More free academic classes, free college textbooks

Some time ago, I wrote about sources of free academic classes and free college textbooks. Since writing that column, the selection of free courses and textbooks have grown exponentially. Three of the major providers of free academic resources are Khan Academy, Flat World Knowledge, and Apple’s iTunes University.

These free resources are excellent for people of all ages, ranging from elementary school arithmetic lessons to graduate-level economics. Content is appropriate not just for students but also for anyone who desires to improve or enhance their intellectual abilities.

In many of the college classes that I teach, I routinely show my students the resources of the online Kahn Academy (khanacademy.org), which offers more than 2,600 instructional videos and more than 200 interactive practice lessons and exercises. Someone somewhere must be using the services of the Khan Academy; the counter at the top of the khanacademy.org Web site shows that about 80 million lessons and videos have been delivered. The 2,600-plus videos are all hosted on YouTube and are listed on a menu under the headings Math, Science, Humanities, Test Prep, and Talks and Interviews.

For anyone needing help or other assistance with any type of math topic, Kahn Academy offers explanatory videos in basic arithmetic, developmental math, pre-algebra, algebra, brain teasers, geometry, trigonometry, probability, statistics, pre-calculus, calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra. Many of these videos are also supplemented with worked examples. While the hundreds of math videos very clearly show and explain the concepts and how the problems are worked, for those who need or prefer to work interactive problems, the exercises section may prove to be both fun and beneficial.

In the Kahn Science menu, educational videos are offered in biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, health care, medicine, physics, cosmology, astronomy and computer science. I have personally found the health care listings most interesting, as dozens of videos are available that may be of interest for anyone who would like to have more information on a wide variety of health topics including diabetes, A1C, heart disease and heart attacks, strokes, colon health, endocrinology, pediatric growth and development, cancer and oncology, vitamins, health care costs, and other very relevant health topics.

In the “Humanities and Other” directory are some of my favorite topics that I have used both for personal enrichment and well as supplementary material in some of the college classes that I teach. Some of these topics include history, civics, finance, money and banking, credit, and economics.

Many high school and college students are most aware of the highly competitive college and graduate school admission process, and how important scores are on entrance exams. To help these students, Kahn Academy offers some helpful test preparation videos that cover the SAT Math exam and GMAT (entrance exam for MBA programs).

Under “Talks and Interviews” are several dozen videos featuring Salman Kahn, the creator of the Kahn Academy, as well as recorded news stories about the academy.With the very widespread use of iPads, iPhones and other Apple products, Apple’s iTunes service has started “iTunes U,” which offers more than 350,000 free lectures, videos and films from universities, museums and other educational resources (www.apple.com/education/itunes-u). Most of the content is freely available to all users. About 400 universities, including Stanford, Yale, MIT, Oxford, and UC Berkeley distribute their content publicly on the iTunes Store, and the iTunes U service for the posting of syllabi, schedules, lecture outlines, study guides, notes, maps and entire books. Much of this educational material is available in compliance with the open ePub standard, which will display not just on Apple products but any compatible e-reader. Some documents are available in PDF, MP3, MPEG-4 and other universally accessible formats, which enable easy access with almost any type of computer, reader or smart device. While almost all of this iTunes U content is freely available in a variety of convenient formats, the access requires the installation of Apple’s free iTunes software, available for both PCs and Macs from www.apple.com/itunes.

The number and availability of free college textbooks has been expanding greatly. I have recently been considering the free college textbooks offered by Flat World Knowledge for my students (flatworldknowledge.com). As of the spring 2009 semester, more than 1,600 college faculty at over 900 colleges have selected the Flat World Knowledge textbooks for their students. At present, Flat World Knowledge offers textbooks in business, accounting, economics, management, marketing, humanities, social sciences, professional and applied sciences, mathematics (algebra), and natural sciences (biology, chemistry). The fully functional free textbooks are available as online e-books, accessible with any Internet browser and with any operating system, and are written by many of the same authors that have written successful commercial college textbooks in the past. Being maintained and edited digitally, many of the free online e-books are more up to date then their expensive printed competitors. While some students may prefer their own copies of textbooks, rather than fully online copies, Flat World offers optional relatively inexpensive alternatives, in addition to the free online version. One somewhat representative example is the current business law textbook that I am using in my class, which is traditionally published and retails for $180, a price many students find excessive for a new book (used copies are available for much less). By contrast, the Flat World Knowledge business law textbook, which is a direct competitor to the one that I am currently using, with similar content, is free for the online version, about $20 if the student wants the entire text in a downloadable PDF format, about $30 for a black and white printed version, and about $45 for a printed color version. Individual chapters can also be purchased in PDF format for about $2 per chapter, and other supplemental materials such as student study guides are available for a nominal fee. The choice between the free, PDF, and printed versions is solely the choice of the students, and in a survey of my students, about half would choose the free online version. By choosing the free online version, the student can still save digital notes, highlight and mark the online copy almost as they can a paper copy, with the content available wherever they have Internet access, including on smart phones. For the college faculty member, nothing is lost as far as support, because printed desk copies, PowerPoint slides, test banks, teacher manuals and other materials are freely available.

School and textbooks have changed substantially since I was last an academic student. With free resources such as the Khan Academy, iTunes U, and Flat World Knowledge, there are materials and support available for students and other learners of all ages. These new educational technologies may significantly change the models used by schools, colleges, and textbook publishers. They are a feature rich group of free services that can go far in improving our level of educational attainment.

Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.

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