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Online classes provided meaningful distractions for lifelong learners stuck at home during the height of the pandemic, but the learning hasn’t stopped now that people are getting out again.
You can take classes on your smartphones, computers, tablets and streaming TVs on a world of subjects. Learn a foreign language, play piano, nourish hobbies, explore activities you’ve always been curious about or gain skills that may help you pursue a later-in-life career pivot.
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Even better, many classes are free, though you probably will pay to earn certificates or “micro-credentials” tied to in-demand skills.
“If you want [a class] graded with feedback, there’ll be some kind of fee for service,” says Curt Bonk, an Indiana University learning, design and technology professor who cohosts the podcast Silver Lining for Learning.
On-demand learning changed the industry
The pandemic had a substantial effect on online learning, and not just for your college-age kids and grandkids. Online education company Coursera reports it had 46 million learners on its platform at the end of 2019. Then 30 million people joined its ranks in 2020 alone. Its total now has surpassed 118 million.
Some classes across the e-learning spectrum are offered in real time, but the majority are available on demand, many in conjunction with prestigious colleges and universities, as well as expert instructors at major companies.
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Through massive open online courses, commonly called MOOCs, millions of people globally have gained access to curricula once reserved for students paying high-cost tuition. The courses number in the thousands and range in topics from artificial intelligence to digital photography.
Each course typically has a video of the lecturer speaking, related reading, quizzes and an online discussion forum. The number and length of classes vary.
At MOOC.org, an extension of an online course platform known as edX.org, you might search for courses in accounting or data science. If you want to understand blockchain technology, you can take a free, self-paced, three-week, three-hour-a-week IBM course through edX. If you want to study the use of machine learning in the Python programming language instead, Harvard offers a seven-week, 10- to 30-hour-a-week class on the topic, also free and self-paced, via edX.
Classes are ‘less and less free’
In the early days, massive open online courses were mainly free. Large groups of enrollees took the courses together — hence the terms “open” and “massive” in the moniker. But the courses have evolved.
Though viewing video lectures typically remains free, certain elements such as getting access to quizzes and having assignments graded can be behind a paywall. For an extra fee, some providers offer credentialing, certificates or even a full degree.
“They’re getting less and less free. That is [a] distinct trend and obviously one that’s much needed,” says Fiona Hollands, founder and managing director of EdResearcher. Her independent research firm covers educational programs, policies and practices.
Her reasoning: “You can’t provide quality education for free.” Online classes vary in quality, she says.