Translating a Free Online Education into a College Diploma

Photo: wohnai

Over the last couple years an exciting new trend has emerged amongst universities across the country – they are providing courses online for free! Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, Columbia, UCLA, and John Hopkins are just some of the schools that have lecture videos of entire courses online.

Why the heck are these schools doing this?
It is the free information movement. Just like there was a free love movement in the 1970’s, there is a similar free knowledge movement in the early part of the new century. Wikipedia is the epitome – its free information has become a part of the way we research just about everything. Another manifestation of this is the huge open source software movement providing free software to the masses. Examples are the Linux operating system, Mozilla Firefox web browser, and Android phone operating system. It is a cultural and economic phenomenon that deserves much more attention than a few sentences, but there is not room in this post so I will refrain – just be sure to take advantage of it!

What exactly are they offering?
It varies widely from school to school and even class to class. The organization OpenCourseWare currently has 200 schools with 13,000 courses offered online – some just have the lecture videos, while others also have the assignments and exams complete with solutions. Beyond what is posted you are on your own – there are no help resources such as teacher assistants or other class members to contact.

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I Love Educational Rap Videos

Rap videos are unequivocally my favorite way to learn. Really any educational music video. It started in my childhood with School House Rocks and eventually Bill Nye the Science Guy.  To this day I still love educational songs, but not so much the ones geared towards things you learn in 6th grade. Believe it or not there are smart raps with collegiate level subject matter.

One of my friends from Stanford, Tom McFadden, created a series of rap videos about human biology. He was a course instructor for the human biology program and created most the videos to help teach his students. Even though it is not my favorite topic, I am completely engrossed by the videos and able to retain a lot of information:

Here is an explanation by Tom:

Since virtually all cells have the same genome, cell specialization (for example: whether a cell becomes a neuron or a skin cell) is largely controlled by which genes are actually transcribed in a given cell. This can be controlled by transcription factors – proteins which bind to DNA and interact with the cellular machinery to control gene expression. An important family of transcription factors are Hox genes, which control which body parts grow where.

Hox genes control where legs, wings, and antennae grow in the fruit fly (so mutating them leads to some strange creatures). These same Hox genes have been highly conserved during evolution, and control vertebrae specialization in mice and humans. This helps to bring home a main lesson of developmental biology: that creating different body forms isn’t so much about what genes you have, but how you regulate them.

But my absolute favorite educational music video is “Fear the Boom and Bust” about the macroeconomic theories of John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek. It is professionally made and provides a hilarious account of Economics 101:

This quality of content comes about when a talented producer with an interest in macroeconomics realizes the popular media isn’t talking about monetary policy. We need more people like this in the media.

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Salary – When Minimum is Greater Than Maximum

Photo: David D. Muir

Most people think the benefit of attending a top tier school is the ability to nab a high paying job – investment banking, consulting, CEO, etc. Sure those opportunities are great, but I am going to argue that the real advantage is the ability to pursue work that the individual finds interesting. Right now you are probably thinking – can’t anyone do that? Yes, but a top tier degree enables you to do it without worrying about money – you have a great degree to fall back on if things don’t work out. It’s not the maximum salary opportunities that matter, but rather the high minimum salary that can be expected with a degree from an elite university.

The focus of students at these schools is not merely passing versus failing – all the students admitted to top tier schools are capable of doing the work, in fact thousands of capable students are rejected every year. Keeping this in mind, these students are going to have a focus other than passing and failing: grades, social life, sports, clubs, job, girls, etc. I won’t go into what their focus should be in the post, only what they should do in the meantime – get a technical degree! Not all college diplomas are equal, even if they do come from the same school. Graduating with a technical degree will prove valuable later when it comes to your career.

Many college students make the mistake of choosing a major because it is easy and they will be able to get a higher GPA while working less. A technical major is much more important for job demand than GPA. In fact, leave GPA out of the consideration – after your first job, who cares? The answer is graduate schools, but that is not a job. Who is going to have a harder time quickly finding a job, someone with a aerospace engineering degree and a 3.1 GPA or someone with a classics degree and a 3.4 GPA? These majors may be harder but it is well worth a sacrifice of a couple tenths off your GPA in exchange for job demand.

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