Sunday, April 21, 2013

Open Education: How to Study for Free

English: Study of rising college costs due to ...
Study of rising college costs due to cost shifting from state funding to tuition (Wikipedia)
by Hannah Coleman

Tuition fees are ever rising and education is a hot commodity these days.

The increasing cost of gaining an education perplexes me, as it does many others.

Subsequently this has lead people to question the quality of the education they are receiving, and the way it is delivered.

This is where the open source movement comes in.

When applied to education it creates a platform to exchange ideas and discuss best practice methods in a way that really shakes up learning as we know it.

The idea of open source is not a new one, however in the last few years it has gathered more and more momentum as an alternative to the standard route into tertiary education.

I am only a little way in to my own open source journey but if, like me, you are hoping to take advantage of the myriad options now offered in an attempt to broaden your horizons, then here are four things to think about before you begin.


I cannot stress how important this is. What you want to learn, how you will go about it, and what you hope to achieve. Even if your sole reason for studying a certain subject is just to prove to yourself that you are able, that can be enough to see you through.

It is well publicised that the current drop out rate for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is quite large and academics and scholars aren't quite sure what to make of it yet.

It's good to keep this in mind before you chose your method, and it certainly gave me something to consider before I embarked on my project. Audrey Watters' article, which explores the growing trend of MOOC drop out rates in more detail, is worth checking out.

My motivation is purely aspirational. I am studying A-level maths, chemistry and physics because when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronomer.

In all honesty I want to see if I can really be the physics genius I imagined in my youth, and I want to better understand a topic I am fascinated by. This is my goal, as far-fetched as it may seem.

Your goal is going to be what motivates you to study when it seems like nothing you read is making sense, and your self-esteem is at an all time low.

Because of this, it's also a good idea to have smaller study goals, and make sure that you set aside time every week to dedicate some love to your project. However, the worst thing you can do is overwhelm yourself, so take it easy but keep it constant.


This is all about being prepared. At what level do you want to study? Do you have a good enough foundation in the subject area to start your chosen course comfortably, or are you a complete beginner?

Seems logical, and it may be that you just need to do a bit of reading around your subject before you begin your journey. Something a slight as this can be enough to put you off studying altogether, as the 'I'm not good enough' syndrome rears its ugly head. Do not let this put you off.

This is something I had to dedicate some time and research to. I knew that I couldn't enrol on certain courses as my numeric prowess was distinctly lacking, and other courses aimed at complete beginners would have left me frustrated. So I chose to brush up on my basic maths and science until I felt ready to take on the full A-level course.

Which System Will You Use?

You are currently spoilt for choice when it comes open source options, so much so that it can seem a bit daunting. Once you've narrowed down what you want to study and at what level, then you can find a system that fits your wants and needs.

Another factor that needs consideration is how you will measure your success. You will need to establish whether or not you will be completing your own exams (using past papers and assessments) or whether accreditation is part of the course you have signed up for.

MOOCs are the first port of call, as they offer a neat package of lectures and a lot of the time, assignments and continual assessment are included. A major plus is that some of the most prestigious universities are unveiling new courses every day, and it's a trend that just keeps on growing.

On the other hand you can chose to teach yourself entirely from textbooks and YouTube lectures, or a mixture of all of the above. Which brings me to my next point ...


What to use and where to get it? There are hundreds of free resources at your disposal; you just have to know where to find them. Apple recently unveiled a textbook section of iBooks and many other tablets offer this option too. has their own dedicated eTextbook store, and more and more organisations are releasing their own open source textbooks. I wrote a more in depth post on this last week on my website, which you can read here.

It is also relatively easy to get hold of university level lectures in audio or video format from iTunes and YouTube.

I only really considered three things when looking for my study materials: cost, quality and availability. Your budget depends entirely on you. One of the main pillars of my project is to keep the costs as low as possible, so this is something I was very conscious of.

The quality of the resource speaks for itself; I wanted something that explained complex ideas effortlessly, without losing any of the merit.

On top of that, I needed to be able to access my materials in digital format as much as possible, so I didn't have to limit myself to a specific location when studying. I found that with a bit of digging around, there are some really great options out there.

If you have been considering attempting a free course or teaching yourself on a budget, I hope this guide will motivate you to give it a go. There is a whole world of free and open learning materials out there, and you can study almost anything you desire. So what will you choose?

If you'd like to read about my first hand experience of independent and free study, then follow my adventures on

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