Academic Earth | Great College Lectures, for FREE

Because our education should never end

Access a university education from home with Academic Earth (Photo: flickr.com)

Access a university education from home with Academic Earth (Photo: flickr.com)

The more you know, the more socially, intellectually and (in some cases) physically able you become. Being a well-rounded citizen, friend and self-sustaining individual are all ends that can be achieved in large part through education. Unfortunately, many give up on the idea that they have to continue to learn throughout their lives if they want to challenge themselves, grow and live vibrant lives. Too many accept the black and white the world gives, topping it off on rare occasion with a splotch of gray. This is a tragedy, in that the world is filled with veins of colorful experience. Knowledge of how to live – rather than merely subsist – is essential for people of all ages. If the brain isn’t stimulated, the chance of senior onset dementia in later life is increased.

Use your mind while you’ve got it

Some people make good in college and truly expand their mental horizons. Others turn away from that kind of life and choose a trade, an average job or simply to drop out. Still more would love to be exposed to a university education, but lack the funds or the time to actually attend college. Sure, cheap loans or cheap payday loans can help with a little money once in a while, but not enough to bankroll a college education.

Yet there is hope. The popularity of distance learning has exploded across the World Wide Web, resulting in the availability of high-level university lectures covering a wide variety of topics. Two of the best aggregators of this video content are Academic Earth and OpenCulture.com. At no cost to you and on your own time via online video, you can view complete lectures from MIT, Harvard, Yale, Berkley and Princeton, among other esteemed universities. It’s all organized by topic and is easy to search, too.

“Hulu for nerds”

Farhad Manjoo writes for Slate that for anyone who has free time, there’s no excuse to stop learning. He recounts how he was able to hop from one lecture to the next, learning about everything from the origins of the current recession to long-term investing and more. Most of the lectures were very engaging, and for those that weren’t, leaving was as easy as a mouse click. Hop from the lecture halls of one university to the next without the travel costs… in no time at all! Academic Earth, while not an organization that can provide you with college credit, can give you nearly all the same material you’d receive in a traditional college classroom. They give you education when you want it. You can even subscribe in podcast fashion. As Manjoo describes it, “it’s like Hulu, but for nerds.”

And being a nerd is a good thing

Lead a busy life? Academic Earth is available when you need it! (Photo: flickr.com)

Lead a busy life? Academic Earth is available when you need it! (Photo: flickr.com)

Academic Earth picks and chooses the best of the best, and its organization scheme couldn’t be easier to navigate. Google tried to achieve something similar with Knol, but the results were less user-friendly. In both cases, however, you are learning from acknowledged experts in their fields, as opposed to anonymous commentators that tend to color what appears on Wikipedia. Academic Earth, in Majoo’s estimation, bests Knol in that it presents material in the complete context of a course, whereas Knol is comprised solely of articles experts want to contribute at the time.

Academic Earth’s videos are generally of high quality, and make both the professor’s notes and spoken words quite clear. Discussion with students is sometimes included as well, but as the students aren’t speaking directly into microphones, the sound quality of their questions varies. Lecture notes, transcripts, handouts and homework are even available, but as this is all made available at the online student’s leisure, there is no grading pressure. How you use the material is up to you.

No grades?

Well, that isn’t entirely true. Viewers can grade the lectures to help clue the Academic Earth student community at large in to which lecturers pack that extra something that makes learning more fun. The base grade on a given lecture is “B,” but that can change based upon user reviews.

Where’s the profit?

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Richard Ludlow, Academic Earth’s founder, ultimately envisions his site as an agent for change. He told BusinessWeek that he hopes it will help lower the cost of education worldwide. But that can’t be done for free, or with just a few cheap loans or with cheap payday loans. While users can view videos for free, Academic Earth is a for-profit company. Thus, Ludlow’s initial plan is to add supplementary content that falls outside the Creative Commons. He will sell advertising on these.

Your college experience may vary

Studies have shown that distance learning can be highly effective, so the future of sites like Academic Earth is bright. Currently they do not replace a college diploma (as they are not an accredited academic institution), but who knows what the future will hold? I don’t believe online only education can ever fully replace the traditional college experience (some would argue the social element alone is worth the price of admission), but a more intense integration of online and on-site learning seems possible.

However, there are plenty of people out there who simply want to learn and are not worried about whether they’ll receive college credit or grab the reins of that “college experience.” No essays, finals, or boring discussions are to be found on Academic Earth. The bad ones generally don’t make it onto the site, and the lukewarm tend to be voted into oblivion by the user base. Plug in and spend an afternoon expanding your mind. Tune into one of Academic Earth’s playlists, even. But this isn’t merely an iTunes list of rock anthems or slow jams… it’s the tune a happy brain plays when it’s filled with interesting food for thought.

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