When Wikipedia became mainstream, everyone was talking about revolution in knowledge and overall transformation of access to information for free to everyone. And indeed this was revolutionary, Wikipedia today hold almost everything you can imagine (and it also magically manages to keep out the stupid things like we can all see on the infamous “conservapedia.com”). The next step in evolution of free information on the internet became already apparent as a trend when multiple universities started to offer their lectures online (MIT) or some online courses for minor fee. Now comes coursera.org, a platform for having a free university level course available on any possible topic. To this wonderful project already some 36 big universities entered (not only from US) and you can browse plethora of courses. And more are joining with time.
So what you can have on Coursera? You can attend a course and as a live progress with the course make homework/assignments, collaborate with other students on forums and sometimes take a test or two. If you accomplish all the requirements from attending a live course, you can get a certificate from the university you did the test with (this can sometimes be with a fee). I have spend the last two months attending one particular course on Financial Engineering and Risk Management live and it was great. Particularly the fact that I managed to accomplish this (quite hard for IT geek) course. I didn’t think I so much missed the feeling of homework assignments and test since my university times, but I have enjoyed it.
The financial model of coursera.org, actually the got awarded the best start-up company of 2012, is that courses are free, but all the extra things you might want are with fee. Imagine a course with 65000 signups (quite normal number actually), from these only about 10000 people are really actively participating in the course and lets say 5000 finish the course requirements. From them, maybe a 1000 student might want a validated certificate from the university about absolving the couse for $10,99. Or maybe you would like to buy some dedicated Q&A time with one of the lecturers for small fee. So basic things are free (and they are great them selves!), but with the statistics of many people participating, courses earn money from offering extra goodies. So this is the coursera.org business model basics, there might be some extra things in the future like cooperation with HR agencies to pinpoint best employes based on your study record, but I haven’t heard about such things yet.
Alternative to live attending a running course, all the courses that have already ended (the live stream of homework have ended), you can still find these courses, sing up to them and read all the materials. You cannot get a certificate, but you can have access to old courses knowledge. I for example wanted a course on machine Neural Networks and Machine Learning, but there was no course opening live, so I am reading through the materials in free time and doing assignments I will never submit to anyone.
And now for one for a network geek and why I am writing this article for “Networking” category on my blog (as originally intended for the hobby section). There will be a course on Software Defined Networking that is coming on coursera.org starting on 27th of May 2013 and I will really take this class. The point is that SDN (Software Defined Networking) is really something that can change a networking guys work in a substantial way very soon. Therefore I find it very interesting topic. There are other ways to learn something about it (for example take a search on OpenFlow). But getting a course will definitely not be a bad step, definitely not if it is free.
Below is my personal coursera.org main view with all the courses I signed up for. The unfortunate thing is however that I was interested in more courses that I could have managed to accomplish in parallel, so I admit that there is already one course I managed to ignore. But I as I found out, this is normal. On the Financial Engineering there was around 65000 people signed up, but less than 10000 actually was active and even less actually managed to finish all the required assignments. So coursera.org being free and easy to signup to a course leads to some signup spam.
In summary, I believe and hope coursera.org will continue to do what it does because I really like having the option to attend courses on advanced topic that are really hard to learn on your own.