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Princeton, on $23.99 a semester

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  • Online classes: The big three
  • Online class overview

    A quick look at what to expect from so-called “ massive open online classes”:

    Cost: Free. I did rent a textbook from www.knetbooks.com. Cheap, and it included a postage-paid return sticker.

    Classes: Prerecorded videos that you can watch on any computer or download to other devices. My Princeton professor released two hours’ worth every Sunday.

    Tests: Quizzes, embedded every 15 minutes in video lectures. Essays were the biggest workload – six over the course. I completed five. (The overwhelming majority of students simply audit the videos and never write a single paper.)

    Takeaway: Well worth the effort – and cost. Eye-opening perspectives were posted by students from around the world. Doug Miller



What’s the price of an Ivy League education? This year, annual tuition, room and board at Princeton University topped $50,000.

It cost me $23.99.

Last semester, I enrolled in a “massive open online course” in world history at Princeton. The class was free but, feeling old-fashioned, I sprung for a textbook, too.

I’m pleased to report I emerged from the experience more informed, humbled and feeling like I was at least keeping up with the whip-smart kids sitting at actual desks in class.

I was taking advantage of an academic revolution that allows anyone with a computer to take classes at many of the nation’s top universities – at no cost.

It’s a grand experiment of sorts. Universities get a chance to spread knowledge to a vast audience. But debate is raging in higher education over giving away a product that many families pay dearly for in tuition and other costs.

For online students, there’s a big catch: They typically earn zero credits. But even without the promise of a diploma, classes simply for the sake of learning have exploded since Stanford popularized the movement 18 months ago with a class on artificial intelligence.

By last fall, the founder of leading online provider Coursera bragged to The New York Times that his company was growing “faster than Facebook.” Andrew Ng had reason to crow: Coursera had drawn 1.7 million students across nearly 200 classes and 33 universities.

Video lectures, discussion boards and essays on the honor system are still far from replicating the idyllic college experience.

But here’s all you really need to know: Enroll now.

Many classes start in the next few weeks – perfect, New Year’s resolution-friendly timing.

Though my class was free, I rented the recommended course textbook “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart,” from an online retailer for $23.99. Well worth it, since the lectures mainly covered broad themes.

What followed was a fascinating four-month journey. From the Black Death to the Silk Road, from the Enlightenment to the industrial revolution, from World War I to the atomic bomb, each week professor Jeremy Adelman lectured us, some 80,000 strong.

Fascinating, the things I never would have known. Like how stampeding camels with flaming bales of straw on their backs were the key to victory in a 14th century Asian battle. (Fire scared opposing war elephants silly.)

Humbling, though, how other revelations left me thinking, “How could I have not known this?” Charles Darwin as abolitionist? News to me. So was the dramatic account of starving musicians of the Soviet symphony defiantly performing “Leningrad” amid Nazi siege.

Efforts by Princeton and Professor Adelman reflect how universities want to impress in these initial ventures.

Adelman, history department chair at Princeton, engaged online with such frequency, it was as if he was calling on students with hands raised. One Saturday I had more interaction in my kitchen than in some classrooms from my college days.

At 43, I appreciated the access to an academic who was passionate about his field of expertise so much more than I did as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware.

Twice, Adelman hosted panel discussions between students from his traditional, live class at Princeton and those of us enrolled online.

In one, Steve, a computer science major on campus, marveled at the fact that tens of thousands of online classmates from around the world had enrolled. “That kind of refueled my hope in humanity,” he said.

Then a discussion unfolded comparing the interdependent histories of the East and West and globalization over time.

Students didn’t have to look far.

The Google Hangout included pupils from India, Italy and New Jersey, all of whom exchanged different and sometimes competing viewpoints.

Transactions, one imagines, might have taken place along the old Silk Road, the granddaddy of global trading networks.

Class starts again next week.

Another history course, but this time at the University of Virginia.

Hopefully, it will be another one for the ages.

Miller: 704-358-5107
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