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A University Education -- for Free

Tutorials, forums, tips-and-tricks sites and the like abound on the Web and I use them constantly to improve my developer skills, but they often leave much to be desired.

For example, it can take a long time to find just what I'm looking for. One of my pet peeves are tutorials that seem to offer just what I'm looking for but are undated, or the publication date is hard to find, so I waste time checking them out only to find that the content has been rendered obsolete for various reasons.

And the quality of information can vary greatly, as can the presentation. Well-meaning and informative tutorials can be spoiled when the author's grasp of English is so lacking that it becomes distracting and problematic. Also, where do you go if you have questions about the content? Authors may or may not respond to e-mail inquiries or comments, and forum responses can also be hit-and-miss. And how do you judge how well you've learned the material? How does your performance rank with others? What if you want to go more in-depth and really drill down into similar material?

I'm thinking that free online courses offered by some of the top universities in the world -- such as Stanford and MIT -- might solve a lot of these issues.

For example, Stanford just finished up a course titled Introduction to Databases. Instructor Jennifer Widom said that "Over 90,000 accounts were created, 25,000 students submitted at least some work for grading, and 6,500 students did well enough to receive a 'statement of accomplishment.' " You can still access all the online resources at the course Web site if you want to get a taste of the experience, which will soon be improved by optimizing the site for "self-serve" learning, Widom said.

And Stanford next month will offer up Computer Science 101. Of course, these are introductory courses, but other new courses this year include Machine Learning, Game Theory and Design and Analysis of Algorithms I (alas, no database-specific offerings are on tap for you database developers).

At MIT, Introduction to Computer Science and Programming is the No. 1 most-visited course in the school's OpenCourseWare initiative. This program "is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content" and doesn't offer certificates and structured teacher-pupil interaction. Other popular MIT offerings include Introduction to C++ and Introduction to Algorithms. Again, these are introductory, but you could also delve into Performance Engineering of Software Systems or the graduate-level Spatial Database Management and Advanced Geographic Information Systems. You can check out the OpenCourseWare Consortium for information on a huge amount of courseware available from hundreds of other schools and organizations.

Even better, MIT this spring will launch a more structured online learning program, similar to Stanford's, called MITx.

Carnegie Mellon University will be offering Secure Coding , Principles of Computing and other courses through its Open Learning Initiative (OLI) program. The university will release details when they become available.

The Harvard University Extension School participates in the OLI with courses such as Bits: The Computer Science of Digital Information.

These are just a few examples and there's a lot more out there, so fire up your browser and take a look. And let me know what you find by commenting here or by dropping me an e-mail.

Posted by David Ramel on 01/26/2012

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