Every day is the first day of classes

Plan Your Free Online Education for Spring 2012, the headline at Life Hacker reads, followed by recommendations for open-access educational content in many disciplines from universities, Khan Academy, TED and other sources. I was impressed with how this collection was organized and intrigued by the introduction:

We put together a list of courses available this spring that will inspire you, challenge you, open the door to something new, and give you the tools to improve your life. Grab your pen and paper and make sure your battery is charged—class is in session!

The Life Hacker posting reflects an emerging theme: individuals of any age can take charge of their own education, independent of a specific institution or a specific semester. In addition to open online courses, other tools are emerging to support self-directed learning. For example, Quizlet, Mental Case and StudyBlue go beyond traditional flashcards for self-review of content. Users can share quizzes and cards, customize the timing and strategy for quizzing themselves, practice with others, use audio and video prompts and track their progress over time.

While a junior at Duke, Rosanna Myers and a fellow student worked together to increase their reading speed in order to keep up with the large volume of assigned material. After she graduated, Myers developed the app Acceleread to help other students teach themselves speed reading techniques.

Flat World Knowledge now supplements its open access textbooks with optional (for a fee) study aids and assessment tools.

Other free products support self-organized leaning groups for posting questions, sharing ideas and solving problems together. For example, OpenStudy has participants from over 190 different countries and territories and 1600 different schools. In one month, students asked over 25,000 math questions and most of those questions were answered by other students within 5 minutes. (Source: Chris Sprague from Open Study, at about minute 35 of this presentation.)

Students have an unprecedented opportunity to learn – on their own – in ways that fit their skills, interests and learning styles, and to connect with teachers and learners around the world. Will our educational institutions catch up with them?