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.
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."
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