Guess what! You just got into MIT! Free ride! Kind of!

The Maclaurin Building is shown on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. The university is offering a free online class for anyone to take.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offering a free online class and everyone's invited. Or admitted. You can sign up, is my point. The class, Circuits and Electronics, is a full-strength MIT course, which the school says is not a watered-down version of what fully enrolled students would be learning. It takes about 10 hours a week and there will be evaluations to take along the way. At the end of the program, successful students will get a certificate. Not an engineering degree, mind you, but still something.

Circuits and Electronics is the first class in what is intended to be an ongoing educational effort called MITx. But hold on here just a minute. A free class at MIT? I mean, is there really such a thing as a free lunch or a free engineering class? Well, kind of, yeah, says Kevin Carey, policy director at the education think tank Education Sector. "They're not giving away the same education that students who go to MIT get," he says. "I think there's still a lot to the traditional on-campus experience, but it's very difficult to get into MIT. Really the student audience for this kind of course is global, and who knows, they may identify bright students they want to recruit to come to the campus. But I think this is the university acting on its mission that it should be focused on public service."

Now, there are tests in the class. You can't just coast. If you pass the tests and complete all the work, you don't get a diploma but you do get a certificate. Huh? Certificate? So what are you supposed to do with a certificate? Well, the world is changing and it might come in handy. "There seems to be a trend in industry and corporate environs in looking for skills," says Raymond Schroeder, founding director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at University of Illinois, Springfield. "The skill sets and knowledge are changing so rapidly, that employers need new information. So when they're looking for prospective employees, they're looking beyond basic education and looking for skill sets. These give you the -- if you will -- 'badge' that assures that you've mastered that particular skill or bit of knowledge.

There are plenty of online classes of course in traditional universities," says Carey, "but it's been the for-profit higher education corporations that have really been aggressive in expanding to scale. So you have hundreds of thousands of students, for example, enrolled in the University of Phoenix online. What you haven't seen is nonprofit institutions really trying to grow that quickly.

I think they see that there are global learning communities arising on line, communities that cross national borders, and a great opportunity to reach more people without building more and more expensive campuses," he says. "One of the things universities did was act as storehouse of knowledge, where you go to learn things. Now we have devices in our pockets that give us access to more info than we could ever use. So it's the institutions that take advantage of that technology, that work with these growing online learning communities, are the types of colleges that will legitimately be 21st century colleges and universities."

I'm not sure a keg party is quite as much fun when it's just you sitting in your kitchen by yourself staring into a laptop. And fraternities and sororities probably aren't the same when the other members are just your stuffed animals and kitchen utensils. But who am I to judge?

Also on this program, a deeply weird and highly entertaining video game that can be found not on Xbox or PlayStation but on YouTube. Take a journey into the world of The Dark Room. 

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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