Tuition? Who needs it? 

Free online courses are opening up new possibilities for students — and for the entire education system.

The costs of higher education keep going up and up. But companies like Coursera, a provider of free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, hope to provide an antidote.

Launched in April of 2012, Coursera offers 415 courses from 83 of the top universities in the world to more than 4 million people. Most recently, the company has announced a partnership with 10 state university systems and public institutions throughout the country. Purchasing a textbook is usually not required, and course descriptions include an estimate of what the time commitment for a course might be.

Most of Coursera’s offerings are not available for credit. However, some classes have begun to receive accreditation from the American Council on Education, and the new partnerships with state and public institutions could mean significant reductions in the cost of education for students across the country.

According to scholars like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, our school systems value grades more than learning. We place all of our emphasis on education, which is defined as instruction or the pursuit of knowledge, rather than on knowledge itself, which is the actual understanding and retention of information.

With Coursera, you can obtain an education — for free, without leading to a degree — that’s similar to one you might spend a fortune on. Coursera wants to place the emphasis on a desire to learn, as opposed to going to college because it’s something to do after high school.

If MOOC students can obtain the same knowledge and skill levels of a college graduate, what does that mean for the value of a diploma?

“You should reward someone for the skills that they’ve got. The piece of paper doesn’t matter so long as you have the skills that are needed,” says Miriam Rochford, a Clearwater resident and USF alum with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts, and current Coursera student. “I’m fine with it that someone who has fewer paper qualifications might be better than me.”

Rochford, 24, a contracts administrator for Tampa-based System Soft Technologies, found out about Coursera through Andrew Jones, a computer programmer friend who uses MOOCs to learn new programming languages and enhance his resume.

Rochford has always had a thirst for knowledge. As a child she read encyclopedia entries and pursued topics like Russia’s infamous Romanoff family on her own. A self-proclaimed overachiever who works a 40-hour-a-week desk job but also has a budding career as a freelance stage manager, she carried her passion for learning beyond graduation.

“I’ve been out of school for almost two years and you start to miss it,” says Rochford. “You realize that the only way you’re going to acquire any new knowledge is if you go out and seek it.”

Rochford believes that offering MOOCs for credit will ultimately lead to a more knowledgeable society. She likes the idea of having higher learning available to anyone who wants it, rather than just anyone who can afford it.

“Higher education is not something you should have to pay for,” continues Rochford. “You should have the ability to further yourself without constantly worrying about how much money you’ll owe for the rest of your life.”

While many education professionals acknowledge the value of free MOOCs, many believe that they can’t replace the value of a more intimate student-teacher relationship.

“When it comes to MOOCs, there is an element of you get what you pay for,” says Amber Karlins, an English professor at Hillsborough Community College with a master’s degree in drama from Tufts University who has extensive experience both taking and instructing online courses. “You cannot underestimate the importance of having a skilled professor on hand to moderate online discussions and interactions.”

Karlins believes that online courses offer challenges as well as opportunities and require someone adept at handling them. Lack of training can compromise the quality of learning.

Despite such concerns, Rochford says that with discussion groups and teachers’ assistants, lack of accessibility hasn’t been an issue in her Coursera experience.

Even with a growing selection of accredited courses, the transferability of the credits is still up to the home institution. This means that of the more than 4 million Coursera users, most aren’t receiving credit or are unsure if they will receive any. That’s 4 million people, like Miriam Rochford, pledging their time and efforts to courseloads for the simple desire to garner knowledge.

Whether it’s to bolster a resume (as Andrew Jones, Rochford’s Coursera muse, did) or just to continue a lifelong pursuit of education, Coursera and other MOOCs cater to those with a desire to learn and open the door of knowledge to people who could previously not access it — or afford it.

Daniel Figueroa IV is a journalism student at USF St. Petersburg. He credits his career choice to an insatiable thirst for knowledge and love of writing. Outside of the journalistic spectrum, Figueroa enjoys vodka with a splash of olive juice, watching the New York Rangers, punk rock and riding his Harley Davidson chopper. —Terrence Smith

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