OpenCourseWare, or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

10/26/2012 09:17 am ET | Updated Dec 26, 2012
  • Jessie Alvarez 17-year-old writer and intern for the Plastic Pollution Coalition

"Openness," or rather "Radical Openness" has been a large topic of discussion lately -- it was the topic of this year's TEDGlobal after all -- and many projects stemming from this idea have piqued my interest. What has compelled me the most, with my insatiable love of learning, is the growing network of OpenCourseWare (OCW) projects. For those of you who don't know, open courses are free, online, college-level courses and other learning materials available to anyone with access to the Internet. While OCW isn't exactly new (MIT's OpenCourseWare program launched in 2002), it has exploded in scope and popularity fairly recently.

I first heard of free access to college-level materials when schools like MIT and Stanford began posting videos of recorded lectures online. For many of these classes, you even had access to the assignments online and could take the entire class on your own. iTunes now has a section devoted to college lectures called "iTunes U." Recently, free online learning has gotten even more technologically involved.

In 2006, Salman Khan founded Khan Academy when he began making videos to help his nieces and nephews with math. I highly suggest checking out Khan's TED talk for a much more in-depth history, but Khan Academy has grown to encompass nearly every subject imaginable, from math to science to economics to humanities. I personally know people who have used these videos to dramatically increase their understanding of what they are learning in class, and I have used the site to further my own learning. While I find that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Khan Academy site, there is still another pathway for Internet learning that has recently become very popular.

A problem with self-teaching that has plagued scholars is the innate lack of structure in teaching something to yourself. Sites like Coursera and Udacity have attempted to provide the motivation and deadlines present in a real classroom. Both sites offer classes hosted by professors at top universities, such as Stanford, which allow students to learn in an environment quite similar to a real classroom. Neither of these programs provide credit for their classes, but rather certificates, and both see the knowledge gained as the true "prize." As the newest kids on the block, there aren't as many subjects taught in these venues (mostly math and computer science courses), but both sites are continually adding more classes.

As an avid learner, I have tried all of the above, and I can say that I have learned from every format. Choosing a form of OCW is up to the individual, and I highly suggest that you try them for yourselves. I personally am a fan of the Coursera and Udacity route -- there's nothing like getting an email from your "professor" saying that the next week's lectures are online, but I still find situations where other routes work better. This summer vacation I have replaced school with my own mix of OCW learning, and I have truly learned a lot.

In the Internet era, it is great to see people finding ways to provide access to education online. If the world continues this way, I see a future of enlightenment, where everyone can have all of the facts and information in front of them. OpenCourseWare is the first step towards truly widespread education, and I think its growth should be a priority.