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I graduated from the University of Reddit

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School’s out for summer, but on Reddit, there’s always room for continued education.

The University of Reddit was established in 2010 when user eawesome3 suggested on r/askreddit that the site "should offer classes taught by people with college degrees in an online format."

Despite the lack of general interest—the initial post only received 9 karma points—eawesome3 established r/universityofreddit, a subreddit that doubles as a crowdsourced educational platform where where users of the social news site can voluntarily teach free online courses to other redditors.

In the three years since its launch, the University of Reddit has grown into a community with roughly 70,000 members and a catalog of courses that’s far removed from the expected intros to Advice AnimalsGoneWildrage comics, and pick-up artistry. The subreddit begat an actual website, which currently offers over 100 classes, hybrids of massive open online courses (MOOCs), and YouTube how-to tutorials that are categorized into 11 different subjects and taught by actual college professors and regular redditors alike.

It's even earned the seal of approval of site's administrators,

"University of Reddit is still new and growing, but it's amazing what the community of teachers and students, mods, and admins there have built," General Manager Erik Martin declared in an August 2012 company blog post.

But is there any actual educational value to University of Reddit? I enrolled in six courses that vary in subject matter and length to find out.

Learn How To Draw a Woman's Face

About three months ago, I went to an arts supplies store to buy frames for some prints. Instead of picking up what I needed and heading home afterwards, I lingered on, walking down the aisles to see if something caught my interest. That's when I decided to buy a sketchbook and drawing pencils.

It’s been unused ever since.

The University of Reddit currently offers 15 drawing classes, all of which are taught by Glen Kennedy, a drawing instructor at Vancouver's Visual College of Art and Design and former art director for various animated series (Darkwing DuckGoof TroopTiny Toon Adventures, etc.). His classes are geared toward achieving specific skills, with titles like "Learn How to Draw a City Landscape in Perspective" and "Learn How to Draw a Boat in Two Point Perspective in Pencil." Given my limited experience, I went with the much simpler "Learn How to Draw a Woman's Face."

The course itself is comprised of five YouTube videos of Kennedy walking you through the process. You start with basic geometric shapes—ovals, crosses, rectangles—and keep adding defining features until your drawing resembles a woman's face.

Kennedy's videos should be easy to follow in theory, but the instructor's natural speaking voice and drawing style are fast. Beginners like myself are constantly trying to catch up. The end result is a far shoddier image than the instructor’s. Maybe next time I'll start with something more basic, like learning how to draw a human eye.


Photo via Fidel Martinez

Time commitment: 15 minutes
Grade: B

Fine Art Theory 101

Of all the courses I registered for, "Fine Art Theory 101" most resembled something found at any university: a broad and well-rounded survey class that serves as an introduction to a specific discipline or subject.

"We will be looking at trends and themes in art history and analysing them with an eye to canonical texts and theories," the syllabus promised. It most certainly delivered.

Instructor Rosa Nussbaum, a visual artist herself, uses multiple online tools like video conferencing site Vokle and Google Drive to give great and engaging lectures on topics, from the grotesque to the beautiful. She clearly knows her stuff. Nussbaum's lessons cover various art movements from different eras and parts of the world. Each class also comes with an accompanying slide presentation and a  well-annotated list that notes what works of arts were shown.

In fact, just about the only things preventing this University of Reddit course from being equal to an actual community college survey class were the lack of homework assignments and weekly section meetings with a teaching assistant.

Unfortunately, Nussbaum doesn't complete her course. "Fine Art Theory 101" originally promises seven lectures but only delivers five of them. Given that her last presentation was made in October 2012, it's safe to assume that Nussbaum won't be coming back.

This type of behavior isn't an isolated incident, either. In fact, University of Reddit students have brought this very issue up to the site's moderators, who've acknowledged that there are no accountability measures in place because everything is voluntary.

Time commitment: 5 hours
Grade: Incomplete

How not to be a twit on Twitter

This class was by far the least useful of the lot. In two lessons, social media expert and University of Reddit moderator Elliot Volkman teaches his students how to signup for a Twitter account, some of the terminology used on the social media platform, and a half-baked explanation of how the Shannon-Weaver model of communication applies to Twitter interactions.

The way the it's presented suggests that it’s meant for someone who has no knowledge of how to use the microblogging platform. Volkman provides no utility to Reddit users who are likely familiar with the basics of Twitter.  

Time commitment: 8 minutes
Grade: F

Journey into Cryptography: Gambling with Secrets

As a student at a liberal arts college majoring in American Studies, I took the bare minimum of math and science courses required to graduate. These were often "gut" classes, courses with nicknames like "Rocks for Jocks" (Geology) and "Stars for Singers" (Astronomy) that lacked academic rigor.

The University of Reddit is no different.

To meet my self-imposed math and science requirement, I registered for "Journey Into Cryptography: Gambling with Secrets." The course delves into the "art and science of cryptography—from prehistoric through modern times" and is hosted entirely at Khan Academy, a  nonprofit educational website that essentially does a better job than University of Reddit at providing free online classes.

In 14 lessons, Brit Cruise, the course's creator and Khan Academy employee, uses YouTube videos to explains the basic principles of cryptography. You'll learn about different types of encryption, including "Ceasar cipher" and "the one-time pad." You'll also cover the Enigma machine, a device developed by the Nazis to safely relay highly classified information.

What you won't learn is anything substantial about math or statistics. There are no algorithms or formulas to be learned here.

In his Khan Academy bio, Cruise states that he grew up watching Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and James Burke— men who hosted educational television shows on public television. Those influences are very much apparent in "Journey to Cryptography: Gambling with Secrets." Cruise does a fantastic job at presenting dense material in a fun and easily digestible format, but if you really wanted to learn about cryptography, your best bet is to take a class at a local community college.

Time commitment: 3 hours
Grade: C+

A Complete Course on Programming for Beginners

Don't laugh, but moments after completing Carl Herold's unit on binary—the second of 34 in his course—I quietly thought to myself: Holy crap! I finally get it! My excitement stemmed from the fact that finally, after years of half-hearted attempts, I had finally stumbled across a tutorial that demystified the basic principles of programming.  

"A Complete Course on Programming for Beginners" is easily the most comprehensive class found on University of Reddit. Its roots date back to 2009, when Herold started r/carlhprogramming "for everyone from total beginner to experienced programmer."

Since then, the subreddit has given birth to computerscienceforeveryone.com, which houses over 120 lessons bundled into units that cover topics ranging from the aforementioned binary session to the more complex algorithm design section. Units incorporate YouTube how-to videos with follow-up quizzes that gauge your mastery of the material. The class is like the perfect marriage of the popular instructional webseries "You Suck at Photoshop" and Code Academy.

There are many things that make Herold and his curriculum exemplars of University of Reddit. For starters, he displays the patience of someone teaching a child something as basic as the letters of the alphabet, a perfect analogy when it comes to my philistine knowledge of the subject. The go-as-you-learn element of the course also assuages any preconceived fears one might be holding.

Just in case there's any doubt in your mind, "A Complete Course on Programming for Beginners" alone makes University of Reddit a worthy endeavor.

Time commitment: 27+ hours
Grade: A+

Correction: The University of Reddit, formally known as Open Compass, currently has 70,000 followers, not 60,000, as previously reported. 

Illustration by Jason Reed