People flock online for free university education

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onlineTHE NUMBER of people enrolled in free online subjects at Melbourne University has overtaken enrolments at its campuses in less than two months.

The university became the first Australian institute to join online education provider Coursera in September.

Since then more than 52,000 students have enrolled in the university’s free massive open online courses, which will begin next year.

According to MyUniversity website, Melbourne University has 47,561 students enrolled in its undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

The university’s principles of macro-economics free online subject is most popular with 12,053 enrolments. It offers 10 free online subjects including climate change, animal behaviour and exercise physiology.

Melbourne University provost Margaret Sheil said the course included lectures, videos and quizzes. Students discuss ideas in chat rooms. Most courses run for about seven weeks.

”I think we’re all surprised at the take-up,” she said.

The rise of the courses was helping generate interest in learning and could encourage students to continue into full-fledged degrees, she said.

Students receive a certificate of completion after successfully finishing a course, but they cannot gain qualifications or degrees.

Millions of students have enrolled in free online courses across the globe. Some of the world’s most prestigious universities including Harvard, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have begun offering the courses.

Universities have yet to identify ways to make money from these courses. But Professor Sheil said the courses would help academics learn more about the quality of their own courses. ”If you set an exam for 10,000 students and 2000 get the same wrong answer, then you know you’ve got a problem,” she said.

La Trobe University lecturer in online learning, John Hannon, said there was a lot of hype about the courses that should not overshadow an emphasis on high quality education. But he said free online education could allow people to study for whom it might otherwise be impossible. La Trobe also offers online lectures through the iTunes U service.

”The whole online learning venture is a great opportunity to extend learning out to people who wouldn’t be able to get to university,” he said.

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