IT education: the future is free

IT education is what we’d call a saturated market: any conceivable subject you’d want to learn about, from the most basic and practical to the most abstract and esoteric , is available at the right price.
But what if you don’t need to pay anything for it?
Recently, there’s been a growing trend towards offering computer science courses online for absolutely nothing.  And far from being of dubious quality, as one might imagine, they’re being offered by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including, I’m happy to say, our very own University of Toronto.
If you want to learn the basics of programming or algorithms, you’ll find it. But you can also learn the basics of robotics or artificial intelligence, or explore new and innovative areas of research like social network analysis. All of these are courses now available, free of charge, on the Internet.
The free computer science education movement really took hold in the middle of 2011, when Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science at Stanford University who focused on artificial intelligence, began to offer free programming courses via YouTube. It was a hit: hundreds of thousands of students signed up, and this success promoted him to leave his post to found a new company, Udacity, which is completely dedicated to free IT learning.
Boasting more than 100,000 active students, Udacity offers diverse options for either beginning—or continuing—an education in IT, including courses on Web application engineering, artificial intelligence and applied cryptography. The site claims its standards are every bit as rigorous as an ordinary university course, while its course delivery is more fun and engaging. But most significantly, its courses include “a range of certification options that are recognized by major technology companies who are actively recruiting from the Udacity student body,” the company says.
Back here in Canada, the University of Toronto is offering several computer science courses through Coursera, a platform used by many universities around the world to deliver free courses. U of T’s initial computer science offerings will include programming courses and one on machine learning and neural networks.
There are two important angles here for both IT workers and their potential employers. From the perspective of learners, distance education has undergone a revolution.  Correspondence courses in the traditional sense required exemplary self-discipline and the ability to learn exclusively through reading. But today’s students consume information extensively through PCs and mobile devices already. This is amply demonstrated by taking a look at any large lecture hall and noting the number of students distracted by their tablet or smart phone.
Could it be that learning this way might even be superior to doing so in a classroom setting, especially for tech-related subjects? This will certainly hold true for at least some people.
For IT employers, meanwhile, e-leaning gives a new meaning to what “credentials” mean. Earning a certificate from a free online course can’t be dismissed as substandard or “alternative” in any real sense when these courses are taught by some of the most celebrated academics in the world. Upon completion of these courses, there’s also a demonstrated level of self-motivation and familiarity with technology, which are obviously important in the IT field.

The IT skills shortage in Canada isn`t likely to disappear anytime soon, but if its popularity is any indication, this new “open source” educational movement looks like a good way to address it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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