Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Saylor.org - The Gem Hidden in Plain Sight

My topic for the next couple of postings is Saylor.org. A site that offers nearly 300 undergraduate courses and the unique opportunity to build a programme of study that emulates a full US-style four year degree - and all for free! The question that you should be asking (because it's the question I have asked) is why, if it is so great, has nobody heard of it?

The Saylor Foundation (more about this later) has been involved in free education for some years but only set out on its current mission about eighteen months ago. Their goal is to provide free, quality education to anyone with internet access.  Saylor has taken a quite different approach to this task than the better known platforms such as Coursera or edX. Rather than offering a haphazard assortment of courses supplied by existing universities, Saylor has recruited it's own academic staff (on a consulting basis) to construct a coherent set of courses based primarily on existing freely available online resources. 

The initial, and ambitious, target was to cover the most popular subject areas in US colleges. Rather than starting with a handful of courses and gradually growing, Saylor opened on day one with over two hundred courses (although, in fairness, not all were complete). There are now courses offered providing the opportunity to 'major' in fourteen different subjects from Computer Science to Art History and Mechanical Engineering to Psychology. There are also a range of Electives which basically cover odds and ends that don't fit into existing specialisations (Astronomy, for example) and General Education which provides for the requirement to study outside your own specialist area (this is a standard part of the US four year degree although unknown here in the UK).

Saylor.org University main page

So what is it like? Firstly, I should say that it is quite unlike the more 'flashy' MOOC platforms. It is rather conservative in appearance and has an beautifully uniform design across every course. Everything you see says that this is a serious academic venture and, as we shall see, that is borne out by the courses themselves.  Clicking on any of the Areas of Study (as the specialist subjects are known) will take you to a page detailing the courses necessary to build a degree majoring in that subject - these include mandatory core courses as well as electives which can take the degree down different specialist tracks. As I mentioned, to complete the full programme you will also need to undertake the Gen Ed element.

Saylor is totally open-source; materials can be used as the students wish (subject to whatever limitations the original suppliers had although most are issued under Creative Commons licences). Students need not even register to access the courses although you will have to do so if you want to take the exams and collect your certificates. Registering will also give you access the discussion forums and to an ePortfolio where you can manage your courses, showcase your work and form study groups.

So what about the courses? Well, I'll go into more detail about the courses in tomorrow's posting but for today I'll start with the conclusion - they're great! The courses are very much at the level I would expect for undergraduate study, unlike some other MOOC offerings which are rather watered down. They are heavyweight and satisfying with plenty meat to them (apologies to my vegetarian friends for the metaphor). Unlike virtually any other courses I've seen online there are substantial required readings as well as the usual video lectures. There are no concessions and no kid gloves - this is the real thing.

If you are serious about learning then you won't find much better than Saylor. Go and take a look then come back tomorrow for my next instalment where I'll look at some of the courses and report on my experiences as a student there.

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