By MARSHA MERCER
Enough nostalgia for America of an earlier era.
Take the country back to the 1950s or 1960s? You’ve got to be kidding. Make America great again? Please. It’s already great.
And not just because we have sushi happy hour, Uber and Fitbit. America is great because anyone with internet access can enroll in courses from the nation’s best universities online for free. It’s great because America connects people worldwide who share the desire to learn.
The 21st century has delivered to our laptops and mobile devices access to thousands of free and low-cost courses that can enhance our technical and business skills or help us live more creatively and fully.
Want to sweat through a mathematical biostatistics boot camp? Johns Hopkins has you covered. Listen and learn about Handel’s Messiah and Baroque Oratorio? Harvard has a class. Need logic? Stanford University is on it.
The first massive open online courses -- MOOCs -- started at Stanford in 2011. More than 600 colleges and universities around the world have developed 4,200 online courses, and more than 35 million people worldwide have signed up for one, according to data compiled by Class Central.
You can learn about aerodynamics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dog emotion and cognition from Duke University and subjects in between. Beginning Mandarin? Peking University offers it. Chicken behavior? The University of Edinburgh.
After reading about MOOCs for years, I finally signed up for one. Well, three. I started Tibetan Buddhist Meditation from the University of Virginia and then Positive Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They weren’t for me, though, and I dropped out with a click.
Something like only about 5 percent of people who start a MOOC finish it, Online Course Report said in its State of the MOOC 2016 study. The quit rate worries academics, but to me it also shows learners exercising their freedom to explore. The course completion rate is far higher in corporate-sponsored classes.
For me, the third course was the charm. I’ve spent the last 10 weeks studying Greek and Roman mythology through the University of Pennsylvania. My classmates in America and all over the world -- including Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan and the United Kingdom -- interacted on community discussion boards.
The mythology course “took,” even though in every session Professor Peter Struck, wearing a white shirt, looked at the camera and lectured. That sounds deadly, but his enthusiasm for his subject was contagious and his insights fascinating.
The class was offered through Coursera, a for-profit company started by two Stanford professors. Two other big providers of MOOCs are for-profit Udacity, with computer science classes developed by Google, Facebook and other companies, and edX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard and MIT.
Many people take MOOCs to enhance their resumes with tech and business skills. More than 75,000 people, for example, have taken Applied Cryptology on Udacity, taught by University of Virginia computer science professor David Evans. Information Week ranked it the #1 class to pump up IT careers.
I was looking for something to take me away from work, and a trip to ancient Greece and Rome was just the ticket. As with many other courses, you could earn a certificate for $79 or take the course free without a certificate. I didn’t need a certificate, but business learners often do.
The MOOC model is changing, though. The trend is toward more fees and fewer free courses. Humanities courses were 19 percent of offerings in 2013, but only 9 percent last year. Computer science and programming made up 17 percent of classes last year, the same percentage as business and management, according to Online Course Report.
The next new thing in MOOCs is virtual reality. Harvard’s most popular course, both on campus and on edX, with more than 1 million enrollees, is CS50, an introduction to computer science. This fall, Harvard will film the course in virtual reality. Using a cardboard viewer and the screen of a smartphone, a learner anywhere will be able to experience the class almost as if he or she were there in person.
It’s enough to make you believe in America’s greatness again.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.