."

Self-education can't replace university training, at least not at this stage, but it could significantly reduce college costs. At schools where students have the opportunity to test out of introductory courses, either through school-specific placement tests or through stellar scores on AP, CLEP or SAT II tests, training gained through online sources could mean the difference between spending a semester in 101 classes and skipping straight to advanced work.

Can you put it on your r?sum??
D'Oliveira adds that the technology can also mean free professional development training for those already in the work force, though it's up to the employer to determine whether self-training can help employees leverage better jobs and higher pay in the same way an accredited class would.

"If you've spent the equivalent of a semester's worth of time invested in this material, it doesn't mean that you have a degree in that area, but it does show that you have some knowledge and that you're motivated," says d'Oliveira.

Eric Winegardner, vice president of client adoption for the employment resource site Monster.com, agrees, adding that those who participate in these free online lectures should definitely say so on their r?sum?s.

"This kind of learning is absolutely relevant as long as you're not trying to pass off your YouTube EDU [experience] as equal to a degree," he says. "So long as that's clear, this is a great way of illustrating your work ethic, your drive for knowledge and your interest in keeping your skills fresh."

To avoid confusion, Winegardner suggests presenting DIY courses either in a "Continuing Education" section of your r?sum? or in a separate follow-up letter that outlines courses you have taken in the past six months to keep up with industry changes. No matter where the information is presented, Winegardner encourages all job applicants to include an explanation of what exactly the self-education site is, that it's equivalent to watching a live classroom lecture, and how it's helping them stay current in their professions.

"This isn't a mainstream thing yet so a lot of employers aren't going to know what these sites do," Winegardner says. "You'll have to explain that this type of education should prove that, for you, learning doesn't stop with your degree. You should be able to build a case that you'll take the same type of initiative in the work force."

Could YouTube, Scitable and Academic Earth mean a tuition-free college experience for anyone with Internet access? It's too early to tell. For now, how far these resources go depends entirely on how much time and effort students are willing to invest.

Christina Couch is a freelance education writer and the author of "Virginia Colleges 101: The Ultimate Guide for Students of All Ages." Her work can also be found on aol.com and Yahoo! Finance, and in Entrepreneur magazine and Wired magazine.

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