Cape Breton University offers free online courses

Last fall, Cape Breton University (CBU) introduced free online courses, and the response has been better than expected, according to the Cape Breton Post.

The program’s director, Laura Baker, in an interview with the Cape Breton Post, said they were expecting few registrants, but soon had more than a thousand students enrolled.

Students can register in the courses for three purposes: to receive a certificate of participation, a credit, or simply out of curiosity.

The credit option is exclusive to Cape Breton students, where the courses can count as credits toward their degrees.

For $75, students can receive a certificate of participation stating they have completed the course, while those looking to simply learn something new can take part for free at any time.

The courses are broadcast over Facebook Live, and are then archived so students can access them later, according to the Post.

While those taking the class simply out of curiosity do not have to complete any assignments, those registered for a certificate or a credit must complete the coursework and small assignments. Peer facilitators work with students to guide them through the course, according to the Post.

Sarah Ivanco, a second-year neuroscience student at Carleton University, said she likes the idea.

She said having free online courses would give her an opportunity to expand her education, and explore new topics, whilst still being able to pay for rent and groceries.

“As someone who uses [the Ontario Student Assistance Program] and loans for a lot of my tuition, this is definitely a good thing,” Ivanco said.

Similar programs have been running online for years. Many colleges in the United States have courses available on edX, an online platform launched in 2012, which has over 90 global universities and non-profits providing content.

In 2015, Carleton University launched a similar program that offered various Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), to give students the opportunity to sample course content without having to pay tuition fees or complete exams.

Bruce Tsuji, a  Carleton  psychology professor who helped develop the MOOCs, told Metro News that he offers the option mid-way through to formally enroll and start paying tuition in order to receive a credit.

According to an article on the Carleton website, part of the target audience for the MOOCs offered by the university are students who live too far away to attend classes on campus.

Introduction to Psychology, parts one and two were courses offered through MOOCs at Carleton.

Farah Wahbeh, a recent Carleton graduate and a physiotherapy master’s student at McMaster University, said there are pros and cons to offering free online courses.

She said a program like CBU’s would encourage more people to pursue an education.

Wahbeh said she often wanted to take courses outside of her discipline during her time at Carleton as a neuroscience and mental health student but did not want to pay for something that didn’t count towards her degree.

“I personally would have taken a lot of courses. For example, I wanted to learn about astronomy,” she said.

But, she added that some students who are earning the credit might not take it seriously as it is free.

According to a New York Times article, a 2013 study of students participating in the 17 MOOCs offered by the University of Pennsylvania found that only five per cent of those enrolled ended up completing the classes. 

A 2015 study by researchers at Harvard and MIT found that only 24 per cent of nearly 1.7 million participants in MOOCs actually ended up earning certificates after completing a course.

The five open online learning courses being offered by CBU for the upcoming fall semester range from a communications course to one on ancient and modern combat.

They also include a course on William Shakespeare and one called “Sustainable Happiness.”

Wahbeh said that allowing people to register in free online courses gives students more opportunity to expand their horizons and better prepares them for the world outside of university.

“In the workplace you interact with people from different fields and disciplines, you’re not only working with people from your field. Being exposed to topics outside of your major helps you understand other perspectives and potentially build more solid relationships with your co-workers,” she said. 

Photo by Meagan Casalino