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What is the Future of College Education?

More and more top American universities are offering courses online for free. Going to college will never be the same again

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online college courses  Coursera

The college classroom of the future? Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon.

It was a just about a year ago that a handful of Stanford professors began hatching a revolution in college education.

Sebastian Thrun, more widely known as the head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and colleague Peter Norvig would start making their popular course in artificial intelligence available online. Free of charge. To anyone in the world. About 160,000 people signed up.

A few weeks later, another Google researcher/Stanford computer scientist, Andrew Ng, followed suit, offering his equally popular course, “Machine Learning” for free. More than 100,000 people watched his lectures online. As Ng pointed out, it would have taken him 250 years to reach that many students in a conventional Stanford classroom.

The problem, of course, is that Stanford charges students in those conventional classrooms about $40,000 a year. Freebies were not a good business strategy.

By January, Thrun had lined up venture capital money and left Stanford to start Udacity, an independent, online-only education service focusing on science and technology courses. Within a few months, Ng and another Stanford computer scientist, Daphne Koller, had rounded up their own boatload of VC money–a reported $16 million to start with-and went on leave from Stanford to start their own online college operation called Coursera.

Less talk, more questions

But Ng and Koller actually have ratcheted things up another notch. Instead of just distributing its own online courses, Coursera has formed partnerships with some of America’s top universities to help them convert courses for free Internet access. Last month, the startup announced that in addition to its four original partners,–Stanford, Princeton, Penn and Michigan–it has added 12 more, ranging from Duke and Johns Hopkins to the University of Toronto and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

So what does that mean? For starters, Coursera is spreading what’s becoming the new model for online teaching. No more videos of professors talking non-stop for an hour. Instead, lectures are chopped into much smaller chunks, say 10 minutes long, with students asked a quiz question every few minutes. They need to answer correctly before they can move on with the video.

And having tens of thousands of people taking the course at the same time makes it much easier than you would expect for students working on their own to find and study with like-minded classmates. Ng says that, on average, it takes only 22 minutes for someone to get a question answered in Coursera’s online forums.

The huge size of Internet classes–they’re now known as massive open online courses or MOOCs–also allows for much more comprehensive analysis of how subjects are taught and whether they’re understood. Since the online behavior of students is tracked–where they rewind videos, how they respond to quiz questions, etc.–professors can see where a large number of students may have struggled or given the same wrong answer and then make adjustments. Course material now not only has to be interactive, but also more dynamic. Immutable lectures, delivered as if chiseled on stone tablets, are going the way of chalkboards and elbow patches.

Professors also will be teaching classes far more culturally diverse than any they’ve previously experienced. When Coursera announced a few week ago that its enrollment had topped one million in just four months, it also noted that the students who’ve signed up for courses live in 196 different countries. Six out of 10 are outside the U.S.

Can this make money?

Is this really where college is headed? It says something that last spring Harvard and MIT launched their own their MOOC partnership called edX, and that over the summer, the University of California at Berkeley joined it. Even if top-line universities aren’t sure what they’ll gain by offering free courses to the world, they don’t want to risk being left behind if this is a template of the future.

Clearly, there remain some very large unanswered questions, starting with how do any of these partnerships make money. One notion is to charge a relatively small fee, say $50, for a student to receive a certified copy of a letter saying he or she has completed a course. In other words, it wouldn’t cost anything to take a class, but you’d have to pay for proof that you finished it.

Another idea Sebastian Thrun has floated is to have MOOCs serve as a new kind of placement service, using what they glean about students to help companies find employees with very specific skills. But, as recruiters from Intel and Dell told Bloomberg Business Week recently, a certificate for an online course may help someone land a job, but only if they already have a conventional, sit-in-a-classroom four-year degree. Only a very few colleges, including the University of Washington and the University of Helsinki, have agreed to give credit to students who complete MOOC courses.

What about cheating?

No question that plenty of skeptics are dubious about the depth and quality of an online education, who feel the sheer size of the classes precludes any level of one-on-one learning and also invites cheating.

So far only about 25 percent of the people who have enrolled in Coursera courses have actually completed them. And earlier this month The Chronicle of Higher Education reported “dozens” of complaints about plagiarism in essays written for some of the humanities courses Coursera is now offering. (Almost all of the free online courses to date have been in science or technology.)

The accusations actually came from other students, who, in the Coursera system, grade and comment on each other’s essays. In response to the complaints, Coursera reminded students of the honor code they signed when they enrolled. It also is considering using software that can detect plagiarism.

Some professors in the program have suggested that cultural differences could, at least in part, explain why someone would lift whole sections of text from Wikipedia for a course for which they’re not receiving any credit. Eric Rabkin, a University of Michigan English professor who teaches a Coursera class, told the Chronicle that one student who admitted plagiarizing content said he didn’t realize copying and pasting text from another site was inappropriate.

Coursera’s Daphne Koller would point out that this comes with making top college courses available in places where a year ago it would have been inconceivable. She put it this way recently: “This could enable a wave of innovation because amazing talents can be found anywhere. Maybe the next Albert Einstein, or the next Steve Jobs, is living in a remote village in Africa.”

Class acts

Here are a few other ways technology is changing education:

  • Pack light: Another well-financed online initiative called The Minerva Project will be added to the mix by 2014. Its goal is to be the first elite global university. From sophomore year on, students will be encouraged to live in a new country, or at least a new city, every semester.
  • That algorithm just doesn’t understand me: Winners of a competition sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation have devised algorithms that can grade essays.
  • Today’s assignment is from “Mythbusters:” Big media companies, such as Discovery Communications and the News Corporation, are moving into the digital textbooks business in a big way. They see it as a boom market that could become a new source of revenue.
  • You tie shoes?: According to an infographic from LearnStuff.com, 1.5 million iPads will be used in classrooms this year. Also, while 70 percent of American children between ages two and five can use a computer mouse, only 11 percent can ties their own shoes.

Video bonus: Want to hear why so many top universities have become enamored of Coursera? Here’s co-founder Daphne Koller, in a recent TED talk, laying out why online courses should be a big part of college education’s future.

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