By Damien Marsic

MOOCbetterwordbubbleThe concept of gift economy, in which goods or services are given away unconditionally instead of being sold or exchanged, is at the core of Paradism, the political system promoted by the Raelian Movement. Far from being a utopia, it has actually always coexisted alongside other systems in all socieites. An obvious example is the existence of non-profit, charitable organizations. Science itself is, in theory, a gift economy: discoveries made by scientists are supposed to be shared freely and openly with everyone, and this is precisely what allowed scientific knowlegde to progress so much in the last few centuries. Other recent examples of gift economies include free and open source software such as the famous GNU/Linux operating system or the LibreOffice productivity suite, the open access movement aiming at making all scientific literature freely accessible, the free content movement, open design and even open source hardware.

One of the most recent expressions of the open culture is the emergence of free online education, mostly in the form of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Thanks to these developments, knowledge in almost any discipline is now really accessible by anyone with an Internet connection. No matter how old, busy, rich or educated you are, no matter where you live, if you wish you could undestand genetics or quantum physics, play guitar, learn about Chinese history or write computer programs, you now can! It's never too late or too difficult, all you need is curiosity and discipline. Let's review some of the major players in free online education.

KHAN ACADEMYKhan

Salman KhanKhan Academy started in 2006 when Salman Khan started to upload videos on Youtube to help his younger relatives who were living far away.and who were struggling with high school maths. It became a non-profit organization in 2008 and received funding from Google and the Gates Foundation in 2010 which helped it become a world-class educational organization. Its teaching materials, on subjects ranging from math and finance to history and art, have been translated into 30 languages. Khan Academy features over 5,000 video lectures, over 100,000 exercice problems, and serves 10,000,000 students every month. Watch Sal Khan's 2011 TED talk here.

COURSERACoursera Logo

Coursera is probably the number one university-level MOOC provider, with 621 courses in 13 languages from 108 Universities around the world in a wide range of disciplines. Launched in 2012, it is a for-profit company, generating revenue by charging for verified certificates. However, all courses are available for free, verified certificates being optional. Courses typically last 4 to 12 weeks, start at fixed dates and include assignments and exams with specific due dates. Coursera has 6.5 million users to date.

EDXEdX Logo Col RGB FINAL

EdX is a non-profit MOOC platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in 2012. It currently offers 163 courses in a wide range of academic disciplines from 45 partner universities and has close to 2 million students. Like Coursera, EdX charges for verified certificates, but all courses can be followed for free.

UDACITYUdacity

According to its founders, "Udacity was born out of a 2011 Stanford University experiment in which Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" course online to anyone, for free. Over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled." Udacity launched in 2012 as a for-profit company. It currently offers 12 full courses, which can be accessed for free (coaching and verified certificates are offered to paying students) as well as 24 free courses. Most courses are in he fields of computer science and mathematics. Udacity has close to 2 million users to date. A convenient particularity of Udacity courses is that they can be started and completed anytime, unlike those at Coursera or EdX which start and end at fixed dates.

CODECADEMYCodecademy

Codecademy, founded in 2011, is an online interactive platform entirely dedicated to computer programming. It offers 6 main courses: HTML & CSS, jQuery, JavaScript, PHP, Python and Ruby. Unlike the MOOC platform described above, it does not have any video lecture. Instead, each course is a step by step progression of short instructions and practice exercices. Like with Udacity, courses can be started and completed anytime, with no dates involved.

WORLD SCIENCE UWorld Science U

World Science U, founded in 2014 as a non-profit, is a newcomer in the world of free online science education. Its web site is divided into 3 sections (descriptions copied from World Scieence U):

  • Science Unplugged provides hundreds of short video answers to a wide range of questions from “What is a Higgs Particle?” to “What happens to time near a black hole?”
  • Short Courses aimed at a broad spectrum of lifelong learners, typically require two or three weeks to complete, and have no homework or exams.
  • University Courses are university-level offerings that typically require eight to ten weeks to complete. Students work at their own pace, and will earn World Science U certification upon successful course completion.
World Science U cover exclusively physics and mathematics so far.