You can take college courses online for free -- but can you get credit for them? Illustration: Justin Wood

College is Free! (But Sometimes You'll Get What You Paid For.)

Updated: Jul 07, 2014 2:29 AM UTC | Originally published: Apr 30, 2013

Two things about higher education have become clear. First, your children need it more than ever to stay competitive -- and so might you, if you need to upgrade for a fast-changing job market. Second, the model colleges use to deliver that education is broken. Rising tuition, high student debt, and stingier funding for public colleges are making it more difficult for families to keep up.

So it's hard not to get excited about this: Right now, for the unbeatable price of $0, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Anant Agarwal is teaching a class on circuits and electronics to thousands of people online -- no MIT application required. Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, and other top schools have also started open courses for everyone.

The academic world is buzzing with the notion that this could change, well, everything. "We are at a pivotal moment," says former Princeton president William Bowen. "Two forces are combining: extraordinary technological progress with economic need."

True, it's a long way (and many spinning "video loading" icons) from here to a day when students can put together respected degrees with Ivy simulations.

While logging in is free and easy, getting official credit for what you learn still isn't. Online courses have bugs, including raucous student discussion boards and clumsy grading systems, and for many they are an inferior substitute for real classrooms. Yet there's promise here for adults who want a new career skill, for traditional students looking for learning aids, and for anyone hoping to speed the path to a degree. More change is coming.

Here's what you and your kids should know to make the most of it.

You can really sit in on courses with MIT profs

Agarwal's course is known in education jargon as a MOOC, or massive open online course. Web courses and online degrees have been around for years. As the name implies, MOOCs are different for their size (with tens of thousands of students at a time), their free price tag, and, frankly, the cachet of the schools that started them.

A typical massive online class includes several short recorded lecture modules each week and reading assignments. You'll chat with other students online, and there's homework, which may be graded by a computer or by peers. Some classes offer a few online meetings in which professors address questions posed by students. Although there may be a weekly schedule, it's flexible.

"I completed the first three weeks of classes while patrolling the Bering Sea," says Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Greg Tozzi, who took a finance course taught by a Georgia Tech professor.

Tozzi's class wasn't delivered by Georgia Tech, but through a website called Coursera.org, which offers more than 300 classes from 62 schools. Two Stanford professors kicked off the for-profit venture with more than $22 million raised from colleges and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. (Where profits will come from, as with lots of tech startups, is hazy.)

Harvard and MIT have started a similar nonprofit hub at edX.org, where you can learn Greek classics from a Harvard prof or quantum mechanics via Berkeley.

Don't want to wait for a course to start? Carnegie Mellon has free self-paced courses that you can try anytime at oli.cmu.edu, and so does the nonprofit Saylor.org.

Another for-profit site, Udacity.com, mostly offers classes without a university's stamp, but it features star teachers like founder Sebastian Thrun, a co-inventor of Google's experimental self-driving car, who teaches artificial intelligence for robotics. It was Thrun who sparked the frenzy for MOOCs in 2011, when he opened his 300-student Stanford class to web auditors, and 160,000 signed up.

No, it's not the same as going to MIT

About 23,000 online students passed Thrun's computerized exams. Here's what they got: a sense of accomplishment and a PDF from Thrun suitable for printing and framing.

While Stanford, Harvard, MIT and the like may be building massive classes, they are not interested in letting you get Stanford, Harvard, or MIT credit.

The MIT-built MOOCs offer a chance to earn an"MITx" -- not MIT -- credential that won't on its own help you toward a degree but might look nice at the bottom of a résumé next to other continuing-ed classes.

Coursera classes developed by Princeton, on the other hand, don't even offer a certificate. And while a Duke MOOC on Coursera may earn you a "statement of accomplishment" from the instructor, Duke won't award its own paying students credit hours for taking one.

Schools are guarding their prestige carefully. One of the valuable things about an MIT diploma, after all, is that it tells people you are one of the brilliant few who got into MIT. But there are also real quality differences between MOOCs and the classroom.

Aaron Krolik is one of 450 Duke students paying about $4,200 in tuition to take an on-campus course on genetics and evolution this semester; Duke has a free online course using the same lectures. Krolik doesn't feel ripped off.

"I think there is a lot more that you get out of going to a university than the information," Krolik says. And he does not mean Blue Devils basketball. He and his classmates see professor Mohamed Noor three times a week, and Noor uses extra class time to answer questions and help students with additional exercises.

Noor says five of his Duke students have dropped out or are in danger of failing. By comparison, roughly 10,000 of 12,000 online students who watched the first lecture either are failing or have given up.

Soon, Ivy classes may be part of a State U. degree

If massive classes were nothing but an elaborate new adult-enrichment program, the story would end here. But the growth of free online courses is happening at a time when the link between where you learn something and where you get the credit is breaking down.

Even if there's no cheap and easy back-door into an Ivy like the University of Pennsylvania, a student may soon be able to take what she learns from the Penn-taught calculus class on Coursera and have another college award the credit.