A free education isn’t just for kids anymore. And Florida lawmakers want to help you take full advantage of what’s on offer.
Whether you’re a retiree wanting to learn about history or politics, an unemployed worker looking for new job skills or a high school student ready for college-level work, there are plenty of classes free and open to anyone with an Internet connection.
They’re called MOOCs — massive open online courses — and thousands of students often take the same class. They’re offered by schools worldwide, from Broward College to Harvard to Tel Aviv University.
The Florida Legislature is so excited with the classes’ potential that it passed a law requiring students be given high school or college credit for certain large online classes.
“We want to provide student access to the best quality instruction in the world,” said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who sponsored the bill. “If you’re a ninth grader and you have a passion for physics, this would allow you to take it the traditional way or take a physics class taught by an MIT professor.”
Many people, including senior citizens, are enrolled in MOOCs even though they have no interest in pursuing a degree or a new career.
“Our audience seems to be predominantly people who are curious,” said Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology at the University of Florida. “They are attracted by the notion of gaining education in an area they always wanted to know something about.”
UF’s classes have included sustainable energy and human nutrition. This fall, it plans to offer a class on how music works.
Herbert Shapiro, associate provost for lifelong learning at Florida Atlantic University, said he expects these classes to increase as more seniors embrace technology. A retired friend of his who takes classes online through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “loves it. He takes his wife to the mall, and he sits in a chair and logs on.”
But the United Faculty of Florida worries that giving college credit could devalue degrees and cost jobs.
Michael Simonson, a distance learning professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, said he hasn’t been impressed with the MOOCs he’s seen.
“Technologies when used properly for teaching and learning provide many benefits and opportunities, just not at the expense of what is more important — effective teaching and appropriate content,” he said.
Starting in 2015, students will receive high school credit for MOOCs in four subject areas: algebra, geometry, biology and civics. They were chosen because the state has end-of-course exams that can test student proficiency, Brandes said. School districts may develop approved lists of online providers, he said.
The University of Miami Global Academy, an online high school, has produced two MOOCs in the past year to help students worldwide prepare for Advanced Placement math and science exams. About 1,000 students enrolled, said Craig Wilson, who heads UM’s continuing studies program.
The Florida Virtual School, which has offered online classes to registered K-12 students since the 1990s, doesn’t have any massive online classes yet, but is considering it, spokeswoman Tania Clow said.
Large online classes are expected to play a big role in remedial education for state college students. Remedial classes, which are not for credit, are generally given to students who don’t pass an entrance exam in reading, math or English.
But starting in 2014, state law will allow students to take college-level courses without first completing the remedial work. State leaders hope many students will get their remedial work done online.
At least two state colleges, Broward College and St. Petersburg College, offer these classes online. This month, Broward College received a $300,000 grant to develop a new program that will use a video game approach to help students learn basic skills.
State leaders have asked the Florida college and university systems to devise a plan to accept college credits from certain MOOCs. The American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C. higher education advocacy group, is reviewing the quality of MOOCs and plans to recommend those which may be worthy of credit.
MOOCs may be a good option for students who already have a good grasp of the subject matter, said Joyce Elam, dean of online programs at Florida International University, west of Miami. For example, students who have taken several economics classes in high school “already know the material, so they may take an Economics 101 MOOC as a refresher” before taking a test on the subject, she said.