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Could engineering school be free?

March 3, 2014
It is fair to ask whether the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) could make higher education less expensive. MOOCs are free online courses that anyone can take. It’s possible to earn college credit for at least some of them. Could you replace an entire semester of engineering school with free MOOC equivalents?
It’s easy to find complaints about the high cost of higher education and mounting student-loan debt. Sources I’ve seen say about 57% of public four-year college students graduated with an average $26,600 in debt as of a few years ago.

It is fair to ask whether the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) could make higher education less expensive. MOOCs are free online courses that anyone can take. It’s possible to earn college credit for at least some of them. And quite a few MOOCs I’ve seen are in engineering and technical disciplines.

So here’s a question: Could you replace an entire semester of engineering school with free MOOC equivalents? I recently set out to explore this idea using the core requirements for freshman engineers at my alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Interestingly, there has been much talk in academic circles about revamping undergrad coursework to reduce the number of students who drift away from engineering. Nevertheless, freshman core requirements are basically the same today as they were for me 44 years ago, though I suspect the “Introduction to Computers and Programming” course no longer involves Fortran. And I am sure the “Introduction to Engineering” course today has little to do with drafting tables.

Besides the introductory engineering and programming courses, the U of M requires freshmen engineering students to get through two courses each in calculus, chemistry, and physics, as well as humanities courses.

Well, the MOOC site Coursera lists a calculus-one course from Ohio State and a single-variable calculus course from the University of Pennsylvania, both spanning 14 weeks. An online calculus-two course from Ohio State is six weeks long. On the edX MOOC site, there is a University of Texas at Austin course on linear algebra, a subject that was also part of my freshman year.

I had similar success finding online physics courses. Introductory physics covering mechanics and waves is an edX offering. Ditto for Coursera, where one such course is run by Georgia Tech, another by the University of New South Wales. The same can be said for chemistry. Students can get on Coursera for an introductory course from Duke University and an advanced course from the University of Kentucky.

Introductory programming courses were a cinch to find, as were introductory engineering courses. And the selection of online courses is even more varied for humanities. All and all, I was able to locate free online courses that, at least judging from their description, were close matches for those offered on-campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Of course, there is no way sitting through online courses can approximate the experience of a freshman year at a university. But tuition for U. of M. freshmen now runs at least $13,000 annually if you are a Michigan resident, much more if you are not. The cost of MOOC classes is zero except for a few hundred dollars in exam fees. That may be an attractive proposition for kids who don’t happen to have $13,000.

About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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