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Going to College for Free with MOOCs

  My son is conflicted about college: Does he want to go? If so, where? What should he study? He knows college is a huge expense, so he wants to make a choice that's worth the money and effort we all will have to put into it. But he doesn't know himself well enough yet to know what he wants. So he's paralyzed. Fortunately, there's an education revolution going on that means he can explore college subjects and take classes at some of the best universities in the world from some of the best professors—without paying a dime or leaving the house. That's all thanks to MOOCs, or massive open online courses. To see them in action, just go to and browse through the class list. is a nonprofit online initiative created by Harvard and MIT that offers courses from those two universities plus UC Berkeley and many others in biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, history, humanities, law, literature, math and more. See a course you like? Sign up, commit to taking the class when you have time, and learn. That's it. Some courses let you register, prove your identity, do the work and get a certificate of completion. And some have been collected into programs, called XSeries, that provide an understanding of a topic, such as computer science, and earn you an  to prove it. (They do, however, cost a bit of money.) I met with Anant Agarwal, president and founder of , when I was at CES. “This is not meant to replace college,” he told me. An online class won’t give you shared late nights working out code, poetry readings at the local student hangout, or the immersion in college culture that becomes part of your identity. “But the education system—as it is—is broken," he explained. "It should not break families financially to send a child to college.” MOOCs can make the education portion of higher education universally available. A kid who could never afford Harvard can still take astrophysics there. A student in a remote location with no hope of ever getting to Cambridge can learn engineering at MIT. A high school teacher can add lectures from renowned professors to her AP science class. And my son can find out—for free, while still in high school—if he wants to study engineering by auditing a class at Harvard. Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Healthclothing. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at .