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Will free online courses replace costly college degrees?

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It is amazing the increasing number of students enrolling for free online university courses in Kenya. Just recently, I met a group of flamboyant students at Kenyatta University studying a course offered by Johns Hopkins University on coursera (Coursera is one of the biggest free online learning platforms). One of the students told me that it’s the easiest way of getting a certificate even if you are not onsite in the collage.

Distance education is not a new concept in this era, but it’s not easy to escape its influence around the world. Since the launching of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in 2011 by two Silicon Valley start-ups to offer free online education, the traditional education structure has been turned on its head.

Soon after the launch of Coursera, over 160,000 students from every corner of the world signed up for the courses but only 23,000 got certificates of completion.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and many others have asked why one should pay thousands of dollars for degrees when they can earn the same from professors at Harvard and Oxford for free online.

Others have even argued that nothing moves fast in Higher Education than MOOCs. Coursera is barely 2 years old and yet it has over 500 courses with over 4 million students enrolling and hundreds of universities partnering.

MOOCs are not just online video lectures that one downloads at the click of a button. One has to sign up for the course, wait for some time for the course to start, and keep up with its demands on a weekly basis, along with millions of students.


A good example is where the MOOC software stops at the middle of the course and asks several questions and quizzes. For those who are very committed, the course includes tens of homework, discussions and tests. There have also been concerns of high dropout, and most people, including yours truly, enroll for fun and for the experience.

Either out of fear or to adapt, brick and mortar universities have massively put their courses online for students to sign up and study for free. Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford and many elite universities are now offering their courses online for free.

Edx, which has millions of students already studying, is a collaboration project between Harvard and MIT while Coursera was started by a Stanford Professor.

Kenyan universities are yet to adapt this model of offering free courses. This, of course, begs the question, are we being left behind? Or have our universities become bottom-line oriented, seeking profit as opposed to being sources of knowledge?

A recent headline reported that it’s the end of university as we know it. The feature predicts that roughly half of 4,500 colleges in the US will close down within the next 50 years while Ivy league universities like Harvard will more than double their student population.

Until now, not so many schools are willing to give credit to MOOCs.  But the big question about MOOCs is whether they will actually replace costly collage degrees.

Several universities in Austria and Germany have started offering credit for the courses studied on selected companies offering MOOCs. This kind of development is fundamentally imperative because the MOOCs will remain totally free and they will be given the same credit as a paying course at the participating universities.

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