Students Find Free Online Lectures Better Than What They're Paying For

Sharon Malaguit, Aditya Rajagopalan, and Heather Greene-Smith
October 11, 2009

Nicholas Presnell has two professors for linear algebra: one official and one virtual. The first is at Arizona State University, where Mr. Presnell is a part-time graduate student in electrical engineering. The other instructor is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has made lecture videos from a linear-algebra class free online as part of its long-running OpenCourseWare project.

In a way, the MIT professor came first. Mr. Presnell stumbled upon the videos by Gilbert Strang, a professor of mathematics, while he was trying to solve a problem at his job as an electrical engineer at Honeywell Aerospace. The online lectures not only solved Mr. Presnell's technical glitch, they also inspired him to go back to graduate school—for credit, at an institution near him. Now he uses the MIT videos as a study aid when he needs help in the linear-systems course at Arizona State. "It's like auditing the course at MIT," he says.

Mr. Presnell is one of many students across the country using free college lecture videos as a new kind of study aid. The lectures are livelier than textbooks. They provide the sense of a human touch, though they lack the interactivity of a tutor. But mainly they're free and available 24 hours a day. Some students say they prefer the free videotaped lectures to the live lectures they are paying for at their own institutions. Others say they use the online talks to focus on topics they didn't quite get when they first heard them in their own courses. And some high-school students use them to get a jump on material they will encounter when they get to college.

The three students profiled here show the different reasons students turn to free online lectures from institutions they may never actually attend.

A Lifeline for Struggling Students

Sharon Malaguit
San Bernardino Valley College
The nursing student needed a better understanding of anatomy.

Ms. Malaguit says her anatomy professor at San Bernardino was a nightmare. He was hard to understand. He went off on tangents. And he was inflexible about assignments and grades.

So she found someone else to teach her. She turned to a set of free online video lectures by Marian C. Diamond, a professor of anatomy and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley. Ms. Malaguit says those videos became her "lifeline" as she struggled to keep up with the course she was enrolled in. "She is way clearer, and she stays on topic and cites examples related to the subject," the student says of the Berkeley professor. "I was desperate to learn."

Ms. Malaguit recently went back to college after an 18-year hiatus to raise her four children. She grew up in the Philippines, and English is her second language, so she says she expected to have to work hard and seek out extra help.

At first she tried to meet with a tutor on the campus, but it was too tricky to find a time she could get there. Next she tried online study aids from a company called Rapid Learning Center, which sells subscriptions to its instructional videos. That set her back $200 but was "a rip-off" because it was too elementary to be helpful, she says.

Then her husband stumbled on the free lectures from Ms. Diamond, an award-winning Berkeley professor, by doing a YouTube search. "She's wonderful—listening to her makes you understand it more," she says, adding that she sat up late at night watching them after she put the kids to bed. "I recommended it to a lot of my classmates and friends."

Ms. Malaguit hopes to earn a nursing degree, but she says her difficulties made her question her goals. "It was not just frustrating, it was to the point where I was even thinking maybe I'm not cut out to go to nursing school," she says.

She e-mailed Ms. Diamond a thank-you note and was shocked when the professor called her one day to encourage her to stick it out.

"I was like a schoolgirl—I was so excited and so touched," says Ms. Malaguit.

Ms. Diamond says she tries to write back to everyone who contacts her (she gets a few messages each week). Of the note from Ms. Malaguit she says, "Those are the kind that make you feel really good."

Jump-Start for High-School Stars

Aditya Rajagopalan
Princeton University
In high school, he watched college lectures for independent study.


Forget Advanced Placement classes. Aditya Rajagopalan was taking courses from Yale University professors while still in high school.

As part of an independent study last year at Choate Rosemary Hall, Mr. Rajagopalan watched all the lectures from a game-theory course taught by Benjamin Polak, a professor of economics at Yale, one of several professors at the university whose lectures are free online.

The student watched one or two videos on his own each week for homework, and then during class he and the other students in the independent-study group would "present what we had learned and talk about the problems we were struggling with," he says.

A mathematics teacher at Choate led the discussions and occasionally brought in an economics teacher to weigh in as well.

Mr. Rajagopalan and a fellow student picked the subject, but Fred Djang, the teacher, said he did not have time to organize a full course on it. When he discovered the videos, though, he realized they could form the core of a course. "Oh my gosh, when I looked at his videos I said to myself, There is just no way I can compete with something like that," says Mr. Djang. "He is just so good, and there is so much excitement in his class."

Other teachers at the school point students to online college lectures as well, says Mr. Rajagopalan: "One of my teachers who teaches linear algebra and multivariable calculus linked to them and said, 'If you didn't understand something in class—here's an MIT video of what they lecture.'"

When the student took a tour of Yale and attended an open house for various academic departments, he recognized Mr. Polak from his videos and went up to introduce himself. In fact, many of the other prospective applicants had seen the video lectures and did the same. As Mr. Polak recalls, "It was kind of crazy—it was this huge crowd of people."

That's good marketing for Yale. "I didn't know much about Yale's economics department" before seeing the videos, says Mr. Rajagopalan.

He ended up choosing Princeton University, where he started a few weeks ago.

So why not just watch free online lectures and save the huge tuition bills? "I get to actually talk to the professors," he says. "And I'll get a Princeton diploma."

Hooked Through Homework

Heather Greene-Smith
Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College
An instructor assigned another professor's online talks.

Most instructors just assign textbooks to their students. One suggested another professor.

For a student struggling with computer programming, the move turned out to be a lifesaver.

"There were times when I'd come home and I would be on the verge of crying because I just could not grasp it," recalls Heather Greene-Smith, who will graduate in May with an associate degree from Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College.

What helped make the concepts click were online lecture videos by Mehran Sahami, a Stanford University associate professor known for a teaching style filled with empathy, humor, and props. Ms. Greene-Smith found his work when a professor at her two-year college asked the class to watch a video and write about it.

Ms. Greene-Smith is a nontraditional first-year student. At 49, she is trying to earn her first college degree after losing her job as an engineering technician in a plant that made plastics for medical equipment.

She ended up watching about a dozen of the Stanford videos, logging on late in the evening while her husband tinkered on woodworking projects in the garage (he built her desk). She even wrote Mr. Sahami to thank him for lifting "a weight off my chest I thought was never going to go away."

It's not that she didn't like her local teacher. She praises him as patient, funny, and brilliant. But he came to teaching only recently, after years working in industry, she says. He spoke very fast. He'd get really excited, demonstrating multiple ways of doing things before she had mastered one, Ms. Greene-Smith says. He used phrases the class hadn't learned yet, "as though we had been in the business." Students struggled.

Mr. Sahami's technique, in contrast, is to start from first principles and explain that computer programming is "not this big scary thing," he says in an interview with The Chronicle.

He builds community by showing common errors, so students don't feel alone. He also employs costumes, like Darth Vader and Evil Spock, to tie computer concepts into something students can remember visually.

Also helpful: "He spoke in English," says Ms. Greene-Smith. She ended up with an A for the semester.

Marc Parry contributed to this article.