Summer Learning, for Free

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beach scene

Free learning a stone’s throw away

Summer vacation is a great time for students and lifelong learners to read for pleasure; I’ve posted here before on a few good college-prep book lists available online:

Summertime to Read (2012)
Libraries List Books for the College-Bound (2011)
How to Create a Summer Reading List with Teeth (2011)

Another tip: if you’re on the go this season and looking for a great source for e- and audio-books, try Open Culture (billed as “The best free cultural & educational media on the web”). Your reading needs will be fulfilled: the site boasts 550 free audiobooks, “mostly classics,” for free download! It’s also a good place to go for free movies (catch up on your classic films); an impressively long list of free language-learning resources; and even college lectures and MOOCs in a wide array of subjects.

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Should Students Go for E-Textbooks?

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book collection

Decisions, decisions

Word’s out: while e-books remain popular, the regular old print book isn’t going away anytime soon. That can be only good news for college students, who nowadays often have an option to use print or e-textbooks in their classes and who have different personal preferences.

But which format is the best choice for students? Despite the trendiness and convenience of e-texts, is the e-textbook format appropriate for college learning? That’s a great question. A recent Wall Street Journal article addresses where electronic books might shine the brightest:
“Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.” (1)

If this is so, we know college-level reading is not “light entertainment”; in fact, college textbooks tend to be more along the lines of reference and practice guides. The material requires deep thinking, re- and re-visiting, and perhaps saving for test study and essay consideration.

That said, use of e-textbooks as well as open source material is widespread; many professors and students enjoy using e-materials, and it seems they serve their purposes. As a student, I’d wonder whether the text’s medium would impact my learning and retaining material for the class – isn’t that what it’s all about in the end? Well, according to a study in a sophomore-level Biology class, despite students’ expectations and great love for the e-text, the book’s medium actually made no discernible difference in their class performance. (2)

Given all this, my advice to students is to choose whichever book format suits your personal comfort level. My only concern with using e-textbooks as, by definition, they require intense, studious reading, is that you need somehow to actively take notes “in the margins.” Annotating your texts, or “reading with a pencil,” is a vital study strategy. If you can jot yourself notes and mark important passages easily and consistently with an e-textbook, go for it.

And happy reading, no matter which format you choose.

References and further reading:

(1) “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay,” Nicholas Carr, WSJ Online, 1/5/13.
(2) See “Technology Enhancement Tools in an Undergraduate Biology Course,” Educause Review Online, 12/10/12.
*See this interesting infographic from TeachingDegree.org: it notes that 88% of those who read e-books in one year also read print books in the same period of time.
*Finally, a notable piece pertaining to open source materials is “To Cut the Cost of College, Start with Textbooks,” Jimmy Daly, EdTech Magazine, 1/7/13.

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MITx Buzz: What Students Should Know

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Open signThe internet’s been abuzz with news of MITx, hailed as an exciting chapter in the Open Educational Resources movement. Students, if you’re not too familiar with online learning and the free resources available to you even if you haven’t enrolled in a class, you may find it interesting to read on.

First, there were MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s) hugely popular OpenCourseWare materials, which, according to their website, have been used by over 100 million people in the last 10 years. MIT OCW offers a wealth of learning materials in subjects across the curriculum, and for all DIY learners, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects, this is a treasure. High school students and teachers, by the way, might find particularly useful the OCW Highlights for High School.

The new MITx differs from OCW in that it will offer actual classes for completion. Unlike classes that count toward a degree, these classes will require neither cost nor prerequisites. They will, however, offer students the option of obtaining credentials (for a fee) upon proving mastery in the subjects.

Certainly, these online offerings are exciting learning opportunities no matter what; to quote Benjamin Franklin, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him.” While it remains to be seen how employers and other universities might accept such credentials, MITx will be fun to watch.

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Further reading
“MIT Mints a Valuable New Form of Academic Currency,” Commentary by Kevin Carey, The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“MIT Will Offer Certificates to Outside Students Who Take Its Online Courses,”
Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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College-Level Courses: Online and Yes, Free

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Celebration of Light

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Now this is an exciting website — just the thing for DIY College Prepsters, college students in need of assistance in certain subjects, or independent learners anywhere. Saylor.org’s home page begins with the encouraging words “Harnessing technology to make education free” and “We believe that everyone, everywhere should have access to a college education.”

Although this is not an online university from which students can earn credits, it does include curriculum in such disciplines as Biology, History, Mathematics, Computer Science, and Psychology, to name a few, plus a General Education Program. Further, it boasts an impressively credentialed and extensive team of academic editors. You simply must check it out.

Hats off to the Saylor Foundation and all the experts behind this project!

Top Professors’ Free Video Courses

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college lecture

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Curious independent learners as well as those preparing for college will be delighted to watch videos from Academic Earth. This exciting resource, which has been recognized by Time Magazine, Businessweek, and Bill Gates, bills itself “online courses from the world’s top scholars.”

Of particular interest to the college-bound: go to Playlists and scroll down to “First Day of Freshman Year.” Otherwise, click on Subjects and look for “Free Video Courses.”

Math & Science Review: A Few Websites

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Rubik's Cube

Image via Wikipedia

Certain (good quality) study websites can be immensely helpful

(a)    While you’re taking a course (the sites may serve as virtual tutoring), or

(b)   As brush-up exercising for college entrance exams or general college prep.

Below please find a handful of Science and Math learning websites to browse:

http://www.chemtutor.com/
Chemistry help.

http://www.purplemath.com/
Algebra help.

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/
Encyclopedia of math information.

http://www.khanacademy.org
Tutorial videos on this popular site include Math and Science subjects.

Knock, and It Shall Be Open?

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Robot

An intriguing editorial regarding Open Source educational materials appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education; it discussed a Labor-Education proposal:

“Community colleges that compete for federal money to serve students online will be obliged to make those materials…available to everyone in the world, free . . . [as] . . . open educational resources, or OER’s.”

(Read the article here: The Quiet Revolution in Open Learning.)

Putting aside whether this particular event will come to pass, the idea is part of a larger debate about the very nature of open-source learning materials and the problems such OER’s present with regards to quality control, course credits, and credentials.

It also raises questions about teachers of the future: will instructors no longer be so necessary, and will their fate be similar to that of clerical workers losing jobs to increasingly automated business processes?  Also, is it possible for education to be a self-guided endeavor?  In the comments section of the article, you’ll see a small glimpse of this heated debate.

Now, I believe it’s quite obviously possible to learn on your own — in fact, studying and learning are pretty solitary tasks and always have been — but yes, it’s also true that at some point, we must have human guidance (i.e., good teachers!) in order to fully appreciate the resources we find.  There’s the issue of Wikipedia and information literacy, for instance (in short, one can’t believe everything one reads on the internet); and the simple fact that the person reading and studying must have the proper muscles, the proper critical thinking skills, to process all that material.

And then there’s willpower and work ethic (things nothing on the internet, so far as I know, can create in us).  I don’t agree with the title of a video seminar from a few years back, “Where there’s a will, there’s an A,” as I don’t think effort, much less desire, is necessarily equivalent to outcome; but on the other hand, without a will, there’s very little chance of an A (at least, an A in a class even remotely worthwhile).  Also, without hard work, real learning will not happen.

That’s the beauty of teaching yourself: it’s impossible to do it passively, just as it’s impossible to bake your own bread or build your own shed passively.

You’re problem solving and being creative just by seeking out ways to go above and beyond your classroom education.  So I say go forth!  And by the way, in future posts, I’ll share some existing open source materials for your perusal.

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