I have just had my first experience with for profit, free education. Stuck at home in Wellington over the recent holiday season, with the rain lashing at the windows and trees threatening to fall over in gale force winds, I spent a good part of the break browsing online for a free course in an area that interested me. It was a case of ‘try it before you buy it’.
This is how I stumbled upon a new player in the market place, the World Education University. In brief, they offer full degrees that are completely free to students. They have over 50,000 students and hundreds of courses available, across a wide range of disciplines including the liberal arts. Whilst they are not accredited, they are working towards that and have partnered with Excelsior College as a first move in this direction. They manage to offer a free model through a combination of seed funding and the use of advertisements that are displayed on the course pages. They are also up front about being able to give student details (within limits) to advertisers so that yours truly can get pestered with annoying emails. It appears that there will soon be some freemium services too.
If this tickles your curiosity, you can read a little more about their model in the two blog posts below. The first has a predictably negative bias and the second a predictably positive bias.
I enrolled in a couple of courses and found the experience…interesting. Whilst the blog articles are technically correct in referring WEU courses as MOOCs, they don’t feel like MOOCs at all. Certainly one does not get the sense of thousands of students participating. They were quite similar to courses I’ve taken before at accredited tertiary institutions right here in New Zealand.
What WEU has done (and I wonder if there is anything else similar out there?) seems to represent a significant shift. Founder and CEO, Curtis Pickering, has stated that he has always wanted to offer free education to those who couldn’t afford it. Whilst he originally investigated a not for profit model, he found this too cumbersome and too dependent on sponsors.
The first thing I noticed when I went through the enrolment process, is that it is far closer to what you would need to do at a regular, fee paying, accredited institution. Unlike a MOOC course, you need to provide a lot more detail than just a name and email address. And this isn’t for the benefit of advertisers alone. You are asked to provide educational details in order to determine whether you meet the pre-requisites for entry. This is also, ostensibly, so that if they ever do achieve accreditation, they can turn your results into something meaningful for cross crediting at other institutions.
WEU offers two entry options. The first is entry for ‘enrichment’ only where, as far as I could tell, you won’t ever be able to achieve accreditation but the entry requirements are lower. The second is a regular enrolment where you may be able to become accredited in the future. I chose the first option and didn’t provide any real details although I’m sure they can tell from my ISP address that I don’t reside in Aruba.
When I started the course, I found that I was able to filter out the ads quite easily. I haven’t yet received anything in my gmail account for companies advertising their products but perhaps they’ve just been picked up as spam. Interestingly, the forum posts are automatically sent to the Promotions Tab area of my inbox. So, to date, I’ve been relatively unbothered by the marketing side of it although this could just be because they’re still relatively new.
The actual landing page is evocative of a standard tertiary institution albeit a bit funkier. The website talks about adaptive technology. I was surprised to find that Moodle is used as the LMS. It’s only adaptive insofar as progress tracking is used and the use of the Lesson Module at times forces you to take a certain pathway through the course. The most adaptive use of the technology I saw was right at the beginning. Before starting, students are compelled to do a psychometric test to check their learning style. This I found to be of little educative value but when I did the compulsory Orientation course (delivered as an Articulate Storyline presentation) it became obvious that the choice of slides presented depended on the choices made in the initial survey. Thereafter, I found no evidence of the learning being tailored to my particular learning style.
I enrolled in two different courses and whilst both followed a fairly similar format, they were definitely of varying quality. They were certainly no worse than some equivalent courses I’ve paid to do in the past. They have the feel of having been constructed by educators and are not simply a collection of links to public websites. This is where it is quite different to a MOOC. It’s more than just curated links. There are useful, seminal resources that the student can use.
Too often I find in free courses that a connective learning approach is pushed for self-serving purposes (i.e. let the students do all the work).
The courses were open enrolment with a notable absence of group work activities. I feel that this is the most sensible approach in this type of offering. Whilst there were tutors assigned to the courses who could be contacted, I didn’t see any tutor presence at all. There was some communication between students - often months after the original posts had been made. Unlike MOOCs which offer multiple methods of communication, using blogs, twitter, facebook etc – the forums were the only place (other than Moodle messaging) that interaction could take place. This made it seem less like a MOOC where you might have hundreds of messages that could be read, and more like a contained, regular sized course even though that might not have been the case.
There were written assignments too that one could submit. I did not do these so don’t know if students are provided with any valuable feedback from the tutor in this regard. Whilst the assignments were well thought out and educationally sound in my opinion, the automated tests (Moodle quizzes) I completed were not of a particularly high standard. Sad to say though, they were not too much worse than many I’ve seen in a fully paid course.
I don’t consider myself easily taken in by gimmicks but I do confess that when I was offered reward points to complete an activity which I could redeem at their online shop, I eagerly went along with it.
Personally, I found the experience preferable to doing a MOOC and considering it was free, well worth it. It served its purpose. However, if I decide to pursue my interest in this field of study any further, I would definitely need to pay for it in order to have any chance of being recognised in the field. The gettingsmart.com blog asks this question:
“With the eruption of free universities and MOOCs, will accreditation still be the marker of skill and knowledge that employers are looking for?”
I think that the answer to that is ‘yes’, snobbery is as timeless as…well, as education!
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